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October 2005 Message from Dan

Greetings Readers, Friends, and Other Visitors:

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina (and of her whifflepoof sister Rita) as well as in the wake of the political storm and pious posturing that have followed the real storm, not to mention the revelations of staggering incompetence (mostly on local and state leadership levels where the wages of patronage-politics-as-usual is death), I find I’m moved to discuss with you such cheery topics (and the subjects of recent readings of mine) as the Black Death of the 14th Century, the Johnstown Flood of 1889, Abraham Lincoln’s lifetime melancholia, the relationship of great creativity and leadership to such melancholy natures, the very real possibility that our current American cultural obsession with status-quo happiness and constant optimism (especially as guide to choosing our leaders) is a form of mental illness, and a certain laboratory experiment that took place in 1979.

Let’s start with the experiment.

In a landmark 1979 controlled psychology experiment, Lyn Abramson and Lauren Alloy set up a simple game-show-like situation in their laboratory where subjects were placed in front of a panel that looked rather like the starship control boards on the first-season Star Trek shows – i.e. they held only a green light, a yellow light, and a single spring-loaded button.

The subjects were instructed to try to make the green light flash as frequently as possible. In one trial, the subjects won money each time they caused the green light to flash. In another, the same subjects lost money when they didn’t. After the “game,” the subjects were interviewed about how much control they had over making the green light flash.

Their answers, as one might expect, differed according to certain variables. Mostly, it depended upon whether they were winning or losing money. When they were winning, all the subjects thought they had quite a bit of control. Most rated their control between 60 and 65 on a scale where 0 indicated no control at all and 100 indicated total control.

When they were losing, the subjects felt that they had little or no control.

In other words, the subjects – who were in a group that Abramson and Alloy labeled as “normal,” meaning that the main thing they had in common was no history of depressive mental illness – took credit for the good scores and handed off the blame when their scores were poor.

Then Abramson and Alloy sent Igor out to find some “abnormal brains” – i.e. subjects whose one common shared experience was a history of serious depression.

After playing the same game for real money, in both its variations, these depressed subjects – to a man and woman – had different responses when debriefed. It didn’t matter whether they’d been winning or losing; these abnormal-brain people believed that they had no control at all. They didn’t even believe the spring-loaded button was hooked up to anything most of the time.

They were correct, of course. The “game” was a fiction. Abramson and Alloy had been carefully limiting the amount of real control and dishing out “wins” and “losses” themselves. Ask not for whom the green light flashes, it flashes for the guys wearing white lab coats there behind the one-way mirror.

In the new book LINCOLN’S MELANCHOLY by Joshua Wolf Shenk, the author quotes the science writer Kyla Dunn on the implications of this experiment:

“Previously, depressed people were believed to be drawing conclusions about themselves and their experiences that were unrealistically distorted towards the negative. Yet as this research suggests, one cognitive symptom of depression may be the loss of optimistic, self-enhancing biases that normally protect healthy people against assaults to their self-esteem. In many instances, depressives may simply be judging themselves and the world much more accurately than non-depressed people and finding it not a pretty place.”

Let’s let the implications of this statement on implications sink in for a minute.

Could it be possible that people who have chosen to live in a city that lies as much as 15 feet below the level of the water surrounding it – including the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi River, and a huge lake – and who have created a political structure dedicated to siphoning off money approved to improve such non-immediate-gratification infrastructure things as levees and wetlands and pumping stations for five decades and more – have little right to shout they that are “Shocked! Do you hear me? Shocked!” to discover that water flows in when their luck finally runs out, long after odds suggested it should, and the tip of a Level 4 hurricane finally taps their city and floods it?

Could it be possible that city and state planners who act as if “mandatory evacuation” means “hey, dude, if you’re in the mood to go, go, if not, cool” and who fail even to begin to act on their own emergency plans for providing vehicles to transport the poor and elderly and ill – and who then invite more than 19,000 of these poorest, least-self-enabling people in the nation to come huddle in their Superdome with no plans to feed them or provide air conditioning or sanitary facilities or security – have little right to scream “get off your asses” and “where the hell are you?” to either the federal government or the rest of the nation two days later?

Could it be possible that the mayor who told Oprah Winfrey – that arbiter of all things literary and moral and compassionate in America – that “They have people standing out there, have in that . . . Superdome for five days watching dead bodies, watching hooligans killing people, raping people” might have some explaining to do when the coroner and saner authorities later report that there were no murders in either the Superdome or Convention Center?

Could it be possible that New Orleans Superintendent of Police Eddie Compass – later “self-evacuated” (to use his and Mayor Nagin’s favorite term) from his own position – was stuffed absolutely full of wild blueberry muffins when he announced on Sept. 1 that “We have individuals who are getting raped; we have individuals who are getting beaten [in the Superdome and convention center]?” Follow-up investigations showed no such occurrences.

Nor did the media in the aftermath of Katrina show much restraint or professional discipline. It’s one thing to watch “reporters” such as Anderson Cooper or Geraldo Rivera or even Shep Smith break down and go buggy on camera after several days of standing on an overpass – but at one point I watched Geraldo, whom my daughter once described as “someone who’s always trick or treating at the dark houses,” grab a 10-month-old baby from its mother and thrust it at the camera lens and, while weeping, shout, “Here! What it’s about!! Baby! Baby!”

As we know now, the media rarely heard a story of wretched excess during this real tragedy that they took time to confirm before erroneously reporting –

  • there were 10,000 or more dead bodies in flooded New Orleans (Mayor Nagin’s statement soon taken as Gospel . . . the actual number will be in the low hundreds)
  • in the Superdome there were children with slit throats, women dragged off and raped, corpses piling up like cordwood in the basement and – Mayor Nagin’s coup de grâce to Oprah – “babies being raped.”
  • according to an Ottawa newspaper, trigger-happy National Guardsmen gunned down one man simply seeking help. Nothing like that happened. The Associated Press picked up the story and ran with it

And everywhere the absolute outrage at the federal government in general and at “Bush” in particular. The Europeans know – and crowed about it in the press and official government announcements in France and Germany – that Bush had not only been incompetent in his reaction to Katrina and racist in his disregard for victims but had actually caused the devastation – the hurricane itself – by not signing the Kyoto Protocol.

When the green light doesn’t flash enough, it has to be someone’s fault. Nothing can be out of our control. Gambling casinos lined up for 30 miles like fat dominoes with their rear exits ten feet from the Gulf of Mexico have a God-given right to be there forever.

Many city residents who ignored a “mandatory evacuation order” – given in a bored monotone by a mayor whom one pundit succinctly described as “exhibiting the oddest extremes of detachment and agitation” – immediately after the flood began looting plasma TVs, electronics, sneakers, clothing, leaving nothing behind (besides their own shucked off clothing) in one Wal-Mart, according to its manager after the disaster, “except all the Country and Western CDs. If someone wants a Shania Twain CD, we can accommodate them.”

Are we to evaluate this as normal behavior given chaos and tragedy and flooding? If so, how are we to explain the massive flooding in the Midwest in the early 90’s when such cities as Des Moines IA, Lawrence KS, Hannibal MO, Quincy IL, and other cities were flooded and the residents turned out by the thousands to help one another until serious state and federal assistance arrived – sometimes weeks later – and during which there were almost no incidents of looting? Townspeople in one community along the Missouri or other tributaries would – after they sandbagged up their own makeshift levees and provided for their own temporarily homeless – move on to another town like Hannibal to help them fight the floods back and rescue and evacuate their people.

Perhaps the moral here is not WHO IS TO BE BLAMED FOR THIS? but rather the habitual melancholic’s view of “Most of the time events are not under our control” – only our reaction to events is.


I’d read all books by David McCullough except his first attempt at history (McCullough was not trained as an historian), THE JOHNSTOWN FLOOD, published in 1968. Part of me was worried that McCullough’s freshman attempt at history would not be as well-written or researched as his other books that have given me so much pleasure over the years since I first read THE GREAT BRIDGE in the early 1970’s (I’d bought it as a Christmas gift for my future father-in-law, a civil engineer, and glanced at the first page and sat down and read it straight through in two days before wrapping it as a present. I make it a policy never to read the actual physical books I’ve bought for others but this was a glorious exception and immediately turned me into a McCullough-addict.)

The week before Katrina hit, with the storm still building in the Atlantic, I decided THE JOHNSTOWN FLOOD might be an appropriate thing to read. (I remembered that New Orleans is under surrounding water levels and has been stripped of its protective bayous and wetlands, even if it sometimes slips Mayor Nagin’s mind. But of course, as he said when a reporter questioned the wisdom of sending more than 50% of the New Orleans police force off to Las Vegas for R&R while the emergency was still ongoing (50% that is, of the approximately 50% that consistently showed up for duty during the crisis), “New Orleans is a party town. Get over it.”)

Johnstown, Pennsylvania, in the 19th Century was no party town. It was a steel mill town in a steel-mill valley and was populated primarily by what we now call “working class people” with a growing petit bourgeois middle class atop that trying to provide libraries, classical music, and a veneer of refinement, but even this God-fearing mostly Protestant middle-American middle class had their fates tied to the local steel mills.

It was the rich snots like Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and Andrew Mellon who owned shares in the so-called South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club fifteen miles upstream and 450 feet higher in elevation than Johnstown. This “club” included a fine 47-room hotel “clubhouse” and a series of privately owned or leased roughing-it “summer homes” set along an artificially created – by a poorly tended and amateurly mended earthen dam – “Lake Conemaugh.”

The lake – built of, by, and for the pleasure of robber baron millionaires who controlled America’s economy in the late 1800’s and which towered over the long valley of working people like a guillotine for years before the flood – was a marvel for that part of the country: once just a wide stream, it was, in 1889, more than two miles long, covered more than 450 acres, and was almost 70 feet deep in places. The club fleet included 50 rowboats, sailboats, and two cute little steam yachts that chug-chugged their way around the lake all summer with pennants flying and cute smoke pouring from their cute miniature funnels. There was even an electric catamaran built by one of the club’s members, Louis Clarke, who liked to put on a blue sailor’s outfit for his cruises around the lake in front of the richest people in America and their families.

On the afternoon of May 31, 1889, after a spring of relentless rain, the dam gave way and a wall of water ranging from 35 feet high to several hundred feet high (depending upon the width of the valley at any given point) roared down the valley and swept away almost everything in its path.

More than 2,000 people died in a few minutes. Since the population of the valley, including Johnstown and all its adjoining communities, was around 23,000 souls, this is a mortality rate approaching 10%. (An equivalent toll in New Orleans after Katrina would have seen 143,000 dead and missing.)

When the water hit Johnstown proper, it either destroyed and swept away the remnants of every structure – including a massive, 4-story brick hotel which scores of locals ran to for their salvation – or simply swept them off their foundations and into the river that now filled the valley. One little five-year-old girl floated several miles up a flooded tributary on a mattress, was swept all the way back to Johnstown in the backwash, and was saved only when a man who had found temporary safety himself on a rooftop leapt into the waters, swam to her mattress, and flung her to others on yet another floating rooftop.

Scores or hundreds of people survived the flood on some floating structure or the other only to be swept into a debris pile stacked up against a stone railroad bridge that had been spared the full force of the flood. The debris pile, consisting of 15 miles of trees and homes as well as a million tons of Johnstown debris, rose more than 60 feet high and, for a while, created a new dam, recreating “Lake Conemaugh” in the valley where Johnstown had been an hour earlier. Scores more of men, some of them injured and naked from their own brush with the flood, rushed out onto the stone bridge to help the hundreds of trapped people in the debris pile. Holes in the pile were washing some survivors to their deaths downstream like bugs being sucked into a sink drain.

Then the debris pile caught fire.

All night, in the cold rain and tumult, men risked their lives again to rescue the screaming victims in the burning debris pile. A few were pulled out. Most burned to death or chose to drown rather than burn. For weeks, the smell of burning human flesh hung over the valley.

The next morning, the men of the town – all of whom had lost family members and friends and who had spent the long night of terror either standing on the wooded hillside in the freezing rain or huddling in the attic of flooded buildings waiting for the waters to rise more and drown them – met to take command of the situation. There was no communication with the outside world. They immediately elected a “disaster dictator” – not a surviving mayor or sheriff but the man most of them trusted the most to keep his wits about him – and this temporary dictator begin giving orders and creating action committees.

One group of sixty men charged to be “deputies” to prevent looting or disorder promptly went to a flooded canned-tomato factory and punched out sixty silver stars from the tin of cans.

There were no serious problems of looting in Johnstown in the days to come, although when the press arrived – and they came in before even the rescuers and state militia could get there, trailing their own telegraph wire for dispatches as they came – they listened to every drunk and crazy person in town and often published their stories as truth without any effort at confirmation. In these stories going to the outside world, the looters were “Hungarians” – any Eastern European worker brought in to work in the mill towns or on construction projects before or after the flood – and these foreigners were so debased that they killed, raped, and gnawed fingers off corpses to get at gold rings on bloated bodies. McCullough relates – and shows us in illustrations -- how these “Hungarians” were inevitably drawn to look like “cheap stage show bearded Fagins” while the courageous townspeople shooting them down like dogs or hanging them without trials (none of which happened) always somehow looked like “the spitting image of Robert E. Lee.”

The 1880’s being what they were in terms of sentimental treacle (perhaps even ahead of our own day where Diane Feinstein announces that she voted against the nomination of John Roberts for Supreme Court Justice – even after he had met her previously stated criteria for support -- because “in the end he refused to answer my questions as a husband, father, and son would have . . .” and merely answered them as a judge would), the press invented some fascinating tales. My favorite was the three little Johnstown girls playing ring-around-the-rosey (a game created during the Black Death plague years in the 14th Century) when the flood hit – they were wearing their nightgowns at 4 p.m. for some strange reason -- and were found dead many days later still with sweet smiles on their cherubic faces and their fingers still sweetly intertwined.

When a small troop from the state militia arrived from Pittsburgh four or five days after the flood, the recently elected “disaster dictator” turned them back, explaining that the local people needed to handle their own problems so that they wouldn’t dwell too morbidly on their recent losses. (The people changed their minds a few days later and the troops – and Clara Barton in her first major American Red Cross disaster response – helped deal with things for months.)

What’s to be learned in the wake of Katrina from reading about the 1889 Johnstown Flood? Beats the heck out of me, but there do seem to be some powerful insights in there. Perhaps part of it has to do with a people’s outlook on life, death, and disaster in the 19th Century as opposed to the 21st Century.

The most amazing thing to come out of the flood – McCullough acknowledges and looks into – is that while there was no doubt that the human tragedy could be directly traced back to the carelessness of a few dozen millionaires who had hired a non-engineer amateur to “rebuild” their earthen dam for them – not a single lawsuit against the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club succeeded and only a few were filed. Not a single lawsuit was filed against any of the millionaires like Carnegie (who would be the equivalent of a dozen Bill Gateses in terms of wealth today) whose pockets were deep indeed. These guilty multi-millionaires’ names weren’t even mentionedby the press of the day; to do so would be impolite and almost certainly harmful to the economy.

As McCullough wrote – “The more or less agreed-to attitude of Johnstown’s business people was that the flood should be forgotten as soon as possible. There was no sense dwelling on the thing. It was bad for the spirits, and it most certainly was harmful to business.”

Such an attitude, not to mention legal outcome, is such a blatant injustice to our sensibilities today that it should cause a paroxysm of outrage in even the most politically conservative of souls. But McCullough points out how – if today’s cultural perception of fairness, eagerness to sue, and cultural satisfaction at redistributing wealth-through-lawsuits were to have prevailed in the years after the Johnstown flood, resulting in the possible personal and corporate bankrupting of such men as Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and Andrew Mellon – justice, as we perceive it today, might have been better served, but the future industrial and economic power of the United States of America might well have been crippled.

Meanwhile, in 2005, the state of Louisiana alone has already presented a demand to Congress for storm reparations of $250 billion – equaling more than $50,000 for every man, woman, and child in that state – that would come on top of the $62.3 billion that Congress has already appropriated for emergency relief.

Their bill demands $7 billion for rebuilding “evacuation and energy supply routes,” yet also demands a separate $5 billion for road building and makes no mention of the $3.1 billion just rewarded to the state in the recent pork-rich transportation bill.

It also demands $50 billion in “community development block grants” with another $150 billion for small-business loan funds plus generous business tax breaks. (When Hurricane Katrina struck, FEMA and the federal government were in the midst of lawsuits and federal indictments in an attempt to recoup up to $30 million in Homeland Security funds that had been misdirected, diverted to non-security local political patronage, or outright stolen by state Louisiana legislators and the same state Homeland Security director who turned back supply buses during the second day of the televised Superdome crisis “because we don’t want those people to think they can stay there.”)

The bill asks for $35 million for seafood marketing and $25 million for a sugar-cane research lab. The Washington Post describes this in an editorial as “the equivalent of New York responding to the attacks on the World Trade Center by insisting upon a federally financed stadium in Brooklyn.”


John Kelly’s wonderfully written THE GREAT MORALITY: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time, gives us another glimpse of human reaction to events out of our control.

Our current angst about global climate change, political upheaval, war, natural disaster, and the unexpected Wrath of God descending on us in the shape of creeping Death in the Night is nothing compared to what the poor slobs had to put up with starting around October of 1347.

Most of you reading this know that the only thing comparable in our times to the Black Death – which claimed at least a fourth of the people in most villages, rural areas, and cities in Europe of the 1300’s, but which often killed as many as two-thirds – would have been all-out thermonuclear war.

History suggests that FEMA didn’t do a very good job in 14th Century Europe during the Black Death either. There was no help at all from outside the local village or city or shire or countryside. Usually, “evacuees” were stopped and turned back at town walls and province borders or just killed by those fearing the spread of contagion. Even when the plague hit Avignon, home of the Pope at that time, the best he could do was offer a few masses and processions – which accelerated the infection and death rate, of course – and, slowly, grudgingly, agree to consecrate a larger cemetery for the multitudes of corpses.

One of the most disturbing aspects of what contemporaries in the Middle Ages called “the Great Mortality” was that while most epidemiologists think that it’s a form of today’s Y. pestis plague – essentially bubonic and pneumonic plague – the symptoms, rapidity of its advance (more than 100 times faster than outbreaks of modern plague in the 19th and 20th centuries), and efficiency in its killing are wildly different from any strain of that rat-spread plague we have seen since the advent of modern medicine’s ability to study it.

Was the Black Death version of the plague a mutant virus that might return? Experts don’t know, but one intelligent estimate is that it was an especially virulent version of Y. pestis that has been found for millennia in marmot-like rodents in the Russian steppes – Marco Polo went far out of his way to avoid possible contagion from the deadly little critters – and that the Black Death spread of the “marmot plague” included a mutation where the virus spread as quickly through humans as it does through its marmot vector. We haven’t seen that in the centuries since, but evolution rarely abandons a niche it finds so useful for its chosen life form (not us, but the plague virus in question.)

The hypervirulence of the marmot plague in its present Y. pestis iteration and the potential for 90% and better mortality from a humanized version of it – perhaps the same one that evolved during the first pass of the Black Death – was so attractive to the Soviets, who ran the most advanced and ambitious biological warfare research program on the planet for many decades (and still fund it), that it caused the leader of the USSR’s biological weapons program, Major General Nikolia Urakov, to shout at his research staff – “I only want one strain!” – marmot plague.

Giovanni Boccacio relates this “remarkable story” from Florence:

“One day, the rags of a pauper who had died from the disease were thrown into the street where they attracted the attention of two pigs. In their wonted fashion, the pigs first of all gave the rags a thorough mauling with their snouts, after which they took them between their teeth and shook them against their cheeks. And within a short time, they began to writhe as though they had been poisoned, then they both dropped dead to the ground, spread-eagled upon the rags that had brought about their undoing.”

Countless reliable eyewitnesses of the time – “plague chroniclers” – described how the disease spread just as quickly between human beings. And it took a short time to kill, although every minute of the dying person’s time was spent in agony that led to madness. Some took three days to die, but others were dead within hours. A few recovered. Most people who caught the plague did not. Families and communities were not decimated – that misused word means “reduced by 10%” – but were wiped out.

John Kelly in THE GREAT MORTALITY humanizes that distant time by recounting many first-person tales and putting us into the eyes and minds of people at the time. Human nature being what it is and always has been (only the cultural overlays and obsessions and “conventional wisdoms” change like hair and clothing styles), people looted and cheated and tried to use the worst disaster in European history to their personal advantage. The wars never stopped and the Black Death literally followed the armies like Death personified.

In England, one rotter used the death of his entire neighboring family to steal their slate roof tiles. Another man, when the old woman and her daughter next door died, tried to enlarge his own holdings by moving the property boundaries. Both men were charged in court but both escaped justice because they were dead from the Black Death before the sentence of the court could be administered. Then the judges and bailiffs and lawyers died.

It was the deaths of lawyers and notaries – those who could write up the millions of wills that suddenly needed to be crafted and witnessed and certified – that caused the largest disruption in society.

The relevance of the Black Death years to our recent storms might be found in sections where Kelly looks at why some towns, villages, major cities, shires and provinces continued to function even when 50% or more of their people were dead and why other societies flew to flinders after a much lower death rate.

In France and central and northern Europe, for instance, including the area that is now Switzerland and Germany, the immediate response of the Church, local rulers, and citizenry to sudden misfortune was almost always the same – run out and kill Jews.

Pogroms – an annual ritual anyway in a smaller way, usually brought on by Holy Week – became serious and widespread and followed the plague virus across Europe. In France (and southern France was fairly tolerant, as far as regularly scheduled Jew-killings went), the court and the Church as far back as 1298 had carried out a major pogrom against all lepers in the kingdom, showing irrefutable proof that they had conspired to overthrow the throne and install a “Leper Kingdom.” When plague and pestilence reared its ugly bubos head, King Phillip and the Church advisors discovered that the Jews had really put the lepers up to their efforts – it was, as always, the Jews who were behind everything evil.

Actually, in this case, the Jews – who were promptly slaughtered by the thousands in pogroms, their property confiscated, the survivors banished yet again – turned out to be in the pay of an even wilier enemy of Christiandom, the Mohammedans!

Church experts in the Holy Office of the Inquisition helped “discover” a secret covenant between the Jews, the Muslims, and the lepers. The secret covenant was translated from Hebrew and when Philip V read it, he was horrified – shocked, I tell you, shocked! – to discover that a secret offer had been sent from the Muslim ruler of Jerusalem, through his emissary the viceroy of Islamic Grenada, extending to the Jewish people Islam’s hand of eternal peace and friendship. The reason for this was that the Muslims occupying Palestine had stumbled across the lost Ark of the Old Testament in the Sinai Desert, lying in perfect condition in a ditch. The Muslims, realizing their theological mistakes, were overcome with a desire to be circumcised, convert to Judaism, and return the Holy Land to its rightful owners – the Jews.

The problem, of course, was that this would leave millions of Palestinian Muslims with no place to live. The King of Jerusalem – in this secret document that Philip V was so horrified to read – suggested to the Jewish cabal leaders in France that they give him France in return for the Holy Land.

Logically, the Jews of France concocted a kingdom- and continent-wide well-poisoning plot and hired – who else? – the lepers to carry it out.

This is low comedy and farce except, of course, for the results, which returned with a vengeance when the Black Death arrived. (After all, someone had to be poisoning the wells . . . someone is always to blame for the button not making the green light flash when we want it to.)

“Between the summer of 1348 and 1349, an unknown but large number of European Jews were exterminated. Some were marched into public bonfires, others burned at the stake, still others barbecued on grills or bludgeoned to death, stuffed into empty wine casks and rolled into the Rhine. In some localities, killings were preceded by show trials; in other cases, there were no legal proceedings – sometimes not even an accusation. Jews were killed simply as a prophylactic measure.”

It all sounds sadly familiar, does it not? As I say, human nature changes, if at all, only very, very slowly. It is cultural styles that dictate the manner and rationale for each century’s Final Solution. And while lepers, gays, newcomer ethnic minorities, or other surrogates are sometimes found to expiate our frustration at the green light not flashing when we wish it to, it is the Jews – as even modern Europe continues to show us – that are the most satisfying target.

But some places did not – like New Orleans and most of Europe – fly to flinders and send the human populace turning on itself like a sun-maddened rattlesnake striking venom into its own flesh. There was heroism everywhere, cowardice everywhere, and most everyone – saints and thieves, selfless heroes and skulking selfish noblemen, died alike.

Certain societies continued to function even in the face of overwhelming mortality. Areas of England did well. There were no pogroms. (Well, all right, the kingdom had already tried to expel all its Jews and had seized the property of most remaining ones before the Black Death arrived, but there were still no pogroms.) Much like most of Germany in WWII or London during the Blitz, most of English society –from London to rural estates such as Farnham – kept civilization, such as it was, moving forward.

John Kelly has a theory about why social order survives in the wake of catastrophe in some places and disappears completely even after much slighter disruptions in others:

Social cohesion is a complex phenomenon, but applied gently – with a vast respect for the vast differences in time and place – the Broken Windows theory of human behavior may speak to the relatively low level of upheaval in Black Death England.

The theory, which informs much of modern police work, holds that the physical environment buttresses the psychological environment the way a beam buttresses a roof. Why? Broken windows, dirty streets, abandoned cars, boarded-up storefronts, empty grass-and refuse-covered lots send the message: “No one is in charge here.” And when authority and leadership break down, people become more prone to lawlessness, violence, and despair, in the same way that a defeated army becomes more prone to panic if the officers fail to provide resolute leadership.

England in 1348 and 1349 was hardly free of physical or emotional chaos, but enough John Ronewykes (caretaker of the hard hit but still functioning Farnham estate) stepped forward – to harvest the crops, maintain the land and buildings, keep the records, man the courts – to convey the sense that the country was not slipping into anarchy, that authority was being sustained. Their steady leadership may have helped to sustain order, self-discipline, and lawfulness at a very difficult moment.

The mayor that is most known – and infamous at the time – for rigorously applying the Broken Windows theory to cleaning up a major American city approaching social chaos in some areas was Rudy Giuliani, and he was mocked, opposed, and pilloried for it at the time by the majority of the city’s sophisticated elite. But the New York City when he left office was a remarkably more human and civilized place – even with the tragedy of 9/11 – than it had been for most of the decades I’d visited it from the 1960’s on. And Giuliani himself seemed to be the perfect person to take charge in the hours and days after the attack on the World Trade Center, showing through his blunt, truthful statements and strong leadership that the city “was not slipping into anarchy, that authority was being sustained.”

History may record that New Orleans at its time of trial did not comport itself with the same steady resolve, nor benefit from the same quality of leadership. With a serious portion of its police force fleeing, with neither local nor state leaders asserting authority, and with some serious portion of its remnant population showing real signs of anarchy and lawlessness, there was a vacuum there that chaos loves to move into. But, as Mayor Nagin said, “This is a party town. Get over it.”


I know you’re convinced by now that I’ve long forgotten the 1979 Abramson-Alloy experiment and the entire subject of melancholia or their possible links to Abraham Lincoln or the aftermath of Katrina.

Or perhaps I haven’t.

I’ve confessed in these little web site essay pages that the bulk of my reading in recent years, well, recent decades, has been in history and biographies. But an honest look at those historical figures I am most interested in and to whom I return again and again in different biographies and primary-source accounts include such people as – Mark Twain, Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, Ernest Hemingway, Sir Thomas More, William Shakespeare, Meriwether Lewis, Leonardo da Vinci, Emily Dickinson, Franz Kafka, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Teddy Roosevelt, Buster Keaton, Charles Chaplin, Robert Oppenheimer, Robert Kennedy, Herman Melville, Robert Frost, and John Keats. There are others, but this gives a sense of what I’m talking about.

(I’ll state here that I recognize that there is only one woman on my otherwise exclusive list of Dead White Males. Very sexist. So sue me. This is my list.)

What most of these disparate individuals tend to have in common (I realized after decades of my interest in them with no apparent criteria for choosing them) is a life that was filled with melancholy and with serious – and sometimes frequent – bouts of melancholia. (When one’s outlook on the universe is very gloomy, one has – in the language of the 19th Century and following the 4-humours theory of Aristotle – a melancholic disposition. When that melancholy so overpowers you that you can’t function and seriously consider seeking escape through suicide, the disposition of melancholy shifts to melancholia, the “ia” indicating disease.)

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll admit that I’ve always enjoyed a melancholic disposition. That is, the healthy sense that life (and the universe) is essentially a bitch and then you die (and that’s aallll, folks). It is what Freud called “the Reality Principle” and it has been with me since I was a child. More to the pleasant part of melancholy, I’ve always found beauty in autumnal light and in what the Japanese call the aesthetic ofV wabi and sabi– the touch of sadness in a fallen leaf or of moss on a long-dead tree or in the shadow of a bamboo leaf thrown by the moon and never to be seen just that way again, the extra touch of beauty that sadness in the absolute knowledge of the absolute tyranny that time gives things, like wrinkles on an old person’s face, coupled with the sense of loss in every wonderful second that can never be recaptured or relived.

That’s a tendency toward an aesthetic of pleasant melancholy.

Melancholia is when it bites you in the ass, when you can’t sleep for weeks, when your thoughts turn against you and you can’t shut them off, and when you not only consider suicide but act on it in a way that should ensure that the mental racket stops forever (but perhaps are spared by a deus ex machina that you, if you happen to be a novelist, would never in a million years put in a work of fiction.)

That’s the end of the full disclosure.

Lincoln was a deeply melancholy man who suffered severe bouts of near-self-murderous active melancholia. Joshua Wolf Shenk in LINCOLN’S MELANCHOLY gives a powerful argument that Lincoln never really “overcame” this melancholy, to use our current way of thinking, but used it to fuel his greatness. The same could be said of Mark Twain, Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemingway, John Keats . . . hell, almost my entire list.

Churchill, who assumed the office of prime minister in 1939 at the age of 65 right at the outbreak of the war with Hitler, was the man the nation turned to – after he had been spurned for decades as an obsolete old fossil and an alarmist – precisely because of the melancholic clarity of his vision for those decades of his political exile. He, like Lincoln, was a man who saw things clearly because of his clear, non-optimistic view of the nature of the world and the present situation – his depressive, melancholic view, if you prefer – and who was the perfect melancholic optimist for a time when all the happy-happy “peace in our time has been guaranteed by this slip of paper” optimists had been shown to be blind.

Churchill – who called his deepest spells of melancholia his “Black Dogs” (Lincoln had his “blues” or “blue devils,” Kafka his “mice”) – had saved himself from suicide by discovering landscape painting, constant labour, the right wife, and duty, duty, duty, duty. He was never more engaged and less melancholic than during the darkest days of WWII.

Contrary to many trite histories, Lincoln’s deepest melancholia did not arise from the Civil War nor was it assuaged by his duty and sacrifice during the war, nor was the melancholy driven deeper to melancholia primarily by the death of his beloved son Willie (and his wife was more aggravation than salvation), but as the melancholia deepened in those final years and became so etched on that most American of American faces, so did the resolve to duty and to ambition and to achieving the impossible – the end of slavery to which he’d devoted his energies so many years before, seizing on it as an almost impossible goal that would keep him occupied throughout his life.

Why do we need melancholics to move us forward through their leadership, wit, dark humor, creative ability, poetic insights, and the force of their serious personality?

Herman Melville, Lincoln’s contemporary and fellow melancholic, wrote:

“The intensest light of reason and revelation combined can not shed such blazonings upon the deeper truths in man, as will sometimes proceed from his own profoundest gloom. Utter darkness is then his light, and cat-like he distinctly sees all objects through a medium which is mere blindness to the common vision.”

In preparation for the novel I’m currently trying to finish, THE TERROR, I reread Melville’s MOBY DICK and was struck by some wording on the first page where the first-person narrator Ishmael explains his periodic decisions to give up the comforts of life on land and take to the sea and ships –

“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off – then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball.”

What caught my attention this time was the archaic word “hypos.” This rang a vague bell but Shenk in LINCOLN’S MELANCHOLY had to show me where I’d repeatedly bumped into that word before in such a context.

In a letter in the spring of 1837, Lincoln referred to the prospect of some old friends leaving the area. “That gives me the hypo,” he wrote, “whenever I think of it.” Lincoln was using “hypo” as Melville later did, abbreviating the term “hypochondriasis” which referred to a disease similar to melancholia. Lincoln also called these event- or climate-triggered deep depressions “the hyp” or “hypos.” At the time in the early 1800’s, it was looked at not only as an illness but as an affliction similar to abulia and acedia, the “paralysis of all will through sadness” that William James wrote about and which Christians in the Middle Ages considered a deadly sin.

I mentioned Buster Keaton and his visage was no less magisterially sad than Abraham Lincoln’s. With Keaton – a true film genius who wrote, directed, produced, starred in, and did the stunt work in his finest films (as did Chaplin, who also wrote the musical scores) – the sad face was seen as a schtick, a sad-clown persona so powerful that he was known as The Great Stone Face, but the melancholia beneath the façade of melancholia was real enough. It’s only a minor irony that Keaton’s greatest film and one of cinema’s masterpieces, “The General,” was such a box office disaster that it lost Keaton his studio, his wealth, and his independence.

I almost envy you if you haven’t seen the movie for the first time yet, but most of you know the plot – the “great locomotive chase” where Keaton is a rejected suitor at the beginning of the Civil War because the Confederate Army will not accept him, not just because he’s a little schlump but because he’s too good a civilian train engineer to waste as cannon fodder. His girlfriend leaves him, thinking him a coward for not enlisting. But then Yankee raiders steal both his train and his girlfriend and head north and Keaton leaps onto the next available train and gives solo chase deep into Yankee territory, eventually returning his locomotive and saving the girl.

It was a brilliant film, a true epic, infinitely more morally true than “Birth of a Nation” and howlingly funny at the same time. Why did the audiences and critics hate it? Why did it ruin Keaton’s career?

Audiences in 1927 were not ready for Keaton’s sophisticated mix of tragedy and comedy. In a huge battle scene, Buster – in a borrowed Confederate officer’s uniform three times too large for him – is trying to “be an officer” by commanding a small secesh artillery battery. Each time he points out a target, a Yankee sniper on a nearby hillside kills a man at the guns. Keaton, in a pure melancholic’s reasoning, is sure that he’s somehow killing the men just by pointing at the enemy. Soon he’s the only man near the guns left alive and, not having a clue as to how to fire cannons, he prepares to charge the Yankees single-handed. But, of course, he cannot get the officer’s borrowed sword out of the borrowed scabbard – the physical comedy of him wrestling with it and his belt is perfect – and when it does finally come free, the blade goes flying off into the air and leaves Keaton holding only the hilt.

But true to tragi-comedy’s logic, the swordblade also happens to come down at random and kill the Yankee sniper, thus allowing the artillery to regroup, the Confederate cavalry to take the hill, and the battle to be won.

Audiences weren’t ready for this and they rejected it. A man dying as humor? Slipping on a banana peel, sure, but dying? A noble battle being reduced to physical farce and random chance? A hero not having control over his own fate?

Keaton in the late 1920’s, Keats in his poetry in the early 1800’s, Churchill in the political wilderness in the 1930’s, Mark Twain attacking lynching in the South during his latest, most depressed, most bitter years, Abraham Lincoln during the darkest days of the Civil War – all of them were far ahead of most of their audiences (Lincoln’s audience being the citizens of the United States of America) – in their Hobbesian understanding that “life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” And therefore, of course, frequently funny.

In my current novel I follow a true historical figure, commander of the HMS Terror Captain Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier, who disappeared with the rest of the John Franklin Naval Expedition seeking to find the North-West Passage in 1845. Crozier was a melancholic figure. He had reason to be. Because he’d been born in Ireland and was a Presbyterian rather than a member of the C of E, he would never be a true English gentleman, never – despite his deep experience (he had been the first to reach and see Antarctica along with James Clark Ross) – be appointed to a rank above captain or be chosen to lead an expedition. He was also rejected by the one love of his life – a late love since Crozier was already in his 50’s – the beautiful young niece of Sir John Franklin, Sophia Cracroft. She laughed at his earnest proposal and told Crozier that she’d rather wait for a gentleman such as Sir James Clark Ross, who had just married another pretty young thing.

My curiosity about Crozier is much as the same as my curiosity about Lincoln, Churchill, Twain, Hemingway and the rest – how did they turn their deep and sometimes debilitating melancholia and view of life as ferocious and sinister into a burning flame of ambition? How did they convert sadness to serious discipline? How and why did they not ignore or simply seek to assuage the pain, but harness it to achieve seemingly impossible deeds?

One of Crozier’s responses to melancholia, like Churchill and Hemingway, was to drink heavily and often. He was Irish after all. (Relax – I can say that because I’m half Irish.)

But, in my novel at least, Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier also diverts those decades of melancholia pain into the single, hot-burning blue flame of a will to survive against seemingly impossible odds.

And in my novel, when Captain Crozier is forced into leading Sunday “Divine Services” aboard ship – he is no true believer, to say the least – he sometimes amuses himself by reading from Thomas Hobbes’s THE LEVIATHAN. Most of Crozier’s crew on my fictional H.M.S. Terror are convinced that the Book of Leviathan their captain reads to them from time to time is a fascinating and previously undiscovered book of the Bible. Crozier does nothing to disillusion them. When they finally have to abandon ship and take to the ice, they name five of the heavy whaleboats and cutters they’re dragging across the ice Solitary, Poor, Nasty, Brutish, and Short.


One question we might ask ourselves in the face of our global, national, and political problems these days, is – When exactly and why exactly did we make it impossible for a leader like Lincoln to be elected to serious public office in our age?

If you doubt that Lincoln would be ruled out for a run for the presidency these days, sober up. First, of course, there’s the fact that Lincoln was a nobody with only one year of high school education and a political record that consisted of one highly unsuccessful term in the House of Representatives. Besides his melancholic and decidedly non-mediagenic appearance, there is his medical history (and the press would clamor for all private medical reports to be made public since, in the parlance of the mob’s and press’s rights which overwean all others, “the public has a right to know!”)

Lincoln, even as a young man in his 20’s, had suffered such melancholia – and talked about it openly enough with friends – that those friends went on active suicide watches, hiding guns and knives from young Abe. He had frequently discussed the possibility of suicide. He had acted like a cad with women – on several occasions – the best known of which was when he cancelled his engagement with Mary Todd for no known reason. He had suffered several nervous breakdowns which had left him unfit for work or human company.

If Abraham Lincoln were even a presidential primary candidate today, the all-news-all-the-time cable channels would be filled with “medical experts” explaining that the poor man was a victim of Marfan syndrome – a genetic disorder that diminishes the strength of connective tissue and ultimately destroys the integrity of bodily structures ranging from tendons to heart valves. People with this genetic disorder tend to be tall and thin with elongated limbs way out of proportion to their bodies. This syndrome often leads to other physical problems in middle and later age that cause an early death. Some of the “experts” would cite one study that suggests that sufferers of Marfan syndrome frequently are depressed – although whether the depression is caused by the disease or comes from the disease – or whether there is no real correlation at all – no one knows.

Then the experts would come on with long explanations of bipolar disorder . . . (which Lincoln did not have. His depression was straight depression; there were no signs of the manic jags or mood swings associated with what we used to call manic depression and now more gently and obfuscatingly label as bipolar disease.) (I suspect that my character Captain Crozier had bipolar disease since he led expeditions to both the south and north poles.) (Sorry.)

Worst of all – the kiss of death in modern politics – is the fact that Abraham Lincoln (according to his own wife!) was not a Christian. He didn’t even have Joe Lieberman’s excuse of piety in a different avenue of belief. Odds are that – at least when he ran for the presidency – Abraham Lincoln didn’t believe in any sort of personal God. The electorate in his day, even at the height of the Second Great Awakening, had the decency not to poke and pry into his beliefs. Today an atheist running for the presidency would be the cause of endless perseveration and pontificating by every cynical pundit on television and from ten thousand pulpits as well.

Anyway, Lincoln would not have a chance of surviving the “character issue” aspect of today’s political scrutiny. Nor would his medical records allow him to be elected. (To be fair, such current media scrutiny of medical records and the day-to-day health of presidents, much less candidates, would have prevented JFK and FDR from ever serving in office, or at least serving without an uproar of concern.)

Oddly enough, this terrible fear of a little serious melancholia in one’s leaders was not always the trend. Most people in most past eras thought that a little melancholic disposition in the face of the world’s obvious terrors gave a leader the needed gravitas and proper mental disposition to face the next catastrophe. Washington had it. Pericles had it. Lincoln personified it.

This cultural obsession with finding leaders who are eternally happy and terminally optimistic is a fairly new idiocy. When President Woodrow Wilson had his stroke in 1919 – his aides (and his wife, who secretly ran the nation for weeks) – were more afraid of a public perception of physical weakness than of a psychological breakdown. The banner headline in the New York Times the next day read: PRESIDENT SUFFERS NERVOUS BREAKDOWN, TOUR CANCELED; SPEEDING BACK TO WASHINGTON FOR A NEEDED REST.

By 1972, when George McGovern’s pick for vice-presidential candidate, Thomas Eagleton, admitted – after joining the ticket – that he had on three occasions received in-patient psychiatric treatment for depression and – horror of horrors! – twice been treated with electroconvulsive therapy (“electroshock”), Eagleton’s political future was dead. McGovern called a press conference that very day announcing that he stood behind his veep choice “1000%” – which is presidential candidate talk for “he’s dead meat, we’re looking through other resumés as I speak.”

The next year, when Spiro Agnew got the boot from the real office of VP for the sin of being a total failure as a human being (and a thief as well) and Nixon appointed Gerald Ford as his replacement vice-president during the height of Watergate (choosing Ford, we know now, because Nixon thought that having such a mediocre #2 would dissuade Congress from impeaching him, Nixon) – word began to circulate that Ford had – gasp! – seen a psychotherapist.

“Consulting a psychiatrist or psychotherapist,” the New York Times noted at the time, “is still an unforgivable sin for an American politician.”

Has that changed in 35 years? I would suspect that the sin would be even less forgivable today.

Consulting born-again Christian ministers, on the other hand, to get help changing one’s life and correcting one’s character weaknesses – as Bill Clinton so publicly did during the depths of the Monica mess and George Bush spoke frequently and publicly about while describing defeating his own drinking problem – is not only acceptable but laudable.

William James, a melancholic who admitted to simply folding up like a cheap accordion for six years during his first major bout with “a crisis of the will arising from sadness,” discussed in his The Varieties of Religious Experience how religion – usually through the repetition-rituals of prayer and repentance – has always been a primary source of relief for Lincoln’s type of personality in a life dogged by doubt and discord.

Alcoholics Anonymous has shown how this really works in changing bad habits – that is, surrendering one’s will to a “Higher Power” (it doesn’t really matter what sort of Higher Power – God, Jesus, Allah, Buddha, Vishnu, Karl Marx, Adolf Hitler, Harmonic Convergence, or the late-night infomercial guru who guarantees turning you into a millionaire). And I will not even comment here on my dear friend and retired sociology professor Dr. Daniel Peterson who sometimes rides his Harley while wearing the t-shirt with the legend on the back – AA IS FOR QUITTERS.

Do I digress? Very well then, I digress. Will I ever end this thing? It remains to be seen.


Elizabeth Keckly -- Mary Lincoln’s dressmaker -- was a snoop.

In the summer of 1863, not long after the Battle of Gettysburg, (which was technically a Union victory, but –as Abraham Lincoln immediately saw – was a disaster in the sense that General Meade had not immediately pursued Lee’s Army of Virginia, which was trapped at the Potomac River whose rising waters had wrecked his pontoon bridges. Meade dallied, Lee escaped with most of his army intact, and the bloody war was doomed to go on for more years), Keckly was fitting Mary Lincoln for yet another dress when she saw the president drag himself into the room.

“His step was slow and heavy, and his face sad,” Keckly recalled. “Like a tired child he threw himself upon a sofa, and shaded his eyes with his hands. He was a complete picture of dejection.”

Besides the carnage and ultimate failure at Gettysburg, recent events had included the worst riots in American history starting that July 13th, the New York Draft Riots where Irish immigrants burned and looted and sacked much of the city, focusing their murderous wrath mostly on blacks. The Colored Orphan Asylum in New York had been burned to the ground.

The day of Mary Lincoln’s fitting, the president had just returned from the War Department where, he said, the news was “dark, dark, everywhere.” The dressmaker relates that Lincoln then took a small Bible from a stand near the sofa and began to read.

“A quarter of an hour passed,” she remembered, “and on glancing at the sofa the face of the President seemed more cheerful. The dejected look was gone, and the countenance was lighted up with new resolution and hope.”

What was the president reading in the Bible that so cheered him up? Proverbs? One of the more hopeful Gospels?

Inquiring minds want to know. So Elizabeth Keckly pretended to drop something so that she could tiptoe over and peek over Lincoln’s shoulder.

He was reading the Book of Job.

Well, of course. What cheerier reading is there for a serious melancholic than a story where God – to settle an argument with Satan about Job, his faithful servant who was experiencing a pretty good run of luck – allows Satan to take away Job’s possessions, kill his children, and afflict him with boils?

Job – a hero of mine as well – after an initial attempt to stay pious and humble, finally refuses to take these cosmic kicks in the ass without knowing the reason why and demands a personal meeting with God, during which he says, essentially, “You’re God, all right, fine, you have to parcel out a little misery to each of us. You have the power and probably the reason to do so. But this daily shitstorm . . . this seriously sucks. It’s stupid and over the top and it reeks of being . . . arbitrary! Even for someone named God.” * (*translation from the NewDan Bible, © 2005 by Dan Simmons)

God then rewards Job not for his groveling piety and humility in the face of life’s shitstorms, but for getting worked up about it and demanding the truth and seeking answers to the tough questions.


You ask, why was Mayor Nagin insisting that New Orleaneans start returning to the city even while it was largely underwater and had no city services and no electricity and no hospitals open and toxic sewage drifting everywhere and with the new hurricane, Rita, gathering power in the Gulf? Mayor Nagin answered that testily – “ . . . so that people can get closure.”

Of all the insipid, banal, says-nothing, knows-nothing catch phrases of this Brave New Age of insipid catch-phrases, I think I hate “the need for closure” and “to get closure” the most.

What the hell exactly is closure in the face of deep personal loss and tragedy and the inevitable disaster that will touch most of our lives? Being allowed in to stare at the wreckage? Taking a pill and getting over it?

Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for pills when called for. In my opinion, antidepressants rate right up there with penicillin and the Apple I-Pod in the pantheon of Science’s Greatest Gifts to Humanity. I agree with St. Augustine when he wrote that “The only real sin is human pain” and mental anguish is human pain in one of its worst forms.

The secret that melancholics who’ve suffered the full hurricane-force winds of melancholia understand is that it’s not the sadness that kills you, it’s the incessant thinking. It’s the thoughts that keep you awake for weeks and make you consider suicide, not the gloominess per se. As William Stryon, whose Darkness Visible helped kickstart much of the current openness about what we distantly call “clinical depression,” wrote of the experience, saying that such continuous depression is like a storm in the brain, punctuated by a thunder of self-critical, fearful, despairing thoughts – one clap following another in an endless night.”

Abraham Lincoln understood this distinction. In 1842, while writing to a friend who was in the midst of a severe depression of his own, Lincoln wrote of “the intensity of thought, which will some times wear the sweetest idea thread-bare and turn it to the bitterness of death.”

William James went into his crisis-of-will tailspin as a young man shortly after seeing a production of Hamlet. I would suggest that the play may be the ultimate exposition on the pain of a mind that cannot shut itself off or find even a pause in its incessant thinking about thinking.

Harold Bloom, a literary critic I’ve enjoyed for years because of his enthusiasm for literature (despite his recent arrogance and petty surliness in criticizing a National Book Award lifetime achievement award for Stephen King), always lectured his students that Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy – “To be or not to be” – is most definitely not a discussion of suicide. I think Bloom is wrong here. The entire play, in all of its near-infinite clarity and near-infinite ambiguity, holds at its center a mind seeking to escape its own profound consciousness so that one simple, lousy, but necessary violent act can be performed.

. . . .. To die – to sleep,
No more, and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to: ‘tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
To sleep, perchance to dream --- ay, there’s the rub:
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause ---
. . . .
Thus does conscience make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action.

Hamlet knew in his own particular hell of “crisis of will” – as the shade of Achilles explained to a living Odysseus in the shadowed halls of Hades – that life without will and action is no life at all, is in truth the ultimate anti-life. And the enemy to both will and action to Hamlet and to so many others was “conscience” which did not and does not – a million mediocre English teachers be damned – mean someone’s sense of right and wrong, but, as Shakespeare and his day used the word, meant “consciousness.” Thinking. Incessant, unstoppable thinking.

In recent years it’s come to light that it’s probable that Abraham Lincoln anonymously published a poem in a local newspaper in 1842. Titled “The Suicide’s Soliloquy,” the conceit being that the poem was found near the bones of an apparent suicide in the southern Illinois woods. It shows Lincoln’s (if it is Lincoln’s writing, and the formal argument and syntax, tone, and references are characteristic of his other writing) Hamlet-like wrestling with this urge to silence a melancholic’s tortuous cycle of thoughts –

To ease me of this power to think,
That through my bosom raves,
I’ll headlong leap from hell’s high brink
And wallow in its waves.

All right, I grant you, that is a need for closure. And one, I would argue, which is almost always better honored in the breach than in the observance.

Let’s close by returning to the Abramson-Alloy experiment of 1979 and its possible implications.

One psychology textbook states clearly, “The perception of reality is called mentally healthy when what the individual sees corresponds to what is actually there.”

All right. Good. By that definition – and even through research – the corollary to this is that happiness itself could be and should be considered a mental disorder. (One thinks of Candide’s upbeat tutor, Dr. Pangloss, who believed that this is “the best of all possible worlds” right up to the moments the residents of Lisbon, which had just been visited by Europe’s worst earthquake ever, lit the fire to burn him alive. They had grown tired of stupidly grinning optimists.)

Lauren Alloy wrote – “We have a tendency to regard people in their ordinary moods as rational information processors, relatively free of systematic bias and distorted judgments.” While, in truth of fact, she goes on, “much research suggests that when they are not depressed, people are highly vulnerable to illusions, including unrealistic optimism overestimation of themselves, and an exaggerated sense of their capacity to control events. The same research indicates that depressed people’s perceptions and judgments are less biased.”

But, hey, this is a party town (and century). Get over it.

Or perhaps we could look for more Lincolns and fewer Nagins and Blancos in our future. But if it’s not “closure” or our current addiction to the eternal sunshine of the spotless mind we want to continue seeking, what perspective about life, death, politics, hope, loss, and disaster could serious (and frequently riotously funny) melancholic men and women give us?

Woody Allen – a long-term melancholic who, like Lincoln, Churchill, Twain, Buster Keaton, and others has put his melancholy to work seeking insight in the humor at the neverending show that is the human condition – ends one of his better movies with a monologue to the camera comparing Life to his mother’s years of going to the same Catskill camp for older Jewish ladies –

“She always complained about the food there, how terrible and inedible it is,” he says. “And how the portions are way too small.”



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