Words Wrought From Melancholia

Are you familiar with melancholia? Is she your dearest friend, who keeps you company through the wee hours of the night or early morning, before the sun has yet risen, and the air is silent and cold–when the entire world, or your small part of it, holds its chill breath before it restarts its mechanistic daily processes? That’s all right, then. You’re in good company with my dear friends from the 18th C, those men and women with whom I idly chat at my chilling early-morning tea parties. Melancholy’s in the pot, and the ghosts and I drink it together.

Samuel Johnson was a classic melancholic, who sighed deeply and claimed, “I write therefore I am alive.” He wrote. He did. And so do I. Together, we make good company. Adam Sisman, a historical biographer, makes my good friend out to be a rock star, however: “His powerful personality, his manifest integrity, his distinctive style, his penetrating intellect, his original ideas, his prodigious learning, his extraordinary versatility, and his imposing figure combined to make him a dominant literary presence” (21). Great! What was in that tea again, the pot Johnson and I were sharing? At least I choose my tea-friends wisely.

By the way, it’s important to note that the above quote can be found in Boswell’s Presumptuous Task: The Making of the Life of Dr. Johnson. Essentially, Sisman waxed all poetic about Johnson in his biography of James Boswell, which is extraordinary that a biographer such as Adam Sisman is able to fill in these details 250 years after Johnson lived. The fact that Sisman wrote such a detailed and personal biography is telling; what is even more telling is that Sisman wrote a biography of a biographer who, in his turn, wrote a biography of a biographer. Fill my cup again, won’t you? I’m feeling a little jittery.

Samuel Johnson advised his friend Mr. Boswell, the Scotsman who really couldn’t help being Scottish, thank you Mr. Johnson, to keep a detailed journal of his life. Due to Boswell’s own intensive melancholic state, he followed Johnson’s advice to the letter, scratching out on paper what no one should have ever known about his life and the lives of others, until, of course, those scratchings were published, thereby giving want-to-know to delicate ladies who otherwise conduct proper, if not delusional, tea parties in the dark hours of dawn. These detailed writings of Boswell, scandalous or not, aided him when he listened far too closely to Johnson’s many opinions, one of which was that biographies should be personal rather than formal. Biographies of famous people ought to only be written by those who had shared a table with the famed person. This personal touch would avoid a distanced chronology of events, instead engaging the reader with the minutia of daily life.

I’m so grateful that Boswell took Johnson’s words to heart–deeply–especially considering their first meeting, which went about like this: “I do indeed come from Scotland,” said Boswell, “but I cannot help it.” Johnson replied, “That, Sir, I find, is what a very great many of your countrymen cannot help” (22). Johnson, to put it mildly, wasn’t altogether fond of the Scots. And, yet, it was a Scotsman who wrote Johnson’s biography. Johnson, ironically, was a biographer, himself, one who didn’t take his own advice in sharing a meal with the men he wrote about–most likely because he wasn’t quite as delusional as I am, believing dead people to still live in some sense of the word. It was a little too late for him to drop his card by, say, Milton’s house, in hopes of gaining an invite to supper. But Johnson probably wouldn’t have liked Milton much, anyway. Isn’t it far better to remain detached, in order not to know? That’s, after all, why I drink tea with ghosts.

“I write therefore I am alive,” Johnson said. Are you so sure about that? It seems I know you, your dress and habits and manners of speech, because another man wrote to expel his own gloom, to rid himself of the destruction wrought by deep thought and philosophy in the scaffolding of his mind. I know you, Mr. Johnson, because of another man’s melancholy. Huh. I wonder what that says about melancholy. Maybe it would be better to take my teapot and brew it in the land of the living, where I might find true respite by jotting down details of this time and place. Or maybe I should just go to bed.

All quotes taken from Adam Sisman’s Boswell’s Presumptuous Task: The Making of the Life of Dr. Johnson (Farrar, Straus and Giroux New York, 2000)

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