Day 203: On being wrapt up

“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.

Day 171: marmalade

I spend a lot time thinking about fiction’s effects on its consumer. It is literally what I do for a living. Sometimes this happens in a scholarly fashion, and I read and think and talk with my students about how readers and critics now and in generations past have judged fiction’s effects: from Samuel Johnson’s worry in 1750 that fictions “take possession of the memory by a kind of violence, and produce effects almost without the intervention of the will,” to Charles Carrollton, who writes to his daughter in 1796 warning her about the “languor and listlessness” that is sure to result from reading romances.

Other times, I find myself reflecting on my own responses to fiction: how when I recently read a contemporary novel for the first time in ages, I felt it calling to me when I was doing other things; how I read it greedily, like devouring a really good sandwich, or a taco, or something else that you can’t help eating as long as you’re holding it in your hands; and how I thought about (but did not follow through upon) researching cruises to Antarctica after finishing it, so vivid was its rendering of the characters’ South Polar expedition. Or I think about how after recently reading Candide while I had a high fever I found myself plunged into an abyss of despair that lasted for several days. Or I recall how watching Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle in the theater was deeply pleasurable in a way I can’t really explain but has, I think, something to do with the way it reproduces the feel and tropes of films like Raiders of the Lost Ark or The Goonies that I loved when I was a child. Or I observe my children immersed in their games and videos and, yes, even sometimes books, and note, mostly with frustration, how difficult it is to pull them out of their trance.

In all of these instances, fiction’s effects on human beings seem mysterious, at once visceral and ineffable.

But then, other times, it feels so straightforward.

Case in point:

Wednesday January 24th: we go to see Paddington 2 in the theater.

Thursday January 25th: I start researching marmalade recipes online.

Saturday January 27th: I settle on Delia Smith’s Dark Chunky Marmalade recipe.

Sunday January 28th: I boil oranges and lemons for hours. Late at night, after the children are in bed, I scoop out the pulp and seeds, gather them in a tea towel, and squeeze out the juices. I roughly cut the tender, fragrant orange peels into broad strips and leave them to steep in the juices overnight.

Monday January 29th: I add all of the sugar in the house to the juice and peel and boil it, on and off, for several hours. It soon turns gloriously dark, somewhere between the color of dark maple syrup and treacle, and the pieces of peel turn translucent. It’s oddly suspenseful because, even when the heat is kept steady, the mixture has its own rhythm, surging up and threatening to overflow the pot’s rim ever so often, and actually boiling over once in a sea of orange foam when I have the effrontery to leave it unwatched for a mere minute.

Then comes the testing to see if it has set, which has been my downfall in previous marmalade-making trials. But to my surprise and delight, even from the first test there is already the hint of a wrinkle on the surface of the tiny pool of marmalade I put in the fridge to cool. And by the fourth test there is an unmistakable crinkle when I give it the merest nudge with my finger. Then I begin filling the jam jars I have dutifully sterilized per Delia’s instructions. La Bonavita kindly goes out to buy more jars when it turns out I have vastly underestimated how many jars my vat of marmalade will fill. The process of filling the jars is extremely messy because I don’t have the funnel that Delia recommends I use. Splotches of dark orange syrup gild every surface in the kitchen. But then, oh, the magic of seeing the dark ooze decanted into jars that line my kitchen shelves in neat rows, all that foam subsided into glassy stillness.

Tuesday January 30th: I make myself a piece of toast with butter and marmalade. The marmalade’s consistency is amazing, more like golden syrup or Greek honey than jam. This is no pale amber jelly. This is great raggedy pieces of peel bathed in glossy mahogany syrup.

When I was a child, my Mum would make marmalade every January. Though I’m sure she would protest now that she was never much of a marmalade maker, to me her marmalade was and is the Platonic ideal of marmalades: dark and sticky with thickly cut peel. She would make twenty or so jars, enough to keep us going throughout the year—although it was really only my Dad and I who ate the marmalade. The jars were stored on a long shelf in a dark hallway in the part of the ground floor of our house that was separated off from the rest by two sets of doors, like a bank vault, and was where my Dad saw his patients.

There was a tiny bathroom, a small waiting area, and the long narrow hallway. The door to my Dad’s consulting room opened from this hallway. If you kept walking along the hallway past the door to his consulting room, you would reach the door to a small dark cellar, the existence of which I did not like to even acknowledge, because on the rare occasions I’d seen the door opened, it appeared to be a portal into darkness itself, terrifyingly thick and musty. On the right of the cellar door was the ground floor entrance to the house, where my Dad’s patients would enter.

It was my job to go and fetch a new jar of marmalade when we had run out. To be honest, we hadn’t usually actually run out; it was that I disdained the bottom third of the jar. By that point, there would usually be a few odd crumbs or traces of butter tainting the marmalade, and so I would wrinkle my nose and agitate for a pristine jar to be opened. I would generally be allowed to open one if I went to retrieve it myself from “the passage,” which was how we referred to the dark narrow hallway that bordered my Dad’s consulting room, which now seems too Freudian to be true, but there you have it.

Visiting the passage to retrieve the marmalade was thrilling and terrifying in equal parts. There was the prospect of the abyss-like cellar at the end; and then there was just the fact that the passage was always very dark, even during the say, and felt cut off in its coolness and quiet from the chaos and noise of the regular domestic sphere. The only other time I would venture into the passage was to sneak in and listen at the door when my father was seeing a patient. At some point I confessed this transgression to my Dad; he wasn’t angry but talked seriously with me about why a therapist could not divulge what his patients revealed in their sessions. I argued with him, making my case as to why he should trust me with whatever secrets his patients disclosed to him. I would not tell a soul, I swore. I actually thought I would be able to talk him into telling me what his patients told him (and, no, I wasn’t satisfied with answers like, “their problems,” or “their childhood”; I wanted particulars) and was nonplussed when he proved unmoved by my pleas. I continued to sneak in and try, always unsuccessfully, to listen, whenever I dared.

Retrieving the marmalade was also a feat of daring. I would enter the passage very gingerly. It took some time to muster the courage to open first the outer and then the inner door that separated the bright stair hall from the dark passage. Once I had opened both doors I moved fast, grabbing a jar from the shelf and then bolting back to the stair hall and through to the warmth and light of the kitchen, as if the darkness would pounce on me given half a chance.


Thursday, February 1st: on a whim, I text Dr. F., “do you like marmalade?”

“Yes!!!” she texts back.

So I brought a jar to my session to give her. I couldn’t tell you why, exactly, but it felt like a cosmic reparation of sorts to hand it over: darkness captured and bottled.





Day 115: at bay

Therapy has helped me become more attentive to the physical symptoms of emotions. So I know, for example, that there’s a certain kind of mental pain – one I associate with sadness, or hurt, or grief – that is accompanied by a sharp needle like pain that every now and then shoots through the tips of my fingers and a more steady ache in the roof of my mouth.

When I am tired of these sensations there are various remedies that alleviate them: lorazepam, alcohol, dancing, and writing this blog are my most favored methods. Writing is the one I employ the most and lorazepam is the one I employ the least. Dancing is definitely the most effective (it doesn’t work, unfortunately, if I just get up and dance around in my sitting room; I have to actually go to a class), and I think the high lasts the longest. Alcohol is probably the least effective. Lorazepam is effective but in a deadening kind of way.

Writing this blog is the pain relief method I find most mysterious.

If dancing is enlivening, drinking is relaxing, and Lorazepam is numbing, writing this blog bestows, albeit briefly, a feeling of connectedness. It’s effective, often, when I’m feeling lonely; as with exercise or drinking, the good feeling only lasts so long. Usually when I write a post, I get a heady rush when I post it and when I look at the statistics page and see that people are reading it; the high fades, gradually, as the satisfaction of writing the post recedes from my memory and as I see fewer and fewer people going to the site to read it. So then I have to write another. And another.

You get the idea.

Another more obvious strategy for alleviating melancholy and bestowing a sense of connectedness, one I think of as the Humean method, is spending time with other people. I’m not dating anyone but I’m making a deliberate effort to be merry with friends. I go out; I entertain at home; and I make liberal use of the wide range of communication methods that the digital age affords.

The times when I write here are when I long for a sense of connection, and feel that I’ve exhausted all my other options: I’ve emailed, I’ve texted, I’ve cuddled my children.

Although I, to state the bleeding obvious, have a strong impulse towards disclosure, I understand and respect that this impulse is not universal. And, indeed, maybe it is sometimes an impulse that would be better resisted than indulged. Or maybe it’s a matter of temperament or etiquette. I suspect many people think it’s an imposition to tell someone else when they feel sad, and maybe some people do feel burdened when a sad friend confides in them.

Speaking for myself, I feel deeply flattered when someone chooses to share something painful and intimate with me. Also—and maybe this doesn’t reflect too well on me—it’s not that I’m happy to discover that my friends are sad, but I do find it enormously reassuring to discover that others are struggling too. I think that’s why I love Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas more and more the older I get: because it attests to the universality of melancholy.

But maybe this feeling of relief in bearing witness to others’ troubles is less a general truth of human nature than a particular trait of mine. In grad school I worked for a counseling hotline; it was run by the university and aimed at grad students, and, honestly, we didn’t get that many calls. I must have only talked to a handful of people the whole time I volunteered there. But there was one regular caller, not a grad student, a middle aged woman not connected to the university, who called every night without fail. It clearly meant a lot to her that she could call us every night and that someone would be there, night after night, simply to listen without judgment.

I don’t think there is really a talking “cure”; I believe, with Johnson, that melancholy is here to stay; but I also believe, with Johnson, that (both literally and figuratively) you can’t take it lying down. That would be like sleeping with the enemy. No, as Johnson says, melancholy “shrinks from communication”; this blog avows my faith that disclosure may keep it at bay.

But just as, earlier today, my son was all out of tears, I find myself, now, all out of words. Neither woman nor duck-rabbit cannot live by words alone. And in support of that maxim, I’m now, finally, going to pick my arse off the sofa and go running.


Day 98: fermenting into merriment

“That the professors of literature generally reside in the highest stories, has been immemorially observed.”

(Samuel Johnson, Rambler No. 117, 1751).

The Department of English is mostly spread over the first and second floor of the Humanities Building, with a few offices and the grad lounge located on the basement level. My office is on the second floor (the first floor, if you’re in Britain) of this building. I have occupied this office ever since I first started my current job, in the summer of 2007.

Today, for the first time ever, I walked up the stairs to the third floor.

It’s not that I didn’t realize there was another floor above the second before today. My office is right next to the staircase. I witness people going up and down those stairs every day. But until today I didn’t actually think of the third floor as an existent space.

Now, this might sound unlikely. My beloved D.H. would surely aver that I have, however tacitly, all this time attributed some background level of existence to the third floor. I’m thinking of his own observation that when he hears a person’s voice from the next room, “this impression of my senses immediately conveys my thoughts to the person, along with all the surrounding objects. I paint them out to myself as existent at present . . . These ideas take faster hold of my mind than the ideas of an inchanted castle” (David Hume, Treatise 625).

But yet I insist that the third floor might as well have been a castle in the air to me for all the reality I ascribed to it. The staircase did not, for me, naturally call up any mental image of the floor above. Oddly, I didn’t think of the staircase as a means of transport from one space to another; I thought of the stairs as its own discrete space. If people were walking down them, they weren’t coming from anywhere, and if they were walking up them, they weren’t going anywhere. They were only, in my mind, traveling in any real sense when they were coming down the stairs, because then and only then were they en route to an actual place. If I try to conjure up images of people on the staircase, they are all of people coming down the stairs. It’s almost as though my mind refused to register people going up the stairs because to do so would force the question of where they were going.

Such was the norm for the past eight years. Today, however, for the first time ever, an event I planned to attend was scheduled to take place in a room in the Humanities Building beginning with the number 3. I did a double take as I re-read the email. It must be in another building. That must be a typo. There aren’t rooms in this building that began with a 3. [1]

Are there?

At five minutes to four, I climbed the stairs, genuinely excited. It’s always disorienting, not necessarily unpleasantly so, to enter a space that is identical in some ways to one you know intimately but which is also subtly different; it’s like walking into one of those spot-the-difference puzzles. The third floor felt darker but also more warmly colored, and a little messier. There were cork pin boards on the walls of the corridor. That would never fly on the second floor.

On the third floor, I was a stranger. As the attendees of the meeting immediately before ours drifted out of the seminar room, unfamiliar faces looked at me quizzically as if trying to place me. Once we entered the room and the grad student organizers of our group put out snacks, I couldn’t help but notice that the quality of refreshments was immensely superior to those usually found on the second floor. For a gathering of seven people total, there were three bottles of wine, a lovely looking selection of cheeses, a plate of charcuterie, and some fruit.

Comp Lit is on the third floor. This meeting wasn’t organized by Comp Lit but was it possible that by dint of some kind of osmosis, what were merely Anglo-Saxon snacks on the second floor became hors d’oeuvres when they moved to the third? I think it’s a reasonable hypothesis.

You know what the definition of irony is? Being so busy holed up in your office writing a book about wonder that you never bother to venture up the stairs that spiral up mere steps away from your own office door.

I am a disgrace to my species, and especially to my sex. Daughter of Eve? Please!

Think of all the stories that depend for their narrative interest upon women bothering to go upstairs. Seriously.

Imagine if all those stories instead had a female protagonist who just couldn’t be arsed.

Sleeping Beauty: the tale of a princess who never pricked her finger or fell asleep for a hundred years, or required a prince to awaken her with a kiss. [2]

Bluebeard: the sixth one’s the charm! [3]

Jane Eyre: it’s just Grace Poole laughing up there, you say? I am satisfied with your explanation, sir, and feel no need to investigate further! [4]

And, maybe this, here, is why my second book project has felt like it’s struggling to get off the ground lately. Maybe you just can’t write a book about floating things on the second floor. And it’s not just a problem at the office. In the old house, I worked in the loft, and I could see the tops of the palm trees swaying in the breeze out the window. Now I have a bungalow, where I work most often at my dining table, which is very close to the front door, which, as Samuel Johnson notes in the theory of the garret he lays out in Rambler 117, “is often observed to be infested by visitants, who talk incessantly of beer, or linen, or a coat, and repeat the same sounds every morning, and sometimes again in the afternoon, without any variation, except that they grow daily more importunate and clamorous, and raise their voices in time from mournful murmurs to raging vociferations.”

My visitants talk more frequently of milk, or Nerf guns, or their butts, but the effect is much the same.

So maybe I need to take Johnson’s advice and find higher ground. For, as he observes in that same Rambler essay, “he that upon level ground stagnates in silence, or creeps in narrative, might at the height of half a mile, ferment into merriment, sparkle with repartee, and froth with declamation.”


[1] British readers: note that in the US it is usual for the first number of a room number to designate the floor it occupies. It turns out that this is really convenient. So far as I know, in Britain there is no consistent method for numbering rooms within a large building.

[2] “The princess was running about the castle, and going upstairs from room to room she came at length to a garret at the top of a tower, where an old serving woman sat alone with her distaff, spinning.” (from Old-Time Stories told by Master Charles Perrault, translated by A. E. Johnson (Dodd Mead and Company, 1921))

[3] The number of wives Bluebeard is said to have varies widely, but in most versions there are at least five, each of whom (except for the first, presumably), breaks the vow not to enter the small room beneath the castle. “She was so much pressed by her curiosity that, without considering that it was very uncivil for her to leave her company, she went down a little back staircase, and with such excessive haste that she nearly fell and broke her neck.” (Andrew Lang, The Blue Fairy Book (London: Longmans, Green, and Company, ca. 1889))

[4] “ … while Adèle played with her nurse, and Mrs. Fairfax made jellies in the storeroom, I climbed the three staircases …”