Thursday, October 06, 2005


History links

If you haven't already seen it, the new History Carnival is up at The Apocalyptic Historian. It includes a link to Hugo Holbing's post on social constructivism and the history of mental illness, which I found interesting in light of Joshua Wolf Shenk's recently published arguments about Abraham Lincoln's depression.

When I read Shenk's article in The Atlantic, I was a bit unnerved by his citations of modern diagnostic manuals to explain Lincoln's melancholy moods and suicidal moments: "Lincoln did suffer from what we now call depression, as modern clinicians, using the standard diagnostic criteria, uniformly agree." On the one hand, it makes sense that physiological conditions existed then that also exist now, and we should be able, with modern diagnostic tools, to explain things about the bodies of historical actors in the past that they did not know (like the fact that their fevers were caused by microbes, not miasmas, for instance). On the other hand, a large part of me wants to protest that historical investigation offers us nothing like a controlled clinical environment, and applying now "standard diagnostic criteria" to historical evidence can be dangerously anachronistic. That's why a brief spate of psychoanalytic histories in the 1970s and 1980s were quickly discredited in the profession.

In the opening paragraphs of Shenk's article, he points out, "[Lincoln] often wept in public and recited maudlin poetry." It's probably not fair for me to pick on that line, since Shenk has more and better evidence that Lincoln suffered from clinical depression, but that line is a good example of potential danger in this kind of article. (And Shenk does return several times to Lincoln's "favorite poems," which were invariably morbid, to make his case.) If weeping in public and reciting maudlin poetry (and similar examples of Lincoln's melancholy) can be part of a case for arguing that historical actors were clinically depressed, then we're going to end up concluding that there was an extremely high incidence of clinical depression in antebellum America. But that should warn us of the risk of using modern clinical criteria to diagnose historical actors. There's a category mistake here that comes from misunderstanding what my advisor likes to call the "structures of perception" that antebellum Americans worked with: Concluding that a penchant for sentimental poetry argues in favor of Lincoln's depression would be like concluding that because antebellum Americans took pictures of their deceased babies, they can be "diagnosed" as necrophiliacs, or like concluding (as a recent book has) that because Lincoln had intimate homosocial relationships and shared his bed with men on the legal circuit, he was bisexual. Let me put it this way: If someone walked around talking like Edgar Allen Poe today, a good clinician would be right to use that piece of data in support of a diagnosis of depression; but would a good historian be right to use the same piece of data in support of a diagnosis of Poe or his contemporary admirers? Perhaps, but the problems with that leap across time are legion.

To be fair, Shenk does leaven his article with acknowledgements that nineteenth-century conceptions of melancholy were different than our own: "in the nineteenth-century conception of melancholy, genius and gloom were often part of the same overall picture. True, a person with a melancholy temperament had been fated with an awful burden--but also, in Lord Byron's phrase, with a 'fearful gift.' The burden was a sadness and despair that could tip into a state of disease. But the gift was a capacity for depth and wisdom." But in noting how different Romantic conceptions of melancholy were to modern clinical concepts of depression, Shenk doesn't seem to be saying that the differences between those conceptions make transhistorical clinical diagnosis problematic. Instead, the gist of his article is that Byron was right: Lincoln's depression was part of his genius, and we would do well, as modern readers, to learn something from Byron and change our idea that depression is always debilitating. Ironically, Shenk uses modern clinical criteria to champion Romantic views of melancholy, something Byron himself would presumably have a problem with.

The article is interesting, at any rate, and worth reading. Also worth reading is the new issue of Common-Place, which has a great interview with Australian historian Rhys Isaac. It includes this wonderful paragraph:
History is the most particularizing of the social sciences; it must stand tall to remind the others of the power of contingency in human life. For all that historians should study hard to understand the cultural, structural, and economic systems by which societies work, they have a responsibility also to proclaim the deep truth that the world is what it is because of the particular sequences of what has been done. This is not just a stand in a scholars' debate; it is an affirmation of the possibilities of changing the disposition of things. The future is always being made by the present generation. I am proud to be a historian even as I tell myself that the strongest lesson that the discipline teaches is that, however we read the signs of doom and gloom, we cannot predict the future. The shape of the world to come remains to be made by human action in circumstances that can never be foretold.

Collective Improvisation:

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