Thursday, 5 April 2007

How we learned to stop having fun

Perhaps it's a symptom of getting older, but of late I've become more interested in our social history. At school I had a history teacher who, through his anal obsession with dates and a vicious temper, could have put me off it for life. Thankfully I've got over it.

Now that I have, I've found that much of what we find novel about our lives has in fact been done, numerous times before. "The Long View", a favourite radio 4 programme, addresses this very issue. It looks for the past behind the present, and explores a moment in history which illuminates contemporary debates. Fascinating.

So, imagine my delight, when I came across this Guardian article, that sets all that I've been bleating on about, in a historical context. The article is an extract from this book, which I've now ordered and can't wait to read.

Here's some choice passages that'll give you a flavour;

Beginning in England in the 17th century, the European world was stricken by what looks, in today's terms, like an epidemic of depression. To the medical profession, the illness presented a vexing conundrum, not least because its gravest outcome was suicide. In 1733, Dr George Cheyne speculated that the English climate, combined with sedentary lifestyles and urbanisation, "have brought forth a class of distemper with atrocious and frightful symptoms, scarce known to our ancestors, and never rising to such fatal heights, and afflicting such numbers in any known nation. These nervous disorders being computed to make almost one-third of the complaints of the people of condition in England."

[So, nothings changed then] my knowledge, no one has suggested that the epidemic may have begun in a particular historical time, and started as a result of cultural circumstances that arose at that time and have persisted or intensified since. There is reason to think that something like an epidemic of depression in fact began around 1600, or the time when the Anglican minister Robert Burton undertook his "anatomy" of the disease, published as The Anatomy of Melancholy in 1621. Melancholy, as it was called until the 20th century, is of course a very ancient problem, and was described in the fifth century BC by Hippocrates. Chaucer's 14th-century characters were aware of it, and late-medieval churchmen knew it as "acedia". So melancholy, in some form, had always existed - and, regrettably, we have no statistical evidence of a sudden increase in early modern Europe, which had neither a psychiatric profession to do the diagnosing nor a public health establishment to record the numbers of the afflicted. All we know is that in the 1600s and 1700s, medical books about melancholy and literature with melancholic themes were both finding an eager audience, presumably at least in part among people who suffered from melancholy themselves. ...the rise of depression and the decline of festivities are symptomatic of some deeper, underlying psychological change, which began about 400 years ago and persists, in some form, in our own time. Lionel Trilling wrote in 1972, "that in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, something like a mutation in human nature took place." This change has been called the rise of subjectivity or the discovery of the inner self and since it can be assumed that all people, in all historical periods, have some sense of selfhood and capacity for subjective reflection, we are really talking about an intensification, and a fairly drastic one, of the universal human capacity to face the world as an autonomous "I", separate from, and largely distrustful of, "them".

[ringing any bells?]

The European nobility had already undergone this sort of psychological shift in their transformation from a warrior class to a collection of courtiers, away from directness and spontaneity and toward a new guardedness in relation to others. In the late 16th and 17th centuries, the change becomes far more widespread, affecting even artisans, peasants, and labourers. The new "emphasis on disengagement and selfconsciousness", as Louis Sass puts it, makes the individual potentially more autonomous and critical of existing social arrange-ments, which is all to the good. But it can also transform the individual into a kind of walled fortress, carefully defended from everyone else.

Mirrors in which to examine oneself become popular among those who can afford them, along with self-portraits (Rembrandt painted more than 50 of them) and autobiographies in which to revise and elaborate the image that one has projected to others. In bourgeois homes, public spaces that guests may enter are differentiated, for the first time, from the private spaces - bedrooms, for example - in which one may retire to let down one's guard and truly "be oneself". The notion of a self hidden behind one's appearance and portable from one situation to another is usually attributed to the new possibility of upward mobility. In medieval culture, you were what you appeared to be - a peasant, a man of commerce or an aristocrat - and any attempt to assume another status would have been regarded as rank deception. But in the late 16th century, upward mobility was beginning to be possible or at least imaginable, making "deception" a widespread way of life. You might not be a lord or a lofty burgher, but you could find out how to act like one.

So highly is the "inner self" honoured within our own culture that its acquisition seems to be an unquestionable mark of progress - a requirement, as Trilling called it, for "the emergence of modern European and American man". It was, no doubt, this sense of individuality and personal autonomy, "of an untrammelled freedom to ask questions and explore", as the historian Yi-Fu Tuan put it, that allowed men such as Martin Luther and Galileo to risk their lives by defying Catholic doctrine.

As the 19th-century French sociologist Emile Durkheim saw it, "Originally society is everything, the individual nothing ... But gradually things change. As societies become greater in volume and density, individual differences multiply, and the moment approaches when the only remaining bond among the members of a single human group will be that they are all [human]." The flip side of the heroic autonomy that is said to represent one of the great achievements of the early modern and modern eras is radical isolation and, with it, depression and sometimes death.

1 comment:

Murph said...

Humans are fragile creatures.