Monday, May 7, 2012

'Angry, Waspish, Dull and Melancholy'

It was a very wet day, and I again complained of the disagreeable effects of such weather. Johnson: "Sir, this is all imagination, which physicians encourage; for man lives in air, as a fish lives in water . . . . Some very delicate frames, indeed, may be affected by wet weather; but not common constitutions."
                                                                          - Boswell's Life of Johnson

Excepting the month of April just past, which is unvaryingly bloody awful here, the current edition of springtime in the Rockies has been the very picture of Arcadian idyll. Aside from some ripping spring winds, the days have been more than tolerable, blue skies, white clouds, the countryside green, and (as that wobbly old Thomas Eakins might have depicted it) the fruit hung heavy on the grass . . . 

"Arcadia" (T. Eakins)
This particular May afternoon, however, carries all the desolation and gloom of a November day - indeterminate gray sky prone flat across soggy ground, the mountains to the west in complete obscurity, a cold, needlepoint rain falling. Just the sort of day to turn one's thoughts into self-defeating channels - recreational pharmaceuticals, dialing random (900) numbers, casual online investing, internet shopping for Christian sex props, self-destruction - all come to mind in their turn.

"Weather got you down?"

Apparently, I have one of those "very delicate frames" like Boswell's, promptly capsized by the weather. I am unable to rise above the temporary aspect of the world about me, chilled in my marrow by clammy air, brought low by an insufficient play of photons careering through my sensorium - in short, the plaything of the barometer, the hygrometer, the rain gauge and the anemometer. And given half a chance, "I again complained of the disagreeable effects of such weather." 

Boswell was frequently saying something extraordinarily sensible, finding himself promptly exploded by Johnson's pompous half-wittedness, and muttering in print that he was "much offended by the severity of his rebuttal and I vowed to murder him this very night as he sleeps." This is contrary to the usual picture of Johnson, who has spawned an industrial-scale hagiography intent on showing him to be the champion of repartee, wit, les mots justes and all the socially commendable arts that garner a reputation as a savant and bon vivant, the very opposite of a muttonhead. I remain, however, a confirmed Boswellian in these matters. I would much rather bitch about the murky half-light of a crapulous low-pressure front than light a candle to cheer the darkness, or whatever the saying is and whatever Doctor Sodding Johnson may maintain to the contrary and in the teeth of good sense.

My old friend Robert Burton (who much to my lament died nearly 400 years ago, which goes some way toward explaining why we're so close), in the Anatomy of Melancholy, calls this melancholic frame of mind "the rust of the soul," apt if you need only glance out the window to see the entire world rust away as you watch.

"A troublesome tempestuous air," remarks the good Oxford divine, "is as bad as impure, rough and foul weather, impetuous winds, cloudy dark days . . . Polydore calls it a filthy sky . . . . [If] there be a calm, or a fair sunshine day, there is a kind of alacrity in men's minds; it cheers up men and beasts: but if it be a turbulent, rough, cloudy, stormy weather, men are sad, lumpish, and much dejected, angry, waspish, dull, and melancholy."

So there you have it, as clearly as I might have put it myself - if you're keeping score, it's Boswell, 1; Johnson, 0. 

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