I finished Peter Martin's well-written biography of Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), who would have to rank as among the most prodigious of literary giants who suffered from melancholia, or what is more tamely termed Major Depression today. The best known English literary critic and general man-of-letters of his century, Johnson earned fame with his essays, his groundbreaking English dictionary, and his work in biography and translation. He was also renowned for his wit and powers of conversation. James Boswell described Johnson's affliction thus:
The 'morbid melancholy,' which was lurking in his constitution and to which we may ascribe those particularities, and that aversion to regular life, which, at a very early period, marked his character, gathered such strength in his twentieth year, as to afflict him in a dreadful manner...he felt himself overwhelmed with an horrible hypochondria, with perpetual irritation, fretfulness, and impatience; and with a dejection, gloom, and despair, which made existence misery. From this dismal malady he never afterwards was perfectly relieved; and all his labours, and all his enjoyments, were but temporary interruptions of its baleful influence.
While Johnson was a highly prolific writer overall, he abhorred what he considered to be his own propensities for sluggish indolence, and indeed, long periods of inactivity punctuated episodes of herculean writing (although I have never encountered any suggestion that he was bipolar). Throughout his life he had a morbid dread of death and of what he perceived as his own sinful nature, although to all appearances he led a largely blameless life. In his last years he noted his conviction that he was "one of those who shall be damned." Asked to clarify, he famously and bluntly replied, "Sent to Hell, Sir, and punished everlastingly."
Johnson' s melancholia infected what was otherwise an iron will, and he fought the black dog indefatigably. He "coped" (to put in anachronistically) by seeking out social contacts, engaging in vigorous exercise, throwing himself into his work, and fortifying his religious faith--pretty much the same methods people use today. However, as was the medical fashion of the era, he was also bled copiously and frequently during his depressive episodes (which would, of course, have produced the opposite of the intended effect).
Johnson was also notorious for ungainly and disconcerting bodily movements that have been speculated to represent Tourette's syndrome, although this is not decided, and he did not exhibit the involuntary profanity that often accompanies that disorder. Martin quotes Boswell's classic description:
...while talking or even musing as he sat in his chair, he commonly held his head to one side towards his right shoulder, and shook it in a tremulous manner, moving his body backwards and forwards, and rubbing his left knee in the same direction, with the palm of his hand. In the intervals of articulating he made various sounds with his mouth, sometimes as if ruminating, or what is called chewing the cud, sometimes giving a half whistle, sometimes making his tongue play backwards from the roof of his mouth, as if clucking like a hen, and sometimes protruding it against his upper gums in front, as if pronouncing quickly under his breath, too, too, too: all this accompanied sometimes with a thoughtful look, but more frequently with a smile. Generally when he had concluded a period, in the course of a dispute, by which time he was a good deal exhausted by violence and vociferation, he used to blow out his breath like a whale...
However, these signs reportedly diminished whenever he was closely engaged in work or conversation, and he could suppress them for limited periods of time, such as in church or while sitting for a portrait.
And here is Martin's remarkable account of an 18th century stroke:
The night after sitting for this last portrait, at about three in the morning, he awakened suddenly with 'a confusion and indistinctness in my head which lasted, I suppose, about half a minute.' To test whether or not it was a stroke and had affected his mind, he immediately composed a prayer to God in Latin, discovering to his infinite relief that 'the lines were not very good, but I knew them not to be very good.' However, he also discovered he could not speak. Calmly, he drank 'two drams' of wine 'to rouse the vocal organs' and 'put myself into violent motion,' but his speech would not come. He could say 'no' but not 'yes.'
One would expect a melancholic, I suppose, to be able to say 'no' but not 'yes' under the circumstances. But throughout his life Johnson was, like Oscar Wilde, supreme master of the one-liner, a few of which follow:
Marriage has many pains, but celibacy has no pleasures.
More knowledge may be gained of man's real character, by a short conversation with one of his servants, than from a formal and studied narrative, begun with his pedigree and ended with his funeral. [In psychiatry we call this collateral information].
Sir, we know our will is free, and there's an end on 't.
It is strange that there should be so little reading in the world, and so much writing. People in general do not willingly read, if they can have any thing else to amuse them.
No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.