Before Depression
1660 - 1800

'Get Happy! Romantic Psychiatry and the Addiction to Wellness'

Professor Joel Faflak (University of Western Ontario)

This paper will explore how Romantic psychiatry emerges in order to addict subjects to the pleasures of psychological wellness and well-being. I will focus on two texts: Wordsworth's The Ruined Cottage, first drafted in the late 1790s and eventually published as part of his 1814 The Excursion, and Mary Shelley's, Matilda (1819), which she sent to her father William Godwin, but which he found so reprehensible he refused to return it, so that it wasn't published until 1959. Between them, these texts constitute what, paraphrasing Jean-Luc Nancy, one might call 'the inoperative community' of Romantic psychiatry, a place where individual psychopathology is a condition to be respected rather than treated or wished away. That is to say, Wordsworth's poem, but especially Shelley's novella, is rather ambivalent about the post-Enlightenment model of sympathetic exchange that informs what I would call the time's emergent psychiatric consciousness.
If Wordsworth's text emerges from the vexed Romantic sensibility of 1790s revolution and reaction, Shelley's novella attempts to deal with the ghosts of this troubled idealism. Written on the eve of a Victorian period obsessed with the aftermaths of moral or psychological management as 'moral hygiene,' Shelley's text, like Wordsworth's before it, responds to the time's increasing attention to getting people addicted to the idea of being happy. Or as De Quincey was to realize just a few years after Shelley's novella: the chance to make rather cynical hay from one's ongoing traumas, the addiction to making sense of one's psychological problems and thus to acquiring the kind of happiness that made one acceptable to the outside world, was rather more than a personal matter.

This lecture is now available to download as MP3 file

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