More of the wisdom of Johnson

I can’t let the week end, I think, without giving you some more of the wisdom of Johnson (I warned you a while ago you’d be reading a lot of him, if you stuck around here …). I’ve noticed just how often the subject of melancholy comes up in The Life; Johnson struggled with it frequently and wrote often about how to deal with it. Here is what he writes in a letter to Boswell after Boswell has complained that “his mind has been somewhat dark this summer”:

I am returned from the annual ramble into the middle counties … I was glad to go abroad, and, perhaps, glad to come home; which is, in other words, I was, I am afraid, weary of being at home, and weary of being abroad. Is not this the state of life? But, if we confess this weariness, let us not lament it; for all the wise and all the good say, that we may cure it.

For the black fumes which rise in your mind, I can prescribe nothing but that you disperse them by honest business or innocent pleasure, and by reading, sometimes easy and sometimes serious. Change of place is useful…

I know the feeling of being weary at home and weary abroad, and going back and forth and back and forth — or of being weary of busyness and weary of leisure (my school year and my summer) and going back and forth and back and forth — but what else is there to do but go back and forth and back and forth and be grateful that a change comes around every once in a while? When I think of my own state of mind, I realize that the thing I’m afraid of is not change so much as things staying always the same. It’s good to have a regular change of place or change of pace to look forward to. It’s keeping in mind that change will soon happen and therefore I ought to be content with what I have now that’s hard.

There is also this passage, a little further on:

Talking of constitutional melancholy, he observed, “A man so afflicted, Sir, must divert distressing thoughts, and not combat with them.” Boswell. “May not he think them down, Sir?” Johnson. “No, Sir. To attempt to think them down is madness. He should have a lamp constantly burning in his bed chamber during the night, and if wakefully disturbed, take a book, and read, and compose himself to rest. To have the management of the mind is a great art, and it maybe attained in a considerable degree by experience and habitual exercise.” Boswell. “Should not he provide amusements for himself? Would it not, for instance, be right for him to take a course of chymistry?” Johnson. “Let him take a course of chymistry, or a course of rope-dancing, or a course of any thing to which he is inclined at the time. Let him contrive to have as many retreats for his mind as he can, as many things to which it can fly from itself.”

Now for serious depression, I don’t think this advice would do a lot of good, but it strikes me as quite right for milder cases of melancholy — it seems to me impossible to “think down” sad thoughts, but diversion more often does the trick. Johnson and Boswell talk about diversions of mind — new things to read and study — and those are wonderful, but if I want to fly from my own mind, there’s little better than doing something with my body, a walk or a ride, maybe. The worst thing is to sit there and stew.

And here’s a small touch of Boswell’s humor:

On Wednesday, April 3, in the morning I found him very busy putting his books in order, and as they were generally very old ones, clouds of dust were flying around him. He had on a pair of large gloves such as hedgers use. His present appearance put me in mind of my uncle, Dr. Boswell’s description of him, “A robust genius, born to grapple with whole libraries.”


Filed under Books, Nonfiction

9 responses to “More of the wisdom of Johnson

  1. Wonderful post, Dorothy. I love these excerpts, especially this line: “Let him contrive to have as many retreats for his mind as he can, as many things to which it can fly from itself.”


  2. I have been enjoying your Johnson posts very much. I like Johnson’s advice on melancholy and know a number of people who could benefit from it. Now, how do I convince them to read Life of Johnsons? ๐Ÿ™‚


  3. I also enjoy the Johnson posts, and who wouldn’t with quotes like the last one? ‘Born to grapple with whole libraries.’ ๐Ÿ™‚ I have this wonderful image of Johnson wearing something akin to gardening gloves and liberally bedecked in dust, a book in each hand.


  4. I’m interested in this melancholia issue. Freud says that melancholia is a form of mourning, only the sufferer doesn’t know what they’ve lost. I can see that distraction might be a way of giving themselves something back again. But I imagine that at some point, having a look down into the bottom of the hole must be necessary, because it’s only by being absolutely and fully what you are that you can be free of something and move on, no? Well, I suppose what matters is the degree of melancholia involved.


  5. Whoops! Was premature with the submit button. Wanted to add that it was a wonderful post, Dorothy, full of interest!


  6. Thank you Susan; I enjoyed that quotation too — retreats from constant self-scrutiny and analysis are wonderful!

    Stefanie, you may have more luck if you suggest the abridged version ๐Ÿ™‚

    Victoria — that’s a great image of Johnson! It’s perfect.

    Litlove, Yes, you’re absolutely right, I think, that figuring out the source of the melancholy is important (although I suspect Johnson wouldn’t agree or wouldn’t get it — which maybe has to do with his time period, maybe with his personality). I suppose I tend to think that something like melancholia can’t be fully “cured” or moved beyond — and that comes from my own personality and my own failure to “get it” probably — I tend to think in terms of managing it rather than solving it. But this leads me into the question of whether Freud had it right, whether a psychological way of looking at the mind makes the most sense …another question entirely.


  7. Very nice post! I like the word weary. It is so expressive–the word just sounds like what it means. I don’t know if melancholia can cured either. I really don’t think so–I sometimes think it is embedded in our makeup–at least those who suffer from it. You can only try and deal with it. I ditto Susan on liking that quote by the way! It is hard not posting about a book you are really into and that is lengthy. I hate to always mention a long book so often in my own posts, but when you are so into the book it is hard to ignore it! The nice thing, though, is getting a sense of the book someone else is reading, without actually doing any of the work of reading it!


  8. One aspect of depression is that we slowly begin to avoid the things that can make us better–social interaction, hobbies, all of those “diversions” Johnson speaks of (there is a term for this behavior, but I can’t remember it right now). Depression/melancholia, however, is not always the result of something real in our lives, but a chemical reaction, and I don’t think diversions work on that.

    Still, isn’t it fascinating to “listen in” on those conversations and see how they struggle with some of the same problems we deal with today.


  9. You’re right, Danielle, about the word weary. I kind of like the word melancholia also — it’s sounds vaguely pleasurable, unlike depression, which just sounds bad. And I’m glad you don’t mind hearing about Johnson a couple times a week!

    Jenclair, you bring up another explanation of depression — the chemistry idea — and I find it interesting how biological and psychological explanations seem to be battling it out these days. And I’m very interested in the growth of psychological ways of thinking, which I think began in the 18C (or at least developed a lot in the 18C), so it IS interesting to hear 18C people talking about mental struggles.


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