Thursday, January 22, 2004

Thought of the Day: Depression in pre-modern times
As I mentioned here, I've been intrigued by portions of Jay Griffiths' A Sideways Look At Time, which argues that since industrialization we have lost an organic and spritual sense of time (connected to nature's cycles of daylight and the seasons), and instead are governed by unnatural mechanical measurements of time. (I love her point that the "leap-second" added each year to line up with the earth's rotation goes to show how measured time is more precise than actual time, casting doubt on the idea of temporal precision in the first place.) I agree with much of Griffiths says, in between her ranting against all things modern. I appreciate her poignant and vivid portrayals of what we call "primitive" cultures, and how the rhythms of their lives more fluidly align with the patterns of nature. I also appreciate Juliet Schor's less poetic and more scientific account of "free time" in history in her book The Overworked American (which I quote in one of my book chapters here). Medieval agrarian society, Schor argues, for all its hardships, afforded more leisure time then we have today, despite the supposedly salvific arrival of "modern conveniences."

Still agreed. But as I was thinking about the patterns of living in the distant past, I started wondering about--of all things--depression. I struggled with some sort of depression last year, much of which I spent alone and at home. I was trying to free myself from "the tyranny of the urgent" (I forget whose quote that is). No rat race for me. I wanted time to read and reflect in the midst of the rush of this big city. But I was under-stimulated. And isolated. It was an emptiness that may have spared me from stress but was not sustainable. And now I wonder: did people in pre-industrial history, for all the virtues of their "simpler life," ever suffer the same thing? Was there an emotional price to pay for the harsh limits on their imagination and curiosity--the geographical, economic, and technological limits? Granted, the human imagination may have had more depth and breadth before all those modern evils came along and shaved it down. But how much of a psychological blow were the hardships of those medieval agrarian people, especially those who paused from their labor to look up to the lofty spires on the castle of the lord for whom they were slaving away? (For me, getting busier--taking on four part-time jobs and submitting to a big boost in stress has helped relieve signs of depression. If it's a "tyranny of the urgent" I'm under, it's not an altogether unwelcome reign.) Here's my other question about pre-industrial depression: If it existed, was it caused by isolation? What pre-industrial people had that many post-industrial people do not was social connectedness--what Robert Putnam calls (oh-so-capitalistically) social capital. Our isolated suburbs of today (and the possibly related rise in documented depression) are a far cry from the communal campfires of yesteryear. But was there loneliness around the campfire, in the same way there is loneliness today on the crowded city street? Would that social connectedness have worsened the pain of dysfunctional, abusive, or otherwise controlling relationships, from which modernity allows people to (at least physically) distance themselves? Would it have left people feeling trapped? And would that be depressing?

Of course, all of these ideas--depression, possibilities, individual needs--are modern inventions that mostly eluded those campfire gatherers (and sorry to be so sloppy and condescending in these generalizations). The rise in documented depression over the last half-century may only reflect a rise in the ability and knowledge to document it, not to mention its victims' awareness of its possibility. But since some forms of depression are biochemical, it would seem likely to have deep roots in human history. I'm sure there have been studies of depression in less modern cultures living in modern times that would answer my question. And I need to read another Christmas present I received--Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies--to see beyond the generic pre-industrial/post-industrial historical labels. But I wonder what the question of individual psyche and social connectedness in history would teach us.

As I was typing this, the sun, which washed out my screen as it ascended in the sky, necessitating shut shades, moved behind a tall building, completely altering the textures of light in my surroundings and allowing me to reopen the blinds. A tall building that was not there before industrialization. There are still natural patterns to life, composing a new rhythm of their own.

Previous E.T.: obligatory Christmas cheer

No comments: