Melancholia. In ancient medical systems rooted in the humors, the melancholic personality type was associated with black bile.
Interesting that. Particularly in light of a recent piece in the New York Times Magazine discussing the upside of being down. Jonah Lehrer’s argument, based on contemporary research in evolutionary psychology, suggests affinities between depression and the ruminating, focused qualities of good writing (and thinking).
A curious word – “ruminate”, from the Latin “chewed over” (hence the cud-chewing ruminants). There is a link here between ruminating and the dark secretions and deliberative digestive irregularities assumed in the melancholic.
I’ve been thinking about (ruminating on) this for a couple of days. Digesting the implications. Depressives do that. Obsess on tiny particulate morsels of thought or idea. Contemplate, in a vein tinged with dark ichor, the mysteries of being. We cast off the world (or, like me, live on the very edge of it) and yet cannot let go. Our thought, marred by gray and pathologic monotony, stays fixed. This in contrast to the flittering, Twittering social realm of the attention deprived; living in a culture dominated by particular and peccant hedonistic pleasures; and little beeping shiny things. Everywhere…
To the melancholy these are but mild distractions – taking away from the opportunity for self-pitying, navel-gazing indulgence. But is that all there is to it? Does depression merely isolate, alienate and eliminate – without purpose?
Perhaps not. For “in the quiet and still air of delightful studies” and reflection comes insight. A depth only achieved, unsurprisingly, from looking deep within. The melancholy process of what Keats called “turning an Intelligence into a Soul”. The alchemists Paracelsus and van Helmont (and other early modern medical men besides) saw an aspect of “depth” in the central anatomical importance of the archeus. The “archée” or “arch”, entrenched in the core of the body. The archée operated through the vehicle of subaltern entities, exercising power through what van Helmont called ferments (“ferment”). There is a fascinating association here with the stomach and epigastric region, conceived as the center of the archeus complex. One physician called this the “phrénique du diaphragme.” In l’Idée de l’homme physique et moral (1755), Louis La Caze laid out an idea of the “general external organ,” a sensible construct made up of skin and nerves connected in a vitalistic triumvirate with the brain and epigastric region. La Caze saw stimulation of the senses as an essential aspect of health; a balance of sensory input and the avoidance of excess was key. This reminds of Michel de Montaigne’s famous refrain “moderation in everything, even moderation.”
Closely synonymous with the “sensitive” soul, the archeus had a unique role, a historical antecedent to vitalism and, along with the vital principle, frequently invoked by physicians in the mid-19th century. The etymology of the word “arc” – a trajectory that spans the space between two points – establishes the importance of this fundamental concept. Thus the digestive, epigastric region was allied to the soul. And too much black bile meant a dark, black soul.
The archeus takes on a more mysterious countenance when we think of “contemporary” melancholia. For us, depression is usually viewed as a mental state – a mental illness. But is it only a matter of mind and brain? More serotonin, that magical elixir promoting positivity, is secreted in the stomach (GI tract) than the brain. Truly then sadness is more a state of being than of mind.
Not surprising Sartre described his melancholy existential angst as nausea – “la nausée”. More than sickness, a sour stomach, Sartre’s nausea was a generalized sense of “ill-being”, dis-ease, captured in the anguished, aimless mental meanderings of a solitary historian; a vital vertigo. Too close for comfort, that is.
Clearly there is something all the brain doctors have missed in their focus on the source of focus – the ventro-lateral prefrontal cortex (VLPFC). Sadly lacking in their mechanical, reductionist paradigm is any room for “gut-feelings” about the “gut-wrenching” effects of depression. Sometimes pioneering research is just old wine in new bottles; a fermentation of “ferment”. We eclipse the medical wisdoms of the ages too easily for the latest diagnosis or drug, forgetting the diathesis of not so long ago.
Maybe, when darker moments of bilious despair strike us, this is something to “chew on” – think about – giving pause and prompting rumination.
(N.B. Sadly, this post was originally submitted to (and rejected by) 3Quarks Daily. It’s likely my last for a while, as I turn my focus to academic writing and reassembling the shattered remains of life and soul).