Sunday, August 14, 2011

`He Laughs Like a Rhinoceros'

“It should seem he had that day been in a humour for jocularity and merriment, and upon such occasions I never knew a man laugh more heartily. We may suppose, that the high relish of a state so different from his habitual gloom, produced more than ordinary exertions of that distinguishing faculty of man, which has puzzled philosophers so much to explain. Johnson’s laugh was as remarkable as any circumstance in his manner. It was a kind of good humoured growl. Tom Davies described it drolly enough: `He laughs like a rhinoceros.’”

That’s Boswell writing of his friend in 1775, when Johnson was age sixty-six. It serves as a corrective to the stubbornly lingering image of Johnson the humorless scold. Those looking for consistency among humans will always have trouble with Johnson, which is why efforts to psychoanalyze him, professional or amateur, are so amusing. As a reliable source of comedy, it’s tough to beat psychiatry.
Somewhere I learned of the early English psychiatrist L. Forbes Winslow (1844-1913), one of whose books is irresistibly titled Mad Humanity, Its Forms Apparent and Obscure (1898). My library has a copy. Chapter XII is “Madness of Genius,” a sort late-Romantic freak show of artists and thinkers diagnosed by the good doctor with “a morbid affection of the nervous system and a natural neurosis” – Swift, Rousseau, Smart, Cowper, Coleridge, Lamb (“Folie circulaire”), Poe, etc. At one point he uses the expression “congenital cretinism,” which I hope to work into copy some time soon. Here is Winslow’s capsule diagnosis of Johnson:
“As a child he was afflicted with the king’s evil, disfiguring his face, and impairing his eyesight. He published many works and pamphlets, The Life of Savage, and in 1747 his English Dictionary. There is no doubt that his system was afflicted with a strumous taint; and, indeed, when a child he was carried to Queen Anne at Kensington to be touched for the evil. He suffered from melancholia, and was constantly in terror, as he looked into futurity through the jaundiced medium of his malady. He used to say that he `inherited a violent melancholy from his father, which made him mad all his life; at least not sober.’ He always dreaded death, the thought being ever on his lips, `to die and go we know not where’; but when his system sank under disease, his terror of futurity waned and he died resigned. Johnson had himself to thank for much of his hypochondriac condition; he was a ravenous eater, and his digestion was never under his consideration.”
This makes me laugh “like a rhinoceros.”

1 comment:

Helen Pinkerton said...

Yes, indeed, Patrick, psychiatry, with its excruciatingly limited view of humanity, is an endless source of comedy. What should we do without it? And without sociological studies? Go on laughing. I join you.