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Melancholia and Hypochondria in 18th Century Europe

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Module description

Depression nowadays has such a high profile and has been so thoroughly medicalised that it is easily taken for what philosophers call a ‘natural kind’ - existing out there in nature, independently of what we think about it. It is tempting to take the same view of melancholia and treat it as depression avant la lettre. But how do we square this with the historical phenomena? The 18th century was the second great age of melancholia (after the Renaissance). Like the melancholy geniuses of the Renaissance, 18th century melancholics were credited with the ability to perceive the world more clearly and sharply than non-melancholics. And yet there was also a realisation that this was an illness that needed medical treatment. Others dissented, arguing that the supposed symptoms were imagined, pretended, or created by the medical profession itself. As for the literature of melancholia, it is hard to distinguish between empirical observation of melancholy psychology and mere traditional iconography, or to be sure whether literary melancholia is discursive engagement with a body of knowledge or a form of self-conscious entertainment. As the ever sceptical Georg Christoph Lichtenberg wrote: ‘to write with sensibility requires more than tears and moonlight’. So to what extent is there a distinct eighteenth-century literary aesthetics of melancholy?

Our aim is to investigate how these tensions are manifested in the literature of 18th century Britain, Germany and (to a lesser extent and for reasons we may want to discuss) France. A range of canonical authors will be read, including Defoe, Johnson, Hume, Sterne, Rousseau, Goethe, and Schiller. Each week focuses on an issue or theme, which is studied through one or more primary texts and a piece of secondary literature, usually with a strong theoretical slant. Whilst a reading knowledge of French and German will be useful, it is not essential and all primary and theoretical texts (and most secondary literature) are available in translation.

Assessment details

1 x 4,000 word essay

Teaching pattern

One two hour seminar weekly

Suggested reading list

  • Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe(1719), (Oxford World Classics) Oxford: OUP, 1983, ISBN 0192833820
  • Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, The Sorrows of Young Werther [Die Leiden des jungen Werthers] (1774; 2nd edition 1787), translated by David Constantine, (Oxford World Classics) Oxford: OUP, 2012, ISBN 0199583021
  • Samuel Johnson, The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia (1759), (Oxford World Classics) Oxford: OUP, 1999, ISBN 0192839136
  • Karl Philipp Moritz, Anton Reiser. A Psychological Novel [Anton Reiser. Ein psychologischer Roman] (1785–90), translated by Ritchie Robertson, (Penguin Classics) Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1997, ISBN 0140446095 (this is now out of print, but can be found at the usual online book stores)
  • Friedrich Schiller, The Robbers [Die Räuber] (1780), in: F. S., The Robbers and Wallenstein, translated by F. J. Lamport,(Penguin Classics) Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1997, ISBN 0140443681
  • Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759–69), (Penguin Classics) Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2003, ISBN 0141439777


Additional costs

Students may opt to buy copies of the texts above.

Module description disclaimer

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