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.”