Saturday, June 09, 2007

The Black Dog


Depression, for all its gray, has a colorful history. As a subject of art it is perhaps best represented by Albrecht Durers Melencolia I.

The seventeenth-century scholar Robert Burton wrote An Anatomy of Melancholy, out of the hope that it would keep him from depression’s darker shades with distraction, remarking: “There is no greater cause of melancholy than idleness, no better cure than business.” Consequently the book became a favorite of many an English author, most famously perhaps being Samuel Johnson, who was well known to suffer from the illness. James Boswell, in his Life of Johnson wrote: “The ‘”morbid melancholy,“’ which was lurking in his constitution, and to which we may ascribe those particularities, and that aversion to regular life, which, at a very early period, marked his character, gathered such strength in his twentieth year, as to afflict him in a dreadful manner.” Unlike Burton, Johnson never did escape its grasp and continued to endure periodic lapses of “The English Malady” for the rest of his life.

I have entertained this unwelcome guest from time to time since childhood. The shouts of my mother to come in from play would start storm clouds in my head as though I were walking to the gallows. Without constant mental stimulation I was always fearful of despair. I found a champion, strangely, in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s great creation Sherlock Holmes, with whom I felt an odd connection. Without a case to solve the great detective, usually such a model of industry and enthusiasm, would sink into his chair and give himself over to the cocaine bottle, but only: “when cases were scanty and the papers uninteresting.” So Watson tells us. Not a constructive--nor legal--solution today, but it worked for the stories. My own habit is to take large doses of caffeine. Sadly, this only works for a time before the body adjusts and the nerves become undone.

When the black dog comes it comes to sit upon us, to consume us, to annihilate us. We look in desperation for a cleft in the rock to keep from losing our sense of self completely, but at last there must come a thud, and a sickening sense of being hollow like a grave. However, it does have one saving virtue, that when you have felt it in your very bones the trials of life become little more than mosquito bites to a giant resting amid its desolation. It must be similar to the state the Buddha was said to have reached. Like the rush of air from a room blowing out a candle as it goes, so likewise is the ego extinguished and, for a brief term we see the world without the burden of the self. All things ebb and flow as Lao Tsu reminds us, the bad must be taken with the good. We can stand on the edge and still keep ourselves if we can fight the temptation to jump. Like Jacob in reverse, we may wrestle with the demon dog all day and all night and in the end win for ourselves a new name--patience.

2 comments:

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Tillie said...

Interesting to know.