Once again, a small online memorial dedicated to one of the nameless psychiatric patients who around 1870 populated the Sainte-Anne asylum in Paris. Just an old image and a fitting piece of old (classical) music to go with it. Or if you prefer, give this man just a brief moment of silent thought.
This is another one of the photos that Henri Dagonet, the Paris asylum’s director, had taken of inmates to illustrate his textbook on mental illnesses (more about this in my Medea post). Today, the haunting images from Dagonet’s 1876 book form the oldest known collection of photos of psychiatric patients.
The original Greek Oedipus was a prince who unknowingly fulfilled an oracle’s prophecy by killing his father and marrying his own mother. When he found out the truth, he blinded himself by cutting out his eyes and he disappeared into the void, constantly haunted by the raging Alecto, one of the Furies.
The Oedipus we have here (classified by Dagonet as a depression patient) is looking away from the camera: blindly staring into some other kind of void, tormented by the raging depression inside his head. He will never see you or me.
But thanks to this chance portrait, this Oedipus now lives on – in a way. We will never know his actual name, or what happened to him after the photo was taken.
We only know he was depressed enough to find himself locked away in the asylum, perhaps to prevent suicide, although very little in the asylum will have made him feel any better.
Back then, mental hospitals were more like a dark filthy prison than like a real hospital. Full of shouts and screams and sobs and groans, patients of all kinds locked up together, these 19th century asylums were no pleasant places to be. They certainly did not yet focus on curing depression. So if you ask me, it’s much more likely that this man died in the asylum, than that he managed to ever get out again.
Oedipus, may you rest in peace.
We may complain about a lack of understanding today, or about the nasty side effects of our antidepressants. But back in 1870, there was hardly any understanding, and there was no effective antidepressant medication at all (unless, perhaps, you would consider opium derivatives an antidepressant).
Maybe, just maybe, as depressed as we may feel, we should be a little more grateful for living today.
In 1692, composer Henry Purcell wrote music to John Dryden’s play Oedipus, A Tragedy. With the lines
Music for a while
Shall all your cares beguile:
Wond’ring how your pains were eas’d
And disdaining to be pleas’d
Till Alecto free the dead
From their eternal bands,
Till the snakes drop from her head,
And the whip from out her hands.
Here it is, sung by the wonderful South-Korean soprano Sumi Jo (please do take a look at her her website here).
• tip: So now you want to tell me you’re so very very depressed, that to you it wouldn’t make any difference if you had to live in 1870, like Oedipus? Well, sorry, but I don’t buy it.