Doctor Feelgood

Stricken by “vile melancholy,” the 18th-century critic and raconteur Samuel Johnson pioneered a modern therapy

Samuel Johnson
Samuel Johnson Wikimedia Commons

Mel Gibson did it. Brooke Shields too. So did Uma Thurman, Ben Stiller and Carrie Fisher. They and dozens of other celebrities have all come forward, in books or on TV, to discuss their struggles with alcoholism, or drug addiction, or postpartum depression, or other long dark nights of the soul. Quite possibly, misery has never loved company more than in American pop culture right now. So strong is our preference for redemptive narratives of adversity overcome that after James Frey's purported memoir A Million Little Pieces was revealed to contain a pack of fabrications, it returned to the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list for an encore appearance.

Samuel Johnson was no Mel Gibson, but his biography includes the makings of a modern celebrity sobfest: birth into poverty; a host of ailments, both physical and psychological; and, of course, the burdens of fame. In his time (1709-84), Dr. Johnson was a renowned critic, biographer, moral philosopher and creator of A Dictionary of the English Language. He was also known to be a bit strange. But in his moments of crisis, he issued no statements through his publicist (or his protégé and future biographer, James Boswell), and he declined to retreat into solitude; instead, he fashioned his own recovery, in ways that anticipate popular currents in contemporary psychology.

Johnson went on to write about happiness and melancholy, joining a larger Enlightenment dialogue on those topics among such luminaries as Voltaire, Diderot, Rousseau and Jeremy Bentham. (Like our own time, the 18th century was preoccupied with the idea of happiness.) His writings don't provide the drama of, say, addiction-induced kleptomania, but they do offer a refreshing contrast to the current template for melodramatized suffering and contentment. With diligent effort and keen insight into the workings of the mind, Johnson simply figured out how to work around his afflictions and make himself happy.

He started out with the odds against him. "I was born almost dead and could not cry for some time," he recalled late in life. In infancy, scrofulous lymph nodes were found in his neck and attributed to the tuberculosis of his wet nurse. He was transported to Queen Anne's presence in the belief, common at the time, that the royal touch could cure "the King's Evil," as scrofula was called. All his life he had poor vision and hearing. Bizarre tics, odd vocalizations ("too too too," he muttered when excited) and wild gestures rendered his appearance, one observer said, "little better than that of an idiot."

But Johnson was a precocious lad. He read prodigiously, mastered Latin ("My master whipt me very well," he told Boswell) and was so helpful to his fellow students that they carried him to school in gratitude. Neurologists now believe that Johnson's convulsions and odd behavior were symptoms of Tourette's syndrome, a disorder first identified in 1885 by George Gilles de la Tourette. Johnson's contemporaries left vivid accounts of its effects on him: "His vast body is in constant agitation, see-sawing backwards and forwards, his feet never a moment quiet; and his whole great person looked often as if it were going to roll itself, quite voluntarily, from his chair to the floor," wrote Fanny Burney, the English diarist and novelist. Frances Reynolds, sister of the painter Sir Joshua Reynolds, recorded the curious method by which Johnson led a blind member of his household through a doorway: "On entering Sir Joshua's house with poor Mrs. Williams...he would quit her hand, or else whirl her about on the steps as he whirled and twisted about to perform his gesticulations; and as soon as he had finished, he would give a sudden spring, and make such an extensive stride over the threshold, as if he was trying for a wager to see how far he could stride."

As if his oddness were not enough, Johnson inherited from his father, Michael Johnson, what he called a "vile melancholy," which, he confided to Boswell, made him "mad all his life." Johnson's first major depressive episode occurred at age 20 while he was on vacation from Oxford, where he was an impoverished but extremely well-read student. Johnson, Boswell wrote, "felt himself overwhelmed with an horrible hypochondria, with perpetual irritation, fretfulness, and impatience; and with a dejection, gloom and despair, which made existence misery."

But even in this early period, Johnson exhibited a genius for self-analysis. He wrote up his own case in Latin and gave it to his physician and godfather, Dr. Samuel Swinfen. The doctor was "so much struck with the extraordinary acuteness, research, and eloquence of this paper," writes Boswell, "that in his zeal for his godson he shewed it to several people." Naturally, Johnson was furious.

The gloom lifted, and it may be just as well that Johnson didn't seek further medical help after the gross violation of doctor-patient confidentiality. The preferred treatments for melancholy in his time were purges, emetics, bleedings and physical punishment.

Johnson prepared to manage his own case, a contemporary noted, by studying medicine "diligently in all its branches," giving "particular attention to the diseases of the imagination." His greatest fear was that he might lose his reason, for it was his powerful intellect that allowed him to keep a grip on sanity. "To have the management of the mind is a great art," he told Boswell, "and it may be attained in a considerable degree by experience and habitual exercise." Johnson would have agreed wholeheartedly with the sentiment of the Greek philosopher Epictetus, who wrote: "People are not disturbed by things, but by the view they take of them." This is the idea at the heart of cognitive-behavioral therapy, a pragmatic, short-term form of psychotherapy now widely used to treat a host of psychological problems.

Cognitive-behavior therapists believe that emotional disturbances are caused by "distortions in thinking," erroneous beliefs or interpretations that can trigger anxiety, depression or anger. Take a patient who tells himself: "I got a parking ticket; nothing turns out well for me." Cognitive-behavior therapists refer to this as "catastrophic thinking." It is the therapist's task to help the patient replace such distortions with more realistic interpretations, as in, "It's too bad I got a ticket, but it's a small matter in the scheme of things."

Johnson sometimes played cognitive-behavior therapist to the fretful Boswell. On one such occasion, Boswell arrived at Johnson's London home upset and uneasy. He'd had a run-in with his landlord and resolved not to spend another night in his rooms. Johnson laughed. "Consider, Sir, how insignificant this will appear a twelvemonth hence." This insight made a big impression on Boswell. "Were this consideration to be applied to most of the little vexatious incidents of life, by which our quiet is too often disturbed, it would prevent many painful sensations," he wrote. "I have tried it frequently, with good effect."

Johnson often touched on psychological matters in The Rambler, a twice-weekly pamphlet that he published between 1750 and 1752. Typical is Rambler #29, in which he used cool reasoning and striking imagery to show the folly of catastrophic thinking about future misfortunes. "Whatever is afloat in the stream of time, may, when it is very near us, be driven away by an accidental blast, which shall happen to cross the general course of the current."

He believed that idleness provided fertile ground for the melancholy that threatened to consume him. "It is certain that any wild wish or vain imagination never takes such firm possession of the mind, as when it is found empty and unoccupied," he wrote in Rambler #85. He formulated and lived by a simple mantra: "If you are idle, be not solitary; if you are solitary, be not idle."

A childless widower in midlife—his wife, Tetty, more than 20 years his senior, died in 1752—Johnson gathered an odd household of characters that became a kind of surrogate family for him. There was his young servant, Frank Barber; the blind Welsh poetess Anna Williams, whose habit of using her finger to judge how much tea to pour in a cup offended Boswell; Robert Levett, a dissolute physician to the poor, and later the penniless widow Elizabeth Desmoulins, the hapless Dr. Swinfen's daughter. They were a motley lot, but he was fond of them.

Johnson also gathered a wide support network of friends throughout London society. He filled his evenings with an endless round of dinner parties and was a founding member of the famous Literary Club—Edmund Burke, Joshua Reynolds, Oliver Goldsmith and Boswell were members—in which he found sociability, amusement and a forum for displaying his rhetorical skills. "There is no arguing with Johnson," Goldsmith observed, "for when his pistol misses fire, he knocks you down with the butt end of it." He loved to talk and to eat, but "most important of all," wrote biographer Joseph Wood Krutch, Johnson "won hours of freedom from his own sick mind."

But he could not escape solitude entirely. When alone he sought, as Boswell put it, "constant occupation of mind." Naturally, he was a voracious reader. He was also an enthusiastic amateur chemist, often befouling his rooms with noxious fumes. He engaged in a variety of nonchemical experiments, too, once shaving the hair around his right nipple in order to observe how long it took to grow back. A diary entry for July 26, 1768, reads: "I shaved my nail by accident in whetting the knife, about an eighth of an inch from the bottom, and about a fourth from the top. This I measure that I may know the growth of nails."

Johnson's various investigations provided occasions for what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls the "autotelic experience," or "flow," a state in which the individual has "intense emotional involvement" in a rewarding, goal-directed activity. Flow "lifts the course of life to a different level," Csikszentmihalyi writes. "Alienation gives way to involvement, enjoyment replaces boredom, helplessness turns into a feeling of control, and psychic energy works to reinforce the sense of self, instead of being lost in the service of external goals....Concentration is so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant, or to worry about problems."

What saved Johnson, time and again, was his ability to step back and view his illness objectively, a talent he exhibited notably when he suffered a stroke near the end of his life. He described the episode in a letter to a friend: "I went to bed, and in a short time waked and sat up, as has been long my custom, when I felt a confusion and indistinctness in my head, which lasted, I suppose, about half a minute. I was alarmed, and prayed God, that however he might afflict my body, he would spare my understanding. This prayer, that I might try the integrity of my faculties, I made in Latin verse. The lines were not very good, but I knew them not to be very good: I made them easily, and concluded myself to be unimpaired in my faculties."

He never lost his reason or his zest for human connection. And he kept a clear vision of what would keep him happy: "If...I had no duties, and no reference to futurity," he told Boswell, "I would spend my life in driving briskly in a post-chaise with a pretty woman; but she should be one who could understand me, and would add something to the conversation."

John Geirland, a writer based in Los Angeles, has a doctorate in social psychology.

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