“Our minds shine not through the body, but are wrapt up here in a dark covering of uncrystalized flesh and blood.”
In Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy (1759-67), Tristram makes this observation to evoke the difficulty of making characters legible to an outside observer. But the remark applies equally to the act of self-examination.
When you’re wrapped up in yourself all you can see is darkness.
The more you strain to see yourself clearly, the more the object seems to recede from view, and the quality of the darkness that enshrouds it becomes difficult to gauge. How do you know if you’re depressed or if you’re having an appropriate response to a difficult situation? And, whether the distress is situational or constitutional, how do you treat it without compounding it? Pharmacological prescriptions can produce side effects that exacerbate the initial distress; behavioral prescriptions burden you with additional tasks to undertake on top of your regular duties.
While the exact nature of the melancholy can feel elusive, other sensations become more vivid. I’ve learned that different types of physical pain correlate quite precisely to different qualities of feeling, even as the object of the feeling can remain indistinct. My fingertips sting, sharply, when I feel a particular kind of emotional vulnerability. My neck aches as though constricted by a tight collar that restricts my ability to breathe freely when I feel anxious. In her essay “On Being Ill” (1930), Virginia Woolf picks up Sterne’s metaphor of the body as an opaque casing that mediates the soul’s experiences: “All day, all night the body intervenes; blunts or sharpens, colours or discolours, turns to wax in the warmth of June, hardens to tallow in the murk of February. The creature within can only gaze through the pane—smudged or rosy.”
I was reading Woolf’s essay because I’m working with an undergraduate who is conducting an independent study on mental illness and literature. If writing and reading about melancholy when you’re already feeling sad seems ill-advised—cozying up to the black dog when you should be chasing him away—the most famous meditation on melancholy suggests that, on the contrary, writing about melancholy can be curative: “I write of melancholy by being busy to avoid melancholy,” writes Robert Burton in the Anatomy of Melancholy (1621).
As I learned recently from reading another undergraduate’s wonderful thesis on Tobias Smollett’s channeling of Burton’s curative ethos, Burton’s recommendation to be busy was just one half of his two-pronged method for combating melancholy, encapsulated in the pithy imperative, “Be not solitary, be not idle.” As I learned from the thesis, in 1779, Samuel Johnson wrote a letter to James Boswell in which he both repeated and modified Burton’s dictum: “The great direction which Burton Has left to men disordered like you,” Johnson wrote to Boswell, “is this, Be not solitary; be not idle: which I would thus modify;—If you are idle, be not solitary; if you are solitary, be not idle.”
Johnson’s rewriting of Burton fascinates me. Most immediately striking is the change in syntax from Burton’s imperative to Johnson’s if / then parallel structure. Why did Johnson change Burton’s maxim?
Since I couldn’t ask Johnson himself, I did the next best thing: I texted my esteemed and beloved colleague, preeminent Johnsonian, and advisor of the Smollett thesis, Helen Deutsch, to ask her opinion. She texted me back right away, suggesting that “by translating Burton into his own style [Johnson] also gives us his habit of mind, of balancing opposites and seeing both sides.”
This seems to me exactly right.
But the reason, I realized at last, why Johnson’s version struck such a chord with me was not because of its stylistic elegance. Rather, Johnson’s version resonates with me in a way that Burton’s doesn’t because Johnson revises Burton’s dictum in a way that is deeply humane, particularly as an expression of care for another individual who is already feeling down.
Think about how different it is to say to someone who is feeling despondent: “Be not x; be not y” versus saying, ‘If you are x, be not y; if you are y, be not x.” Johnson’s version recognizes that the melancholy person is bound to be already overwhelmed and easily fatigued. The melancholy person is probably intimidated by the effort of tackling any one single task and, to be honest, is probably already either solitary or idle in their resting state.
Burton’s version sets you up for failure. Imagine it. You’re just sitting by yourself reading The Anatomy of Melancholy. Perhaps you are feeling, actually, slightly pleased that you’re nearing the end of what is, frankly, a massively long book. Then he hits you with “Be not solitary, be not idle” and now you don’t even have the chance to congratulate yourself on how you haven’t been idle because you are by yourself. Loser.
Now let’s imagine Boswell receiving Johnson’s missive. Boswell’s been out of town, visiting friends in Chester, and even as his initial letter to Johnson brims over with talk of visiting and social gaiety, his vulnerability shows plainly in his final entreaty to Johnson before he signs off: “two lines from you will keep my lamp burning bright.”
Let’s imagine this same, vulnerable Boswell, now having traveled to Carlisle, receiving Johnson’s reply five days later. It’s a warm, kind letter: Johnson both affirms Boswell’s lovableness and gives him practical suggestions for warding off his melancholy. And then we get to his reworking of Burton: “If you are idle, be not solitary; if you are solitary, be not idle.” Unlike Burton’s reader, as Boswell reads Johnson’s words, he can feel a little smug that he’s already winning: he may be alone—but that’s OK! Because he is not idle—he is reading Samuel bloody Johnson, isn’t he! And Samuel bloody Johnson has just given him permission to fail even as he expresses faith in his ability to succeed.
The ethos implicit in Johnson’s version of Burton is one that Boswell records Johnson expressing earlier in a different context in the Life of Johnson (1791): “Because a man cannot be right in all things, is he to be right in nothing? Because a man sometimes gets drunk, is he therefore to steal?”
When one is melancholy, it’s easy, I find, to succumb to this all-or-nothing way of thinking: since I failed to achieve task x, the whole day is now ruined; in fact, at this juncture, I may as well fully commit to making the day a full-blown disaster.
Johnson’s approach is different. Allow, Johnson suggests, for the fact that you will end up falling into some of the habits that foster melancholy. Allow that fact to be the place from which you start rather than the place where you give up.
For me, Johnson’s dictum has also been a starting place for thinking up other dictums.
So, you can’t say I’ve been idle. Just saying.
- If you have a croissant for breakfast, have not a croissant for lunch; if you have a croissant for lunch, have not a croissant for breakfast.
- If you are texting, be not driving; if you are driving, be not texting.
- If you are weeping, be not teaching; if you are teaching, be not weeping.
- If you are drinking coffee, be not drinking diet coke; if you are drinking diet coke, be not drinking coffee.
- If you are scrolling through Twitter, be not scrolling through Instagram; if you are scrolling through Instagram, be not scrolling through Twitter.
- If you are drunk, be not sedated; if you are sedated, be not drunk.
- If you are online shopping, be not KonMari-ing your closet; if you are KonMari-ing your closet, be not online shopping.
- If you are binge-watching Netflix, be not overly nice in your tastes; if you are overly nice in your tastes, be not binge-watching Netflix.
- If you are in bed, be not checking the apps; if you are checking the apps, be not in bed.
- If you are sharing your feelings, be not averse also to listening; if you are averse also to listening, be not sharing your feelings.
- If you are ashamed, be not self-flagellating; if you are self-flagellating, be not ashamed.