Saturday, August 12, 2017

`Retreats for His Mind'

“My mind has been somewhat dark this summer. I have need of your warming and vivifying rays; and I hope I shall have them frequently.”

What does a soul prey to melancholy say to another similarly afflicted, if sharing one’s prescription for sertraline is out of the question? In the pre-SSRI era, Dr. Johnson’s “management of the mind,” as he called his ongoing skirmish with depression, seldom varies: keep busy, resist idleness. The heliocentric cure proposed above comes in a letter from Boswell in August 1775. Here is Johnson’s reply:

“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 serous. Change of place is useful; and I hope that your residence at Auchinleck will have many good effects.”

Johnson knew his man and was not naïve. He probably understood that Boswell’s choice of self-medication was likely to be wine and whores. I’m moved by Johnson’s devotion to his younger friend, his tacit understanding of the “black fumes” and the absence of sermonizing. Elsewhere in his Life of Johnson, Boswell reports:

“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 may be 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.’”

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