Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Great Cham

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.

6 comments: said...

I very much enoyed today's post. Thank you.

Retriever said...

Thanks for an intriguing post. I like many of his aphorisms, but now I may go and learn more about him.

Why are you so skittish about calling him bipolar? It doesn't just mean florid mania and depression, as you know better than I. He could have had bipolar II, or maybe just double depression. People with those are often incredibly productive when the depression lifts for even a short while. I sometimes think it is because most of their life they carry a sixty pound pack of despair that they work hard against resistance to manage despite. And so when it lifts, they feel light and it seems so easy to work, etc. without the weight.

The tics and involuntary movements you describe are also sometimes seen in people on the autistic spectrum (I am NOT saying he was autistic). I have known some relatives (by blood and marriage) who have what I call autism lite who are quasi savants, and who jerk and grimace and twist involuntarily. However the ones I knew all also had some kind of mood disorder. I wonder if the tics and grimaces mightn't be some kind of marker for a particular type of mood disorder? Might even at times be confused with beginnings of tardive dyskinesia nowadays, but sometimes the person did it well before the meds.. The thing is, we know that untreated mood disorders damage the brain, so perhaps they damage parts of the brain responsible for tics, etc.??

Anonymous said...

Are there any literary giants-past or present- that have not been afflicted with some torturous mental/social malfunction/dysfunction?

Interesting how many tourette's sufferers experience temporary tic relief during moments of intense absorption/focus - like when playing a musical instrument.

Novalis said...

Interesting--yes, subtle forms of bipolarity can be difficult if not impossible to distinguish from, say, recurrent depression in an otherwise high-energy person.

In this biography, though, it seemed that the episodes of heightened activity, while remarkably productive, often occurred under financial or publishing pressures and were not autonomously "biological" in the way that manic episodes tend to be. For instance, Johnson famously cranked out his short novel "Rasselas" in a very short time, but he was broke at the time and felt enormous pressure to come up with money to cover his mother's funeral expenses.

Regarding creativity and madness, mental disorder does seem to afford access to exceptional human experiences and their expression, but there are less painful ways. Shakespeare, for instance, IF one accepts the general hypothesis that he wrote the works credited to him--while his biography is relatively vaguely known, no mental disorders have been linked to him.

J. S. Bach I think was formidably sane, Mozart and Brahms pretty much so. Jane Austen. George Eliot. Tolstoy. Monet I think. Others?

However, Anonymous, maybe you're implying that production of sufficient genius puts a person beyond the pale in a way that is formally, if not substantively, reminiscent of madness.

In some book review yesterday I came across a supposed aphorism of Schopenhauer I think (I paraphrase): A talented person comes closer to hitting a target than others can; a genius hits a target that is too far away for others even to see.

Novalis said...

As contrast to the Romantic view of genius, David Brooks offers a prosaic alternative in today's Times:

Anonymous said...

Sufficient interest/motivation + '10 000 hours' of meticulous practice = genius +/- a quantity of madness (as a form of cosmic justice/injustice/joke/trade-off/pay-off in the absence/presence of a democratic/undemocratic god).

Madness counterbalances focus by connecting things that shouldn't be connected in an ideal rational world, and dissolving connections that should ideally last an eternity - thus creating new worlds of perception.

Composers going deaf, visual artists going blind, perfumers becoming anosmic, neurologists paralysed by strokes....existence is a cruel thing - an 'error'.