Melancholy vs. Depression

In trying to explain the changes in the “conditions of belief” from the pre-modern to the modern (secular) age Charles Taylor makes a distinction between what he calls the “porous self” of pre-modernity and the “buffered self” of modernity. He distinguishes them in terms of the locus of “meaning;” for the buffered self “meaning” exists only in the mind not in external reality, whereas for the porous self meaning is already there in reality and can impinge on us from without. To clarify the distinction Taylor brings up an intriguing example– different views of melancholy:

[For the porous self] black bile is not the cause of melancholy, it embodies, it is melancholy. The emotional life is porous here […]; it doesn’t simply exist in an inner, mental space. Our vulnerabilty to the evil, the inwardly destructive, extends to […] things […] redolent with the evil meanings.

See the contrast. A modern is feeling depressed, melancholy. He is told: it’s just your body chemistry, you’re hungry, or there is a hormone malfunction, or whatever. Straightaway, he feels relieved. He can take a distance from this feeling, which is ipso facto declared not justified. Things don’t really have this meaning; it just feels this way, which is the result of a causal action utterly unrelated to the meanings of things. […] But a pre-modern may not be helped by learning that his mood comes from black bile. Because this does not permit a distancing. Black bile is melancholy. Now he just knows that he is in the grips of the real thing. (p. 37)

Here the Cartesian split between the subjective and the objective is seen as providing a “buffer” a defense against the powers of evil: “This self can see itself as invulnerable, as master of the meaning of things for it.” (p. 38)

The element of the modern experience that Taylor’s analysis ignores (at least here) is the way in which the very meaninglessness of objective becomes the greatest source of terror and despair. That is an element understood all to well by the greatest contemporary describer of depression: David Foster Wallace. In The Pale King one of the characters brings up the existentialists as having spoken to this problem. Hans Jonas argues (in a text often quoted by my father) that the existentialist view of the objective world is more terrifying not just than the sort of medieval cosmic view analyzed by Taylor (in which the world is basically good despite the presence of demons, black bile etc.), but even than the most radically anti-cosmic versions of gnosticism:

There is no overlooking one cardinal difference between the gnostic and the existentialist dualism: Gnostic man is thrown into an antagonistic, anti- divine, and therefore anti-human nature, modern man into an indifferent one. Only the latter case represents the absolute vacuum, the really bottomless pit. In the gnostic conception the hostile, the demonic, is still anthropomorphic, familiar even in its foreignness, and the contrast itself gives direction to existence […] Not even this antagonistic quality is granted to the indifferent nature of modern science, and from that nature no direction at all can be elicited. This makes modern nihilism infinitely more radical and more desperate than gnostic nihilism could ever be for all its panic terror of the world. (pp. 338-339)

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