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On Hypochondriacs

A nice state we are in, according to the Medical Times. If the secrets of our "casebooks"--that is, we suppose, our medical dossiers, doctors' records of the condition of their patients--could be revealed, it would be shown that many clever people have a fancy skeleton in their cupboards. By a fancy skeleton we mean, not some dismal secret of crime or shame, but a melancholy and apprehensiveness without any ground in outward facts. With the real skeleton doctors have nothing to do. He rather belongs to the province of Scotland Yard. If a man has compromised himself in some way, if he has been found out by some scoundrel, if he is compelled to "sing," as the French say, or to pay "blackmail," then the doctor is not concerned in the business. A detective, a revolver, or a well-planned secret flight may be prescribed to the victim. Other real skeletons men possess which do not come of their own misdeeds. One of their friends or one of their family may be the skeleton, or the consciousness of coming and veritable misfortune, pecuniary or what-not. But the Medical Times, which no doubt ought to know, refers purely to cases of vague melancholy and hypochondriac foreboding. Apparently "The Spleen," the "English Disease," is as bad now as when Green wrote in verse and Dr. Cheyne in prose. Prosperous business men, literary gents in active employment, artists, students, tradesmen, "are all visited by melancholy, revealed only to their doctors, and sometimes to their domestic circle."

Unhappy domestic circle, brooded over by a gloomy parent, who thinks that life is too short, or faith too much a matter of speculation, or that the country is going to the dogs! Then the doctor, it seems, hears his patient, and recommends him only to drink a very little whisky and potash water, or to take two bottles of port every day, or to take to angling, or to give up smoking, or to work less or to work more, or to go to bed early or to get up late, or to ride, or to fence, or to play golf, or to go to Upper Egypt or the Engadine, or anything that fancy may dictate and opportunity suggest. So the kind physician advises his mournful self- tormentor, and then he himself flies round the corner and consults some brother-healer about his own subjective gloom.

Old ladies, in speaking of the misdeeds of youth, are apt to recommend "a good shaking" as a panacea. Really those victims of whom our contemporary speaks, appear to be persons on whom "a good shaking," mental or physical, would produce a salutary effect. Cowardice, vanity, overweening self-consciousness, are the causes of most melancholy. No doubt it has physical causes too. Dr. Johnson suffered,--one of the best and bravest of men. But most of us suffer--if suffer we do--because we over-estimate ourselves and our own importance. Mr. Matthew Arnold has tried to enforce this lesson. After a horrible murder in a railway carriage, Mr. Arnold observed, with pain, the "almost bloodthirsty clinging to life" of his fellow-passengers. In vain he pointed out to them that even if they were to depart, "the great mundane movement" would go on as usual. But they refused to be comforted. Every man was afraid of meeting his own Muller; and as to the great mundane movement, no one cared a pin. This selfishness is among the chief causes of melancholy. A man persuades himself that he will not live long, or that his prospects in this world or the next are gloomy; or he takes views as absurdly far- reaching as those of the spinsters in the old tale, who wept over the hypothetical fate of the child one of them might have had if she had been married. Now, there is a certain melancholy not unbecoming a man; indeed, to be without it is hardly to be human. Here we do find ourselves, indeed, like the shipwrecked mariner on the isle of Pascal's apologue; all around us are the unknown seas, all about us are the indomitable and eternal processes of generation and corruption. "We come like water, and like wind we go." Life is, indeed, as the great Persian says--


   "A moment's halt, a momentary taste
   Of being from the well beside the waste."


These just causes of melancholy and of awe have presented themselves to all reflective men at all times. They deeply affect the thought, so wholesome and so human, of Homer. They express themselves in that old English pagan's allegory of the bird that flies from the dark into the warm and lighted hall, and from the hall into the dark again. Not to be capable of these reflections is to be incapable of tasting the noblest poetry. Such thoughts actually give zest to our days, and sharpen our enjoyment of that which we have only a brief moment to enjoy. Such thoughts add their own sweetness and sadness to the song of the nightingale, to the fall of the leaves, to the coming of the spring. Were we "exempt from eld and age," this noble melancholy could never be ours, and we, like the ancient classical gods, would be incapable of tears. What Prometheus says in Mr. Bridge's poem is true--


            "Not in heaven,
   Among our easy gods, hath facile time
   A touch so keen to wake such love of life
   As stirs the frail and careful being of Man."


Such are the benefits of Melancholy, when she is only an occasional guest, and is not pampered or made the object of devotion. But Melancholy, though an excellent companion for an hour, is the most exacting and depressing of mistresses. The man who gives himself up to her, who always takes too long views, who broods on the future of this planet when the sun has burned out, is on the high-way to madness. The odds are that he does not travel all the way. He remains a self-tormented wretch, highly profitable to his medical man, and a frightful nuisance to his family. Now, there are, of course, cases in which this melancholy has physical causes. It may come of indigestion, and then the remedy is known. Less dining out (indeed, no one will ask the abjectly melancholy man out) and more exercise may be recommended. The melancholy man had better take to angling; it is a contemplative pastime, but he will find it far from a gloomy one. The sounds and sights of nature will revive and relieve him, and, if he is only successful, the weight of a few pounds of fish on his back will make him toss off that burden which poor Christian carried out of the City of Destruction. No man can be melancholy when the south wind blows in spring, when the soft, feathery March-browns flit from the alders and fall in the water, while the surface boils with the heads and tails of trout.

Perhaps, on the other hand, the melancholy one lives too much in the country. Then let him go to Paris or Vienna; let him try the Palais Royal, and spend a good deal of money in the shops. A course of this might have cured even Obermann, whom there was nothing to check or divert while he kept philandering on the mountains with the snows and his woes. There are plenty of such cures for a melancholy not yet incurable; change of air, scene, food, amusement, and occupation being the best. True, the Romans tried this, as Seneca and Lucretius tells us, and found themselves as much bored as ever. "No easier nor no quicker passed th' impracticable hours." But the Romans were very extreme cases.

When the cause of melancholy is religious or moral, there is little to be done with the victim. In "Sartor Resartus" he will read how Mr. Carlyle cured himself, if ever he was cured. To be brief, he said, "What then, who cares?" and indeed, in more reverent form of expression, it is all that can be said. When Nicias addressed the doomed and wasted remnant of the Athenian expedition to Syracuse, he told them that "others, too, being men, had borne things which had to be endured." That is the whole philosophy of the matter.


Andrew Lang