The Faces of Depression in Literature

by Josefa Ros Velasco (Volume editor)
©2020 Edited Collection XXIV, 234 Pages


The Faces of Depression in Literature brings together some of the best-known specialists and scholars on the topic of depression in literature worldwide to offer a multidisciplinary approach concerning the philosophical, theological, and literary narratives of depression over time and their approximations to the current, clinical understanding of Major Depressive Disorder. The authors clarify the background of depression by paying attention to its representation through these narratives and revalue them as a means of acquiring knowledge in an interdisciplinary way. This pioneering initiative fills the knowledge gap that still exists concerning the nature of depression from a multidisciplinary perspective that takes into account some cross-cutting narratives. The authors give voice to the forgotten manifestations of depression found in literature, philosophy, theology, and even early medical works. The Faces of Depression in Literature is for graduates and researchers on depression from a cultural and social point of view, including philosophers, historians, cultural theorists, literature and art experts and enthusiasts, as well as artists and writers themselves, specialists in mental health and cognitive psychology, and anyone interested in a better understanding of the human condition.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the editor
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • List of Contributors
  • Preface: From Boredom to Depression (From Philosophy to Psychology) (Josefa Ros Velasco (Harvard University, Cambridge))
  • Abbreviations
  • Part I Spirituality and Depression from the Middle Ages to Modernity
  • 1 Acedia and Its Relation to Depression (Derek McAllister (Baylor University, Texas))
  • 2 Depression in Ricardian Dream Visions (Nancy Ciccone (University of Colorado))
  • 3 Giambattista Vico and the Melancholy of History (Miriam Muccione (University of Chicago))
  • 4 Depression in the Literature of the Health Reform and Mental Hygiene Movement: An Example of Ellen G. White Writings (Pawel Zagozdzon (Medical University of Gdansk, Poland))
  • Part II Secularization of Depression in Modern and Contemporary Literature
  • 5 Nihilism, Depression, and Wholeheartedness. Metacognitive Strategies in 19th-Century Literature (Søren Harnow Klausen (University of Southern Denmark))
  • 6 Can Melancholy Be Heroic? Walter Benjamin and the Vicissitudes of Melancholy (Shannon Hayes (Tennessee State University))
  • 7 Anhedonia, Dysthymia, and Tristasia: Depressed Characters in Alice McDermott’s Novels (Gail Shanley Corso (Neumann University, Pennsylvania))
  • 8 Broken Promise: Depression as Ex-Gifted Girl Identity in Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation (Nora Augustine (The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill))
  • 9 Unclean Subject(s) of Depression within the Singaporean State (Hannah Ming Yit Ho (University of Brunei Darussalam))
  • Part III Narrations and Metaphors on Depression from and for the Clinical Practice
  • 10 Inner Voices: Literary Realism and Psychoanalysis (Josie Billington (University of Liverpool))
  • 11 Rewriting Mecca: Teaching about Late-Life Depression Using John Metcalf’s “The Years in Exile” (Lucia Gagliese (York University, Ontario))
  • 12 This Aisle Has More Than Two Sides: Insights into Depression, Provided by Medical Doctors (Angelika Potempa (The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley))
  • 13 Metaphors of Depression in American Short Fiction (Ioana Unk (Independent Scholar, California))
  • Index

List of Contributors

Josefa Ros Velasco (Harvard University, Cambridge)

Derek McAllister (Baylor University, Texas)

Nancy Ciccone (University of Colorado)

Miriam Muccione (University of Chicago)

Pawel Zagozdzon (Medical University of Gdansk, Poland)

Søren Harnow Klausen (University of Southern Denmark)

Shannon Hayes (Tennessee State University)

Gail Shanley Corso (Neumann University, Pennsylvania)

Nora Augustine (The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)

Hannah Ming Yit Ho (University of Brunei Darussalam)

Josie Billington (University of Liverpool)

Lucia Gagliese (York University, Ontario)

Angelika Potempa (The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley)

Ioana Unk (Independent Scholar, California)

Preface: From Boredom to Depression (From Philosophy to Psychology)

Josefa Ros Velasco

Harvard University, Cambridge

“You get depressed because you know that you’re not what you should be.”

Brian Hugh Warner (Marilyn Manson)

The Long Hard Road Out of Hell (1998)

I had never been interested in depression academically speaking, or so I thought. Depression was, for me, a state of anguished sadness—whose roots or reasons were sometimes explicable and sometimes nonconceptualizable1—generally experienced as a constant whisper and, from time to time, more intensely and painfully. I know it because I suffered from such a state throughout my entire life: a permanent restlessness. I am convinced that this was what prompted me to study philosophy at the age of 17 to better understand myself. I never considered the option of enrolling in psychology and much less in psychiatry or something like that. I did not appreciate any connection between that state and the mental health sciences, even though I had seen a therapist, on two or three occasions—when the intensity curve reached unbearable peaks—who gave me tablets for combating depression that, I have to say, made me feel much better—I do not remember the name of that drug, it sounded like … I-don’t-know-nine. Philosophy did not help me at all. On the contrary, it increased my malaise to astronomical levels. When I hit rock bottom—I knew it because melancholy turned into paranoia and, in a short run, I developed an exaggerated arachnophobia—one of my last visits to a mental health professional—this time a psychiatrist—at the age of 22 concluded with the diagnosis of an Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) with depressive symptoms. I went straight to the pharmacy—as I would have to do every month for the next few years and, as I later realized, for the rest of my life—to buy my Aremis;2 this time I remember the name. Except when I had the brilliant idea, a couple of years ago, of stopping the treatment—coinciding with a professional promotion that took me to Harvard University, in Massachusetts, to work on my subject of research: boredom—I have not experienced such a time of collapse or crisis again. In those days, I had such a wrong time, and it took me so long to rediscover a zest for life after resuming my treatment—which, by the way, took more than a month to arrive in the United States—that I have never cast doubt again on the fact that my proneness to depression had at least something to do with the mental health sciences—or maybe I had become addicted to pills. However, at that moment, I did it, and I argued that the melancholy that had made Kierkegaard or Sartre so special had to be released. In an attempt to accept and self-affirm myself with my multiple defects, I was convinced that the state I called—and also other people called—depressive was part of me. I remember myself that summer deciding to open the Pandora’s Box that my Aremis so carefully guarded. My doctoral work on boredom was the culprit.

My doctoral dissertation was devoted to deepening and relating the positions of the German philosopher Hans Blumenberg and Professor of Classical Studies Peter Toohey (University of Calgary, Alberta) on the adaptive function of boredom and its role in human evolution as a counterweight to current mental health professionals who claim the existence of a problem of chronic boredom fundamentally physiological. Then I came into contact for the first time with the question of depression from an objective point of view: researchers often linked boredom and depression as two mutually influencing states, often dependent on each other, as part of the same phenomenon that feeds back incessantly—a snake biting its own tail. My refusal to accept boredom as a state-related to mental health, even if we call it chronic, also led me to distrust what I believe that were other states or other personality traits assimilated: depression, anxiety, stress … It was my interest in boredom that made me come into contact, by chance, with the world of mental illness, with personality and behavior disorders, with the DSM and, of course, with the critics of the latter and its excesses. That is how I came to think, when I concluded my doctoral dissertation, that whatever was happening to me was outside of the sanitary domain and that everyone was wrong. That time, like many others, the wrong one, and who was exceeding the competences was me.

After recognizing my mistake and regaining the strength to continue working on my research on boredom—down-to-earth—I decided to adopt another approach to boredom: I began delving into the philosophical, theological, and literary narratives throughout the history of the West in which boredom had been understood as a phenomenon related to health to clarify the path by which it had come to become a matter of psychological and psychiatric interest in the 20th and 21st centuries. To that task, I dedicated my time in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures at Harvard University. Moreover, once again, I came across the couple boredom-depression. However, this time, it was not just a promising partner for contemporary researchers but one of those lifelong marriages in which one of the spouses does not go anywhere without the other, and only death separates.

Boredom and depression went hand in hand from the texts of antiquity to those of the most immediate present. Suffice to mention the biographies of Gaius Marius and Pyrrhus of Epirus, in Plutarch’s De viris illustribus (see optionally Toohey 1987, 1988, 2004—especially the first one, “Plutarch, Pyrrh. 13: άλνς ναντιώδης”—and also Ros Velasco 2017, 2021). Notably, this union began becoming more evident from the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, when acedia started to merge in melancholy (see, at the beginning, Ponticus, according to Hernán Vázquez 2015; Cassian, from the point of view of Peretó Rivas 2010, 2011, 2013 [in this last work we can see also the association of boredom and depression in Hugues of Miramar], 2014, 2017; Saint Thomas, as Echavarría stated in 2005 [see also, again, Peretó Rivas 2011, 2014]; or, more generally, Márquez 2001 and Piovano 2016, to name a few—by the way, many disagree with this thesis [see Aguirre Baztán 1994; Rovaletti and Pallares 2014; and especially Forthomme 2000, 2003, among many others]. With regard to its secularization into melancholy, see Bunge 1999; Bäumer and Carm 2011; Eisenberg 2013; the list of works is endless)3 and later during Romanticism and the birth of Existentialism, with the ennui and the mal de vivre (see, to choose some cases among millions, the novels by Goethe, Flaubert, Dostoevsky or Tolstoy—these are my favorite examples). In this sense, the Greek terms aegritude (θλίψη, aegritudo) and black bile (μέλαινα χολή, melaina chole), the Latins acedia and taedium vitae, Renaissance tristitia and melancholia, the modern ones spleen, nausée, noia, Weltschmerz … were all of them one and the same thing or did they refer to different phenomena?

Since the second phase of my postdoctoral time began, I realized that if I wanted to track the history of boredom as psychopathology through philosophical, theological, and literary sources, I would have to venture into the history of depression. Now I see that they are two inseparable tasks and, in the same way, two tough challenges. That is because boredom and depression are intertwined, mistaken one for the other, coated on the same and different clothes at the same time over the centuries. I figured I would find lots and lots of books and papers on the history of depression, and that was the case. However, most of them were part of a purely medical framework. What I did not find was any title to explore the presence of depression in its different variables through different narratives that go beyond mental health disciplines such as philosophy or literature, which are precisely the ones I work with. Apart from those authors who cover the topic of depression from the most orthodox mental health field, some others have devoted their efforts to analyze mental diseases in literature but go through depression superficially. Just a few focus on the antecedents of depression by taking into account literary, philosophical, and theological narratives (e.g. Clark Lawlor From Melancholia to Prozac: A History of Depression, 2012). To sum up, I realized that many titles, including both books and papers, were addressing the topic of depression nowadays. However, almost none of them were focused on such a multidisciplinary approach to depression. Then, I was clear that it was time to get in touch with those who were interested in this approach worldwide to get to know each other, share our concerns, and contribute something valuable to the scientific community.

This book project was conceived during the last summer (2018) as part of my own postdoctoral research abovementioned, at Harvard University, under the guidance of Prof. Dr. Mariano Siskind, through which I attempt now to analyze the antecedents of some contemporary mental disorders, such as boredom and depression, from the wide variety of narratives at our hands beyond medical treatises. As I have already introduced, I particularly focus on those literary, philosophical, and theological narratives of the past, in which such conditions were understood not as mental disorders themselves, in the contemporary sense, but as existential, and even moral conditions, to track the evolution of their understanding until the present time. When dealing with depression, I am always surprised by how famous this disorder is today and how little is known about its antecedents in human cultural manifestations over history.

We all know that the NIMH (National Institute of Mental Health) has meticulously defined depression as a common but serious mood disorder that causes severe symptoms (asthenia, anhedonia, abulia, among many others) that affect how people feel, think, and handle daily activities such as sleeping, eating, or working. The NIMH has also established the cause of depression is a combination of genetic, environmental, and psychological factors that affect approximately 216 million people (3% of the world’s population), mostly ranged from 20 to 30 years old. Nowadays, depression is also known for its many synonyms: clinical depression, MDD (Major Depressive Disorder), unipolar depression, unipolar disorder, depressive episode, and recurrent depressive disorder, to name a few. However, do we agree concerning the historical antecedents of depression? Are we working hard enough to clarify them and to reach an agreement? Are we taking into account the multiple narratives through which depression has been described over history from a multidisciplinary approach?

The impulse of delving into those antecedents, and keeping on going with my own research, motivated me the most to be in touch with colleagues who were working on this topic and with whom I shared these concerns. After launching a call during the last summer, I received a response from about twenty people with whom I keep in touch—at least with most of them—until now. We then decided to contribute our works to a collective book to move forward the research on the antecedents of depression, which we considered we should clearly understand not only to improve diagnosis and treatments at present but also to know more about some other related phenomena such as boredom. Under the title The Faces of Depression in Literature, this collective book attempts to bring together specialists and scholars in the topic from a multidisciplinary approach to explore the narratives of depression over time and discuss about their approximations to current, clinical understanding of MDD, that is, their similarities and differences, taking into account the environmental and psychological factors on which such a mental disorder depends in each historical period. Our goal is to clarify the background of depression by paying attention to its representation through these narratives and revaluate them as means of acquiring knowledge in an interdisciplinary way. While psychology and psychiatry may have the correct terminology and definitions, these narratives have the unique power of exemplification and clarification. Ultimately, we attempt to facilitate the understanding of MDD, the task of diagnosing, and the application of therapies related to narrations of depression.

The Faces of Depression in Literature comes to rethink depression by collecting in one place the most innovative approaches to the many names and shapes of depression we can find in literary, theological, and philosophical texts over time. This is, to my very knowledge, the first time that a well-experienced, diverse, and multidisciplinary group of specialists focused on the study of the antecedents of depression gather to promote a cross-border dialogue in order to overcome the recognized limitations of the current understanding of this topic. We want to publish the book to which researchers and academics, from one end to the other, have to come to be updated and clarify their ideas concerning the antecedents of depression according to a wide variety of narratives. We want to give a voice to underestimated manifestations of depression we can find in literature, philosophy, theology, and even early medical works. In this sense, this book will take a fresh look at an old phenomenon by considering it from rather unusual angles, trying to widen our understanding of depression and related phenomena.

This book meets the interests of graduate students and researchers in humanities, including philosophers, historians, cultural theorists, literature and art experts and enthusiasts, and even artists and writers themselves and, even, specialists in mental health and cognitive psychology because the study of depression involves mental processes such as attention, memory, perception, creativity or language use, to name a few. Moreover, our approach is not exclusively directed towards a specialized audience but wants to also reach out to the non-specialists. Considering how many people, friends, families, and colleagues are impacted in one or another form by depression, our project meets a broader need, too: that of educating ourselves about how to live and cope with depression.

The following break-down of our efforts attests to the multi and interdisciplinary approaches to depression. Part one, entitled “Spirituality and Depression from the Middle Ages to Modernity,” will consist of four chapters explaining how predecessors of depression and depression understood as we do today can be found in medieval, Renaissance, and modern narratives through different names such as acedia, tristitia, melancholie. The authors will discuss to what extent modern depression can be seen as the natural evolution of those old concepts grounded in the phenomenon of spirituality.

Chapter one, “Acedia and Its Relation to Depression,” by philosophy Ph.D. candidate Derek McAllister (Baylor University, Texas), goes through the relationship between acedia and depression after claiming that the results of the recent work done in this regard are a mixed bag. In this first chapter in which he engages the recent scholarship comparing acedia with depression, McAllister endeavors to clarify the concept of acedia used by Medieval authors such as Evagrius, Cassian, Gregory, and Thomas Aquinas, to name a few, using literature from other disciplines, including specialists such as Wenzel, Bloomfield, Newhauser, and others. His key two theses are: first, the concept of acedia is not identical to the concept of depression. Acedia is not merely a primitive psychological predecessor to depression, but it marks off significantly different ways of being, not least because of one’s spiritual relation to God. Second, however, it is still possible that an instance of acedia can coincide with an instance of depression, if one’s condition, or state of affairs, is such that each term can be correctly and truthfully applied.

Dr. Nancy Ciccone (University of Colorado, Denver) is in charge of the second chapter of this volume, “Depression in Ricardian Dream Visions.” The specialist in medieval literature showed that whereas Chaucer provides salient examples of depressive symptoms in Middle English dream visions, beginning with his narrator’s inability to either eat or sleep, the anonymous Pearl-poet presents a father unable to recover from the death of his daughter. According to her approach, Chaucer’s narrators find relief in reading, sleeping, dreaming, and presumably the activity of writing the dream narrative. Whether or not the Pearl’s narrator finds relief from his dream, however, is questionable, despite his ghost-daughter’s Christian teachings. As Dr. Ciccone admits, some scholars accuse the narrator of acedia. However, her presentation argues that his acedia is a symptom, not a sin fostering his continued grief. To support this point, she focuses on the definitions and cures for depression recommended by Avicenna and embedded in images throughout the narrative in terms of flora, jewels, and exercise. These images suggest somatic healing available to the poem’s audience, still reeling from their losses in the Black Death, on the one hand, and the political upheaval caused by the Richard II and the Lords Appellant, on the other hand. Whereas Christianity provides spiritual and intellectual comfort for late 14th-century England, the Pearl narrative reveals the gap between religious ideology and emotional recovery.

Chapter three, “Giambattista Vico and the Melancholy of History,” by Ph.D. candidate at the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures in the University of Chicago, Miriam Muccione, is about the Neapolitan philosopher who said that all human civilizations develop through a cycle of birth, growth, maturity, and decadence, bracketed between two forms of barbarism; a barbarism of the senses, belonging to the infancy of human mind and societies, and a conclusive corruption of human rationality and civic cohesion, which Vico calls barbarism of reflection or second barbarism. By comparing Vico’s main work, The New Science, with Vico’s autobiographical account in his Life of Giambattista Vico Written by Himself, Muccione’s chapter has the twofold purpose of examining Vico’s barbarism of reflection both at the individual and collective level, and to attempt a reading of the role that such a malady of human reason may still have in a Vichian conception of social advancement, though a melancholic one. A reflection on the limits that Vico assigns to human rationality will be of current interest in the perspective of a critique of the material progress of humankind in present times.

Chapter four was contributed by the academic teacher at the Medical University of Gdansk, Poland (Department of Hygiene and Epidemiology), and psychiatrist Dr. Pawel Zagozdzon. “Depression in the Literature of the Health Reform and Mental Hygiene Movement: An Example of Ellen G. White Writings” recovers the health principles from the writings of the most translated female non-fiction author in the history of literature, Ellen G. White, which contributed to making the Seventh-day Adventists—one of the most extended living groups of people in the world. Zagozdzon’s chapter explores how White used the concept of depression. Moreover, he analyzes how she understood the causes of a depressed mood and how to preserve one’s mental health.

Part two, “Secularization of Depression in Modern and Contemporary Literature,” will show the manifestations of modern and contemporary depression in five chapters that revolve around the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries to the present narratives to analyze how depression was secularized from the spiritual framework. From philosophical to purely literary approaches, authors will deal with the concepts and issues surrounding depression in modern and post-modern approaches such as nihilism, identity, or feminism.

Søren Harnow Klausen, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Southern Denmark, proposes a chapter entitled “Nihilism, Depression, and Wholeheartedness. Metacognitive Strategies in 19th-Century Literature,” in which he explains how in 19th-century literature and philosophy, depression-like states of mind were associated with nihilism, which was depicted more like a condition that befalls individuals than a deliberately adopted attitude. Professor Harnow Klausen looks at two insightful and literarily engaging treatments of depression and nihilism from the mid-19th century, one by Kierkegaard, the other by Tolstoy. In Kierkegaard’s “Crop Rotation,” the principal challenge to a meaningful life is diagnosed as boredom. It provides indirect evidence for the pathological condition of its pseudonymous author and the limitations of the otherwise ingenious techniques he devises for overcoming boredom (some of which resemble what is now referred to as metacognitive strategies). The author will further illustrate this view of depression with Tolstoy’s description in War and Peace of the main character, Pierre Besuchov, as suffering from a lack of orientation and self-acceptance, which at times takes on pathological forms.

Chapter six, “Can Melancholy Be Heroic? Walter Benjamin and the Vicissitudes of Melancholy,” by Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Dr. Shannon Hayes (Tennessee State University), establishes, despite the long-standing association of melancholy with creative, poetic activity, that melancholic depression remains chastized as an unpolitical mode of existence associated with stagnancy, paralysis, and a willful alienation. If one accepts Marx’s claims that under capitalism, we are already dismembered and distanced in our strategic relations, then melancholy has a political aspect and can be understood as a mood. As Benjamin recognized, the fatigue and weariness of the melancholic body grant us an insight into the decay and fragmentation that characterizes social existence. For Hayes, melancholy does not produce one’s alienation; it reveals it and exacerbates it in its unveiling. In her chapter, she explores the vicissitudes of melancholy in the poetic figures of Charles Baudelaire and Erich Kästner, the latter a poet of the Weimar Republic. Although both are melancholic and share an insight into the social, these figures differ in how they put their melancholic insights to work: according to Benjamin, Baudelaire enacts a heroic, emancipatory melancholy, while Kästner enacts a dangerous, nihilistic melancholy, coined by Benjamin as left-wing melancholia. It is precisely the difference between heroic and nihilistic melancholy that this chapter will illuminate.

Professor of English, Dr. Gail Shanley Corso (Neumann University, Pennsylvania), contributed chapter seven “Anhedonia, Dysthymia, and Tristasia: Depressed Characters in Alice McDermott’s Novels” in which she delves particularly into Alice McDermott’s contemporary fiction, whose characters exhibit a range of response to love and loss—sorrow, pretense and lies, delusions, loss of interest in pleasure, and even, attempts at suicide. She demonstrates that these characters often exhibit depression in many forms. While some might experience memory loss concerning trauma, others experience a heightened sense of specific incidents in their life.


XXIV, 234
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2020 (June)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2020. XXIV, 234 pp.

Biographical notes

Josefa Ros Velasco (Volume editor)

Josefa Ros Velasco is Associate and Teaching Assistant in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures at Harvard University and Real Colegio Complutense at Harvard Postdoctoral Fellow. Dr. Ros Velasco holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy with International Mention at the Excellent Program of Doctorate in Philosophy at the Complutense University of Madrid (UCM, Spain), funded by the Spanish Ministry of Culture and Education. Her current research is multidisciplinay, focusing on the evolution of the understanding of boredom as a mental pathology. She is the author of The Culture of Boredom (2020) and Boredom Is in Your Mind (2019).


Title: The Faces of Depression in Literature