Melancholia in the Subjunctive Mood

by Gary Greenberg
Simon & Schuster, 2010

Grammarians tell us that even our verbs have a “mood,” and these moods clue us into people’s disposition toward their topic. The three moods in English are the indicative, the imperative, and the subjunctive. It is interesting to look at the mood (in the grammatical sense) of “mood disorders” (in the psychiatric sense), because when people talk about psychiatric mood disorders—like depression—the first two grammatical moods are very common. But the last is quite rare. The indicative is the matter-of-fact mood of description and explanation. Examples include “depression is a malfunctioning limbic diencephalic system” or “depression is the result of anger turned inward.” The imperative mood is the stern request or command: “Take your medicine!” or “You should see a shrink!” The subjunctive mood, by contrast, infrequently shows up. This mood indicates a much more whimsical disposition. It is used to express wishes, possibilities, and fantasies. The subjunctive is the mood of “what if?” Some examples are “depression might be many things” and “I wonder what would happen if we were to think about depression this way or that way.”

The loss of the subjunctive with regard to depression is unfortunate because the cultural and phenomenal world of depression, whatever else we may want to say about it, is a world of uncertainty and a world of multiple points of view. When we use the indicative and imperative moods to discuss depression, we cover over this uncertainty and multiplicity. We make it seem as if depression were clearer than it really is. And, more important, we close down our options and limit our flexibility. We lose the capacity to imagine, to fantasize, and to creatively consider the advantages and disadvantages of the many possible ways of making sense of depression.

Gary Greenberg’s book is a delight to read because it is a sustained meditation on depression that stays largely in the subjunctive mood. Greenberg uniquely comes at the project from several different points of view: he is a science writer (and a good one at that), a psychotherapist, a historian, an investigative journalist, a patient of depression, a volunteer for clinical research trials, and—perhaps most important—by the time you finish the book, something of a friend. ...

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Bradley Lewis, M.D., Ph.D., is an associate professor at New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study and a practicing psychiatrist. He has interdisciplinary training in humanities and psychiatry, and his recent books are Narrative Psychiatry: How Stories Can Shape Clinical Practice and Depression: Integrating Science, Culture, and Humanities.

Source Citation

Lewis, Bradley. "Melancholia in the Subjunctive Mood." TIkkun 27(2): 54.

tags: Books, Culture, Reviews   
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