An Imperial Affliction: Depression in Literature

In this course we will trace a literary genealogy of what we now call depression, and of its associated pathologies, from Homer’s Odyssey, through the biblical Psalms, and the writings of Christian monks who described a demon of noontide that robbed them of their sense of meaning and purpose. In modernity experiences of meaning-loss are often connected with the scientific enlightenment and the decline of religious belief. Writers use a variety of images to describe such experiences: they sometimes take place under the sign of noon, at other times they are symbolically connected with the planet Saturn, and at others they use the imagery of winter cold and darkness. We will read a selection of modern poems and stories, by writers such as Coleridge, Dickinson, and Lawrence, as well as creative non-fiction works such as W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon, and William Styron’s Darkness Visible. Depression is a signature human experience that comes to everybody at some point in their lives, either in its clinical form or otherwise, and literature is one of the methods we have developed for living the questions it asks of us, such that, as Rilke says, we can sometimes live our way into the answers.