Friday, September 02, 2016

`He Damns the Climate and Complains of Spleen'

It’s hurricane season in Houston, but summer is ebbing and cooler days and nights are on the way. Does one complain or give thanks? Know fear or relief? I’m tired of weather as natural phenomenon, conversation fodder and ready excuse for physical and emotional states. No weather is the best weather, and Dr. Johnson shares my disenchantment. In The Idler#11 (June 24, 1758), he’s dismissive of weather as mood-adjuster:

“Our dispositions too frequently change with the colour of the sky; and when we find ourselves cheerful and good-natured, we naturally pay our acknowledgments to the powers of sunshine; or, if we sink into dulness [sic] and peevishness, look round the horizon for an excuse, and charge our discontent upon an easterly wind or a cloudy day.”

The notion of SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) would make Johnson snort. It would offend his sense of human dignity: “Surely nothing is more reproachful to a being endowed with reason, than to resign its powers to the influence of the air, and live in dependence on the weather and the wind, for the only blessings which nature has put into our power, tranquillity and benevolence.”

With a straight face a young professor I know complained: “Bad weather’s coming. I feel it in my ear,” and then minutely described the nature of his discomfort. I kept my mouth shut. The eighteenth century was more efficient at dealing with credulity and crackpot theories. In The Spectator #440 (July 25, 1712), Joseph Addison describes a group of men spending their summer at a great house in the country. One complains of a headache and another asks “in an insolent manner, what he did there then.” Naturally, “warm words” ensue.  The club president sends them both to the infirmary. Addison fills in the rest: “Not long after, another of the company telling us, he knew by a pain in his shoulder that we should have some rain, the president ordered him to be removed, and placed as a weather-glass in the apartment above mentioned.”

Swift was the master of such intolerance for whining and self-delusion. In “A Description of a City Shower,” he dismisses the human barometers:

“A coming shower your shooting corns presage,
Old achès throb, your hollow tooth will rage.
Sauntering in coffeehouse is Dulman seen;
He damns the climate and complains of spleen.”

And then, in one of my favorite passages in all of English poetry, Swift turns the weather amusingly apocalyptic:

“Now from all parts the swelling kennels flow,
And bear their trophies with them as they go:
Filth of all hues and odors seem to tell
What street they sailed from, by their sight and smell.
They, as each torrent drives with rapid force,
From Smithfield or St. Pulchre’s shape their course,
And in huge confluence joined at Snow Hill ridge,
Fall from the conduit prone to Holborn Bridge.
Sweepings from butchers’ stalls, dung, guts, and blood,
Drowned puppies, stinking sprats, all drenched in mud,
Dead cats, and turnip tops, come tumbling down the flood.”


Richard Katzev said...

Dear Mr. Kurp:

I don't believe you would feel the same way about the weather, if you had a severe case of Raynaud's Disease.

I continue to enjoy reading your daily blog.

Richard Katzev

commonplacefortheuncommon said...

Johnson, Addison, and Swift - they still have the power to silence the rest of us, whatever the subject.

I sympathize with Reynaud's, a very real malady directly affected by temperature. But I've dispensed with the expensive pills my doctor had insisted I take during the winter for my SAD. I acquired a cat and experienced a cure.