Was Dr Johnson mad? Aren’t we all?

He was a most strange looking man, much bigger than average and rather stout.  Slovenly, dishevelled, deaf, almost blind with myopia; he slobbered, he dribbled, was host to all manner of people, and his personal cleanliness left much to be desired.  In truth, he stank.  And he had a variety of strange tics and habits.  As he walked along, he’d touch every railing and if he thought he’d missed one, he’d rush back and touch it again.  He used to count the paving stones and he’d pick up and collect orange peel.  When he visited friends he would wait at the doorstep and as the door was opened,  pirouette twice,  pause and then leap over the threshold as if jumping over a fence.   And when he was concentrating he would screw up his face, twist his mouth into the oddest grimace and also make the oddest utterances.   

Rude and opinionated, he didn’t mind what he said to people and was given to blurting out his opinions in a way that seems to resemble what we now know as Gilles de la Tourette’s disorder but his utterances were snatches of sayings or prayers,  the preoccupations of a man who  lived in his head rather than the blasphemies and vulgarities associated Tourette’s.  Dr Johnson knew how to behave when he had to.   

Yet, for all his oddities, he was one of the most respected men in the country. His prose is lucid, insightful and reads well  two and a half centuries later.  His compilation of the first English Dictionary was an amazing feat of intellectual achievement.  During his lifetime he was admired by the most intelligent and creative in the land; Walpole, Pope, Defoe, Garrick, Reynolds, Fanny Burney; anybody who was anybody.  They provided much needed recognition and meaning to his life.  He enjoyed conversation immensely

But it wasn’t just the great and the good that he befriended.   People of all walks of life called on him and were guaranteed an audience.  His compassion for the underprivileged was legendary.  People were drawn to him; he looked after them and they in turn took care of him. 

Dr Johnson feared madness all his life.  He had good reason to; his behaviour was, to say the least, eccentric.  Nowadays, his idiosyncrasies might be considered features of severe obsessive compulsive disorder, while his dedication to his dictionary, his habit of always making lists, might suggest Asperger’s Syndrome.  But how much of his strange behaviour, especially touching railings, counting paving stones and leaping over the threshold a consequence of severe visual impairment and deafness? As a child, he was so severely myopic that he once crawled all the way back home in the gutter.  After that his friends would give him piggy-backs home in return for help with their work and protection from bullies.  Children with severe sensory deficit from birth can be extremely gifted, artistically and intellectually.  Was Dr Johnson such a person? 

But was there also an emotional reason for his strange personality? Did young Samuel inherit a melancholia along with a love of books from his father?  Did his mother’s snobbery and grievance play its part in creating an unhappy home environment?  It appears that she may have suffered post partum depression; she found it difficult to bond to her son, who contracted scrofula from his wet nurse and was once taken to London to be cured by Queen Anne (Scrofula, tuberculosis of the lymph nodes in the neck, was also known as the King’s Evil and was reputed to be cured by the touch of the monarch).  Another son, Nathaniel, Samuel’s brother, died in mysterious circumstances.  So did Samuel compensate for the emotional deficiencies of family life by finding meaning in words and writing?  He was a child prodigy, so far in advance of everybody at his Lichfield school that he got a place in Oxford, but he didn’t fit the Oxford scene.  Unable to pay the fees, he left after a year.  For a time he thought he could become a schoolmaster, but his strange behaviour distracted the pupils and undermined his authority.  

Dr Johnson always had a deep dread of loneliness.  He needed human society desperately.    Without companionship, he was all too vulnerable to guilt and melancholy, the black dog that stalked him all his life. 

Many of his friends were also marked out by their idiosyncratic genius.  James Boswell, his biographer and travelling companion, depicted the Hebridean Johnson in a brown travelling coat with pockets so deep they could hold the two folio editions of his dictionary.  On the face of it, there could hardly have been two such dissimilar friends.  Boswell was a man of great appetites.  He could not manage without casual sex, which he would procure from prostitutes, and suffered chronic gonorrhoea throughout his adult life, dying early from  urinary retention and renal failure.  Johnson was, it seems, somewhat sexually repressed but shared Boswell’s desperate need for human contact.    

Another close friend was the artist Joshua Reynolds, founder president of the Royal Academy.  Like Johnson, Reynolds had problems with perception and communication. He was deaf all his life and had a hare lip, making his speech difficult to understand.  Later in life, he suffered from  cataracts, but wore glasses and carried on painting.  Reynolds was, for a time, linked romantically with Fanny Burney, a witty, amusing woman, who wrote the Bridget Jones novels of their time, but Fanny wisely noted that Reynolds had already had two ‘shakes of the palsy’, and she herself had survived a mastectomy without anaesthetic and  wasn’t prepared to take him on. 

But Dr Johnson need people around him all the time.  When Hetty, the wife who was 20 years older than him, died, he filled his house with waifs and strays, like blind Annie Willamson and her eccentric father and his black servant, Frank Barber, who inherited his estate.  He also developed a strong attachment to the blue-stocking,  Hester Thrale, and was so devastated when she fled to Italy with Senor Piozzi, the opera singer that he refused to communicate with her ever again.     

Perhaps Johnson could never abide solitude because he was not at peace with himself. Life, according to Johnson,  was to be endured.  He always considered himself unworthy. He prayed to God to forgive his slothfulness and selfishness.  He feared that if he became too self conscious, it would cut him off from God and then he would be truly mad. He even gave Mrs Thrale a padlock to chain him up with if he went mad.  

In his dictionary, Dr Johnson defines mad as ‘disordered in the mind, broken in the understanding, overrun with any unreasonable or violent desire’.  But over the years, madness acquired social connotations. People are considered mad if they don’t fit in with the accepted conventions of society.  As Boswell wrote, madness discloses itself by deviation from the ways of the world. The Soviets incarcerated writers, who dared to criticise the system in state asylums

From a social perspective, Johnson might well be considered mad.  He just didn’t fit in.  he didn’t dress or behave like others in the intellectual society he might have belonged to. He was strange, bigoted and politically incorrect.  Johnson didn’t just behave like other people; he didn’t think like them either.  People came from far and wide to listen to his unconventional take on life.  It is the same now.  Those who express their ideas freely and with confidence are given an audience.  We celebrate their ‘madness’.  We might think of Grayson Perry or Alan Bennett or even Stephen Hawking.  Johnson was  regarded as a national treasure in his day.  His oddness was recognised to be the mainspring of his creativity.

Compiling his dictionary provided a whimsical outlet for his idiosyncrasies and probably  kept him sane.  Under the entry Oats, is written, ‘a cereal which in England is generally given to horses but in Scotland supports the people’.  Horse is defined as ‘a quadruped that neighs.’   The definition of a Lexicographer is – ‘a writer of dictionaries, a harmless drudge!’  Surely not! 

Johnson has a touch of the Edward Lear about him, but he was no dangerous lunatic.  He wasn’t disordered in the mind or broken in understanding.  On the contrary, it was his mind, his struggles to discover the meaning of things that made him one the sanest people of the age.   

An unshakeable faith in the existence of a man who was born of a virgin and sprang to life again after he had been murder could be regarded as a severe psychotic delusion, but for the society in which Dr Johnson lived, not to believe in that would have marked him out as mad.  Perhaps Johnson thought too much.  Perhaps he had too many doubts. He genuinely feared he might go to hell for his beliefs, but although the guilt of it all threatened to drive him mad,  his struggles for meaning kept him sane. 

Johnson debates the nature of madness in his allegory, ‘Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia’.  In it, he does not disavow a person’s beliefs as long as those as the meaning of those beliefs can be explored.  Anxiety, guilt, remorse, frustration is how we react to unliveable situations.  They are the drivers of change.  Life exists in the striving after meaning.  If melancholy is your situation, poetry is your deliverance.  Writing the dictionary saved Johnson from the purgatory of his indolent thoughts and slothfulness. Prince Rasselas had to escape the Happy Valley of CBT,  in order to find the real world. 

When patients in a mental home cease to rail against their incarceration and begin to comply, they may seem less mad,  but they have relinquished  their sense of self and the meaning of their suffering.  To get over a crisis, people have to see things differently and that takes courage.  You have to risk madness in the pursuit of meaning. 

Adam Phillips (Going Sane), as ever, goes one stage further.  He writes that madness is a moral obligation.  Too many people are trapped by convention.  They cannot take the risk.  The dangers are too great.  Nevertheless, it is the possibility of change, the frisson, the anticipation, that makes people happy and for that they must risk madness.  It was all too painful for Lear; he did indeed become disordered in the mind to escape from his own intolerable reality.   But when change is impossible, people can only manage.  Freud did not claim to bring happiness into people’s lives; just to help them change misery into everyday unhappiness.  

Towards the end of his life, Johnson couldn’t see and he couldn’t afford candles.  He gave way to the madness that he’d struggled with all his life.  He burnt all his papers, diaries everything; he fed the fires of hell so they would consume his guilt.  Then he stuck a knife into his painfully swollen leg to release the poison.

The Madness of Dr Johnson was the topic of an Inner Circle seminar convened by Dr Anthony Stadlen at Dr Johnson’s house in Gough Square on November 8th 2009.