literature


high riseAnarchy in the sky, but could it ever happen? When all responsibility is taken over by the management, would people revert to childhood, trash their homes and services, and resort to drunkenness, violence and aggressive, opportunistic sex. Would the lack of external constraint release our basic emotional animal selves?

These are the questions, being asked in J.G. Ballard’s novel, ‘High Rise’, which my daughter, Esther, gave me for my birthday. He describes the latest concept in inner city living for young professionals: new high-rise apartment blocks designed to take over all the responsibility for domestic life. Not only are all the utilities and services provided by the company, but the blocks also contain their own recreation facilities – swimming pool, gymnasiums, restaurants, cinemas, a play area for children and meeting and event space for their parents, and their own supermarkets, shopping centre and banks. Each tower block is a self contained town; 1000 full equipped homes in the sky with views over the city. There is no need to go out except to work, but nowadays many could work on-line from their apartment. It is a new concept in living; an architects dream that within weeks turned into a nightmare.

It starts innocently enough with noisy ‘get to know each other’ parties. Bottles are tossed over balconies, casual liaisons formed and then broken. Then within days, delays in getting elevators lead to tensions.  Those living on the top few floors have their own express elevators, epitomising  a vertical gradient in status and income, the richer celebrities and top executives on the top, the professional classes in the middle and the nurses, air hostesses, shop managers, bank officials towards the bottom.  This leads to factionalism and eventually conflict.

As the inhabitants lose control, so the building itself starts to fail, first the electricity – whole floors are blacked out for a time. The garbage disposal chutes become blocked. People dump their rubbish in the foyer or throw it over the balcony. The cars in the front few rows of the car park are wrecked by falling bottles. Then the elevators fail and the stairwells are blocked by rubbish, the water supply is cut off, the sewage system fails and  swimming pools become open sewers.

People form themselves into gangs, raiding parties that trash the apartments on the upper floors, attacked the inhabitants, rape the women. There is no food, the shelves in the supermarket have been cleared. People resort to killing pets that are by now running feral throughout the building and cooking them over open fires lit from broken furniture on the balconies.  The furniture that is not burnt is used to barricade the apartments and stair wells.  As the violence escalates, people are killed and most likely also eaten.

Into the chaos, comes  Wilder, a self appointed war lord, his loins bare, his insignia emblazoned in lipstick across his chest, accompanied by his entourage of followers and sex slaves. The apartment town achieves a kind of stability, organised by violence and fear, as strict rules are established, punishable by death.

High Rise is a disturbing and unrealistic dystopia. Realists might question how people go  to work as normal during the day, but always return to their urban jungle at night, why many find the gang warfare and permissive sex exciting, why nobody informs the authorities and when asked, denies there is any trouble. Even the newsreader who reads the one o’clock news every day says nothing of the anarchy at home. The way Ballard wrote it, they just don’t care anymore, but wouldn’t their upbringing have equipped them with the self imposed constraints to live together?  Isn’t that what civilisation and socialisation imply?

I can’t imagine that Ballard meant High Rise to be taken literally. It is science fiction, what-if, a metaphor to think about, but close enough to other examples of societal breakdown in Berlin, Stalingrad, the Congo, Ruanda, and more recently in Mosul and Aleppo. Axel Munthe wrote how during the plague in Naples, when all civic control had broken down and people were dying in their thousands, the survivors were openly having sex with each other in the city squares, on fountains, benches, everywhere. Trauma disconnects the thinking brain so that people can behave  like animals and follow their basic emotional drives until somebody asserts strict control, which they follow without question, like Bettleheim’s Musselmen, the walking corpses, who marched to their death in the gas chambers in Buchenwald or the followers of ISIS.

But when people first moved into the tower black, they were not traumatised, they could still think. The trauma came later. So what caused them lose control? Was it some kind of mass hysteria, like an unstoppable contagion? Helen Wilder said it was the tower that made them behave so out of control, but it is difficult to see how or why.  Why would everybody become so irresponsible just because they were living in a luxury high rise? There would surely  be some who wouldn’t.

I cannot agree that High Rise is JG Ballard’s best novel, though there are echoes of the Japanese camp in ‘The Empire of the Sun’ The themes of vandalism, sectionalism and flagrant sexuality are somewhat repetitive and disturbing. The high rise society deteriorated too rapidly The best metaphors have to be credible. This is too divorced from reality to suspend disbelief. The metaphor is flawed.

Ballard wrote High Rise in 1975, at around the time, high rise tower blacks were being constructed in every major city in Britain.  His apocalyptic vision has not been realised, but only this year the vulnerability of high rise buildings to fire has been exposed in West London.

 

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Don Juan, the ambivalent one, the wild man women love to hate or hate to love, the one they want to tame or not, the libertine who liberates sexuality from the everyday shackles of marriage, the maverick who rejects the mores of society to please himself, the nomad who promises freedom but delivers loneliness.  Don Juan epitomises the essential conflict of masculinity, excitement or commitment; constantly on the move, he comes in through the window late at night but does not stay for breakfast. 

But who is Don Juan?  Is he a melancholic, searching for something he can never find and does not wish to?   Inasmuch as we all model future relationships on our first love with our mother, do we imagine little Juan’s mother as a tease, unavailable, the joy of possession snatched away from him leaving the unremitting quest but no trust.  So is the Don predestined to a perpetual  struggle between life and death; does he yearn for the love that will kill him, yet fear it?  His promiscuity embraces death but flees the pain.  Is he Peter Pan, forever in search the Wendy he must reject in place of Lilith, la femme fatale, who will seduce and kill him?  Or can we imagine him unfulfilled, getting old;  a wine soaked depressive regaling all who will listen with of tales of conquest,  sans teeth, his flirtations rendered impotent by repetition?    

Don Juan is complicated; he disturbs us.  On the one hand he represents excitement, power, liberty, joy, orgasm.  On the other he is a coward; fearful that relationships weaken him.  He will never  commit or belong.  He does not wish to possess.  He needs to explore, seek out, live the adventure, continue the quest. 

So what of Don Juan in the 21st century?   In an age when technology has uncoupled sexual urge from reproduction and given women control of their own sexuality, has he been rendered redundant by a tipping of the scales of sexual power?  Is there less risk in seduction and less meaning?  Disconnected from social responsibility, coupling is ruled by the thrill of the moment, the sensation.  So is everybody Don Juan?  Is it a case of every man and every woman for themselves?   We read that community and family are being eroded, less people are entering the commitment of marriage,  more children are raised by single parents who are less available as role models or guides,  young people are exposed to sex and pornography at a precocious age and are more likely to experiment with variations in sexuality.  There’s no mystery any more.   So has the Don not so much disappeared as become normalised, familiar and tamed and well, boring?  Is he just as likely to be gay these days?   Has our sexualised society become lost in adolescent fantasy?   Psychiatrists tell us that more males are phobic of commitment.  Sociologists report that career women cannot find partners to father their children.  At a time when loneliness and depression are the common ailments among the young, has romantic love lost some of its passion?

The idealistic Konstantin, humiliated by his famous mother, the actress Irina Arkidina, his play publicly dismissed as ridiculous, tries to shoot himself but instead shoots a seagull and presents the corpse to Nina, the daughter of a neighbouring landowner, whom he adores.  Nina is disturbed and disgusted, but shows it to the sinister Trigorin, a famous writer and house guest, who notes down the metaphor for future use.   Nina is in thrall to Trigorin.  She sees in him an opportunity to escape the cage of the family estate and take flight as an actress.  She follows Trigorin to Moscow, becomes pregnant and is rejected by the writer who is being kept by Irina. The baby dies, her family lock their gates against her, and she is transformed into the kind of tragic heroine that the painter, George Frederick Watts depicted in his allegorical studies of hope and poverty. She becomes the seagull.    

Watts had taken as his child bride the teenage actress, Ellen Terry, in order to protect her from the same fate, or so the story goes.  The marriage failed.   It was supposedly never consummated. According to the amusing fiction by Lynne Truss, Watts just wasn’t interested in her that way.  Released from Watts’ protection, Ellen soared upwards to become the most famous actress of her generation. 

The Seagull possesses the usual Chekhovian themes; the country house, a self indulgent Russian bourgeoisie, decadent, bored and in decline,  the threatening clouds of the oncoming revolution  And the actors have the same familiar roles, the ageing actress and matriarch playing to the balcony while the theatre crumbles around her,  the elderly and ailing uncle, the owner of the estate, representing old Russia about to vanish forever, the frustrated and bullish farm manager, fed up with the old ways and wanting progress,  the desperate young author, the naive and fragile girl, and the doctor, perhaps Chekhov himself, a reflective observer, not entirely engaging with it all.  Soon all will be scattered.  Seen from this perspective, the seagull presents a broader perspective on the oncoming crisis,  a fragile but beautiful way of life soon to be chopped down like The Cherry Orchard.  Of course, the characters seem hysterical and self centred, they are all in love with love as a form of escape, the end of their world is coming; what else can they do?  It wouldn’t be theatre if they all behaved sensibly and worked together. 

The Seagull is currently playing at the Arcola Theatre in Stoke Newington; not an area I know well but accessible via the London Overground.  The theatre is a converted warehouse.  The set and seating are rough and ready but the cast and direction is as accomplished as many productions you might see in the West End.  Geraldine James plays the actress and matriarch.  The doctor is played by Roger Lloyd Peck, recently seconded from the Dibley parish council.  Chekhov billed the play as a comedy but nobody in Stoke Newington was laughing.

The Watts Gallery opened at Compton on the North Downs outside Guildford on June 18th.  It is said to be the only major gallery in the country devoted to a single artist.  Watts was immensely popular in his heyday; two rooms were devoted to his paintings in the newly opened Tate Gallery at Millbank but the fashion for Victorian art changed and by the nineteen fifties you could pick up his paintings for less than a hundred pounds.  His museum at Compton fell into disrepair but was rescued by coming second in the BBC’s Restoration programme and then getting a 4 million pound lottery grant.  Watts’ paintings are not exactly cheerful.  The most famous are allegories of themes like hope, poverty and despair.  They are sombre and intense; Watts saw his mission to produce work that encourage young people to think about moral issues.   

Lynne Truss didn’t treat Watts kindly.  In her novel, Tennyson’s Gift, which described with humour the characters that circled the bard of Farringford, she portrayed him as self obsessed and sexually repressed.  Who knows, if he had been more responsive to Ellen’s allures, she may never have felt the need to escape to the stage.    

The story is as appropriate now as when Mary Shelley wrote it two hundred years ago.  The scientific genius, self obsessed and total fixated on his project, out of touch with normal human relations, creates a monster, who destroys him and everything around him.

Mary Shelley was writing during the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, when anything must have seemed possible.  Not long before, Galvani had demonstrated that electricity could make an isolated frog leg twitch and cause the muscles of a recently dead corpse to jerk as if alive.  Many believed that electricity was the life force.  Frankenstein used it to resurrect the dead and create life, but he created a monster.  Now we have discovered how to harness the enormous energy sequestered inside the atom.  Nick Deare’s revision of the Frankenstein story is being staged when the nuclear reactor at Fukishima has been critically damaged by the recent earthquake and  is in melt down, threatening the city of Tokyo.

The Bodleian library paid three million pounds for the original Shelley manuscript; not just because it is a good story, but more because as a cautionary tale, it tells us something important about the corruptible nature of human ambition. 

Frankenstein is so obsessed by his desperate need for recognition and power (and perhaps love –on a grand scale) that he neglects his friends and family, shuns human company, and like Mephistopheles, sells his soul to Satan, the fallen angel.  He has to have fresh corpses  and pays others to dig up graves to obtain them.  He produces a living creature, a man of sorts, horribly scarred and misshapen, but then abandons him to suffer the disgust, fear and hatred of society, unleashing a horrific revenge.   The monster invades Frankenstein’s house on his wedding night, rapes his bride before snapping her neck.  But still Frankenstein cannot kill his creation, the thing he loves, and  in a dramatic reversal, becomes the monsters slave, destined to follow him to the ends of the earth. They are one and the same, bound together, the man and the monster; they cannot escape what they have done.       

How often in human history have we seen men corrupted by absolute power?  Hitler, Stalin, Idi Amin, Mobutu, Robert Mugabe, Saddam Hussein, Mubarak, Gadaffi …. The list is endless and includes a score of dictators currently toppling like skittles throughout the middle east.  They may start as benign and well meaning but soon their personal greed and the strength they have to demonstrate and the fear they have to generate fear to remain in power,  turns them into tyrants and despots.  All leaders are at risk of this trajectory.  Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. 

Frankenstein had absolute power; the power over life and death.  I have known some medical scientists who have that same wild look, the same dangerous inclinations.  Society needs the focus of the genius to progress; it makes them their leaders, but within that single minded focus, as within the atom, is a dangerous energy that must be contained.  We must have checks and balances, democracy, joint responsibility, religion, and in science, peer review, open conference and grant application.   Enterprise must be rewarded but not allowed to get too powerful.  No man can be a God.   The enduring importance of the God myth for society is that it keeps any man from getting too powerful.  Only now few believe or even pretend to believe and society is exposed. 

Frankenstein projected his will into his creation, who identified with the way he was treated.  He made him the ‘monster’  he became.   So often we hear,  ‘he made me do it’.  So did Ian Brady make Myra Hindley do it?   Ultimately she was responsible, and projective identification is no excuse in law, but it’s a powerful phenomenon.   

At the end of Mary Shelley’s book, the man and creature seem to fuse and we are left wondering whether the monster was a delusion, a dissociation produced by the stress of work and isolation.  Nick Deare writes it a slightly different way.  The master becomes the slave, the scientist is the mad one.   The creature has taken over, setting up other political resonances .   This is a story with multiple layers and meanings. 

An amazing play which starts with the creature being born amid blinding electrical discharges, out of what resembles an giant amniotic sac and for fifteen minutes struggling to move, stand and walk.  The set is wonderful, Danny Boyle’s direction superb, Benedict Cumerbutch amazing as the creature.  Tomorrow he will exchange roles with Johnny Lee Miller who played Frankenstein.  Perhaps this device underscores the notion that the creature is Frankensteins alter ego. This is the hottest play in London; deservedly so.   

Alan is devoted to his mother.  His father died while he was still a teenager.  Mother and son became very close, always there for each other.  Alice was wise and understanding and did everything she could for him, but she could help him in the one area he needed; she could not set him free to learn about relationships with women.  He was naive; he just didn’t know how to be.  He just wasn’t equipped to deal with Sarah.  He became obsessed with her instead. 

Sarah was beautiful, charismatic and totally unavailable.  She avoided any emotional intimacy, any real conversation.  She could never commit to a man but she enjoyed the seductive power that she could exert over them.  They, in their turn, were fascinated by her;  they longed to possess her, and although she might permit an exciting physical intimacy to those she felt safe with, they could never know her emotionally.  And so it was that she allowed the naively polite Alan to consort with her in a brief relationship of silent passion.   For Alan, their relationship contained the toxic ingredients of addiction; sexual gratification and emotional abstinence.  He longed to know her, to have a proper relationship with her, but she refused to make arrangements to see him and was frequently absent from her flat.  And so he became hooked.  For Sarah it had the dangerous excitement of sadism.   

Frustrated and hurt by Sarah’s behaviour  and in weakened state of illness he allows himself to become looked after by Angela, who is one of Sarah’s acolyte’s and has pursued him relentlessly.  Angela loves the fantasy of marriage and children, but cannot face the realities and responsibilities.   She is scared of men, frightened of their passions.  She would rather avoid the whole messy, violent business of sex.  She needs  Alan to protect her from the dangers of the world, to look after her like a child – so she takes the opportunity to look after him.  Nevertheless they get married and soon she is pregnant. 

Then Sarah turns up again unexpectedly.   Alan is thrown off balance and pursues her to Paris, but she doesn’t take him seriously and does not keep his assignation.  While away, his friend and partner, Brian, calls; Angela has had a fall and gone into premature labour.  She has lost their baby and is in a state of shock, unable to cope.   She blames Alan for everything and refuses to leave her bed.  Jennie, fragile and so needy of love,  comes in every day to care for her, but she shows no sign of getting better. Alan tells Jennie not to come again whereupon Angela declines and takes an overdose of antidepressants and dies. 

Alan feels guilty and becomes depressed.  It takes him years before he feels strong enough to relinquish his preoccupation with Sarah.  He realises he is not equipped for a stable relationship with a woman and lives a solitary though not unhappy existence in London and Switzerland.   He never sees Sarah again. 

This is Anita Brookner at her best.  She has a deep understanding of the fragile and the lonely.  Her thoughtful prose explores what it means to lead a solitary life, the compensations and the pain of it.  ‘Altered States’ (1996), like most of her novels, is a skilful take on the psychological impact of inadequate socialisation, a territory she knows well.  Each of the three major characters,  Alan, Sarah and Angela, have not been able to grow up.  Alan is socially naive and can neither play the part of lover or husband.  Angela is like the anorexic who can’t face the responsibilities of marriage and ultimately reverts to the passive dependency of childhood.   Sarah is forever evasive of the reality of an adult relationship, but enjoys the power and drama of endless flirtation.  Each has been damaged by a controlling and in  varying degrees emotionally abstinent parent    

Altered States is a book of our time.  We live in a narcissistic society; in which many children have their material needs, food and diversions and toys, supplied in abundance but suffer deprivation of proper emotional communication.  Television and computer games do not equip kids or social responsibilities; they grow up acutely conscious of their own needs and finding it difficult to make and keep relationships.   Thirty five per cent of people living in Britain in 2010 live by themselves.  This figure has continued to rise year on year since the eighties as marriage as continued  to decline and fail and more and more children end up being brought up by a lone parent.  This may look normal.  Indeed it is, but the damage runs deep and threatens the stability of society.  Psychotherapy, these days, is largely conducted to help people cope with the pain and trauma of a narcissistic personality.

When Rudd was just six, his beloved father and mother abandoned him and his four year old sister, Trix,  in a boarding house in Southsea and went to India.

Trix later described it thus; ‘I think the real tragedy of those early days sprang from our inability to understand why our parents had deserted us.  We had no preparations or explanations; it was like a double death or rather an avalanche that swept away everything that was happy and familiar.  This incomprehensible act of cruelty could never be forgotten.’ 

Life in the boarding house was mean.  Rudd was accused by the landlady and her bullying son of cheating and forced to walk through the streets of Southsea with a placard on his back bearing one word, ‘Liar!’ 

‘When young lips’, Kipling wrote at the end of this life, ‘have drunk deep of the bitter nature of hate, suspicion and despair, all the love in the world will not wholly take away that knowledge.’

When after six years, his mother finally arrived unannounced to the boarding house in Southsea, Rudd was in bed.  As she bent to kiss him, he held up his arms to ward off the expected blow from the adored mother who had hurt him so deeply. 

So an emotional vacuum dominated Rudyard Kipling’s life and was most likely the fount of his creativity.  Art always represents the artist’s life.  It carries the hope, the meaning and the pain of it all.  Rudyard Kipling never got over his parents abandonment.  It features in all his work; Mowgli, the jungle boy, abandoned and brought up rough by the wolf pack;  Kim, running crafty in the streets of Lahore, carrying secret messages, needing to be needed.  It explains his preoccupations with India, the family of soldiers, and his need for a refuge and a protector.   

Kipling lived just seven years in India.  He served as a reporter first for The Civil and Military Gazette in Lahore and The Pioneer in Allahabad.  He met Carrie when he returned from India; she worked for a publisher.  They married and went to live in Vermont, where their girls, Josephine and Emily, were born.  But there were family problems with Carrie’s brother, Beatty. They returned and lived in Rottingdean for a time; Jack was born there.   But on a voyage back to America to see his publishers, Kipling and 7 year old Josephine caught a chill.  Carrie’s hands were more than full with Rudd’s illness that she could not properly attend to Josephine.  So, in a decision that at this remove seems scarcely intelligible, she took her daughter even at the height of her fever, 21 blocks across Manhattan to the house of a family friend on the lower East Side.  As Adam Nicolson comments, ‘this was a moment of conscious agony to stand out from the average.’   Josephine died.  Carrie and Rudd never quite recovered from that; they just lived on with the pain.    

Kipling bought Batemans in 1902.  It is, a substantial manor house, set in a damp secluded valley near Burwash in West Sussex.  He stayed there until he died 34 years later.  It was his refuge.  His reputation for being rather anti-social after his son Jack was reported missing in action in Loos in 1915, was probably misplaced.  A look at his guest list indicated that they always seemed to have house guests.  These included his cousin Stanley Baldwin, T.E. Lawrence, Rider Haggard, the Shaws and many others. 

If Batemans was Kipling’s refuge, Carrie was his watchdog.  That was probably why was regarded as the hated wife.  She could be stern, domineering and controlling, and was seen as a bounty hunter, who married Kipling for his prospects, a ruthless employer, a cold mother and later a drudge and a moan.  In his small book, entitled ‘The Hated Wife’, Adam Nicolson suggests that Kipling was nothing like the image portrayed in If.  He could be charming and impish, genial and compassionate, joshing his way through life and quite content to leave Carrie to take responsibility and avoided conflict.  Carrie was a very capable, masculine woman in a pioneering American mould; she was born to carry the burden.  When she was young, she had to cope with her father’s fecklessness and early death, her brother Beatty’s naughtiness, Wolcott’s dictatorship, and her sister, Josphine’s  delicacy.  She was always the capable one. Even when Rudd and Josephine were so ill,  Carrie maintained a business correspondence.  It was what kept her going, but in the end it  wore her out.  She put on weight, developed arthritis and became depressed and poured out her feelings in her diary, the sump for her despair.  Her dour, rigid, manner was a means to survival.  She was the buffer between Rudd and the rest of the world.  She was devoted to him, not out of some great affection – she felt abandoned by the more sociable Rudd.  No, her devotion was a matter of survival. She had to keep the house, the servants and Kipling’s affairs together because if she didn’t, she would fall apart herself.    

Nicolson exposes the detachment at the heart of the Kipling marriage.  Carrie provided the backbone that her husband preached but privately lacked.  But she was not the bullying harridan intent on controlling her genius husband, but more a lonely survivor in the face of a serial family tragedy. 

Kipling’s reputation took a plunge from which it never quite recovered after being awarded the 1907 Nobel Prize for Literature. Oscar Wilde, perhaps the greatest ever exponent of the devastating put down, called him ‘our best authority on the second rate’.   Nevertheless, a hundred years later, If is the nation’s favourite poem,  Kim one of the best novels ever written about India.  The Jungle Book is still one of the best loved childrens books, has been made into a one of the most popular Disney films, and  Akela and Bagheera are enshrined as the names of troop leaders in Baden Powell’s Wolf Cubs.  He may not have been the greatest, but he has lasted.

 

Adam Nicolson wrote an excellent booklet on Bateman’s for The National Trust and is the author of The Hated Wife, published by Short Books in 2001.

Emily, Kipling’s one surviving daughter spent a year restoring Batemans to how it was when Rudyard and Carrie lived there and then sold it to the National Trust in 1939

‘If’ was inspired by Dr Jameson, who led the Jameson raid to capture the South African President, Kruger.

The film, My Son Jack, starred David Haig, Carey Mulligan and Daniel Radcliffe and first appeared on ITV in 2007.

‘Have you news of my boy Jack?’
Not this tide.
When d’you think that he’ll come back?’
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.

‘Has any one else had word of him?’
Not this tide.
For what is sunk will hardly swim,
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.

‘Oh, dear, what comfort can I find?’
None this tide,
Nor any tide,
Except he did not shame his kind –
Not even with that wind blowing, and that tide.

Then hold your head up all the more,
This tide,
And every tide;
Because he was the son you bore,
And gave to that wind blowing and that tide!

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.

‘Dr Johnson on Madness’ 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.

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