Adam Smith states that sorrow is elicited in a viewer who observes an individual in pain or distress (The Theory of Moral Sentiments 14). The spectacle of distress also provokes an amount of sympathetic grief (15). Distress can also be a passion that originates within the human body. The distress of hunger, for example, results from a biological need not being satisfied. Such pains can then be recorded (for instance, in a ship’s journal) and read by others. Those reading the description of distressing hunger may even then sympathize with the writer’s distress. However, readers cannot actually feel hunger merely from the words themselves (35). According to Smith, tragic occurrences are even more likely to induce sympathetic distress because readers are more able to enter into them (53).
For Silvan Tomkins, distress can be forced onto another individual. A person feeling negative affects, such as anger or contempt, can express these negative affects so as to produce distress in another individual. The distress that one individual feels becomes an expressive medium through which that affect is transmitted to another (“What are Affects?” 56). Distress can also result from the inhibition of positive affect. The diminution of affects like joy or excitement thus leads to chronic distress (69). Causing distress during the stages of childhood can become a means of discipline in order to train the child to endure distress in the future (72). However, this strategy can be extremely harmful when it employs “chronic shaming” of the child (72).
Teresa Brennan’s The Transmission of Affect discusses the outward projection of negative affects. An individual can experience distress, anxiety, and depression when others’ negative affects are transmitted to them (14). This can happen when one individual, in an attempt to relieve themselves of negative affects, directs them at another person. As Brennan argues, the recipients of such negative affects have traditionally been women or minorities (14).
Distress, melancholy, and depression may be seen as affects and experiences that are related to (but not synonymous with) each other. In Depression: A Public Feeling, Ann Cvetkovich studies the affect as a shared political experience. Cvetkovich draws from the early Christian category of acedia to discuss melancholy and depression in the contemporary moment. Acedia is a form of despair that resembles depression but is not depression (24). Acedia is a prototype of sloth, one of the seven deadly sins. The term is also described by John Cassian as “weariness or distress of heart” (quoted in Cvetkovich 85). The acedia of fourth century monks and their possible “loss of faith” (86) can perhaps be related to contemporary political disappointments (86). In the medieval case, fourth-century ascetic monks in the desert became discontented, distressed, restless, and desperate. Historical accounts of acedia, Cvetkovich argues, help contextualize the modern “medical model of depression within the longer history … of embodiment and what it means to be human” (102). Acedia is part of what Cvetkovich calls the “historical archive of depression” (105). The distress of these monks cannot be understood solely through the medical lens of what is today termed depression. Rather, their acedia revolves around a “moment of spiritual crisis” within their profession (85).
Brennan, Teresa. The Transmission of Affect. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2004.
Cvetkovich, Ann. Depression: A Public Feeling. Durham: Duke UP, 2012.
Smith, Adam. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. New York: Penguin, 2009.
Tomkins, Silvan. “What Are Affects?” Shame and Its Sisters: A Silvan Tomkins Reader. Ed. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Adam Frank, and Irving E. Alexander. Durham: Duke UP, 1995. 3-74.