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.

John Tangney:

In the late 1990s John Tangney worked as an education officer with the James Joyce Cultural Centre in Dublin, helping to develop an education program for high school students and university undergraduates. This work inspired him to go to Trinity College, Dublin, to study literature following which, in 2001/2002, he spent some time teaching English in Japan. He did his doctoral work in the English Department at Duke University between 2003 and 2009. The dissertation was called The End of the Age of Miracles: Substance and Accident in the English Renaissance and it dealt with the transvaluation of medieval values in early modernity, focussing particularly on writers from the 1590s and early 1600s including Shakespeare, Nashe, Spenser, and the Jacobean dramatists. After graduation John worked at NTU, Singapore, from 2009 to 2015, teaching courses on Shakespeare, Renaissance Literature, Classical Literature and the History of Literary Theory. While there he was a co-organiser of an international conference on ‘The Contemporary’ in 2011 and served as Graduate Studies Coordinator. In 2015, he returned to Ireland where he spent time doing a coding bootcamp, and was involved in the launch of a new cultural magazine based around rare and unusual books, called The Time Traveller. At SAS he is a member of the Cultures of Rationality research group, and teaches Great Books in the core curriculum, as well as the electives ‘Memories, Dreams, Confessions’: Writing the Inner Life and ‘An Imperial Affliction’: Depression in Literature. He also runs The Intellectual Diversity Podcast.