Thursday 16 September 2010

"Dictionary Johnson"

I am reading David Nokes' Samuel Johnson: A Life (having previously read Peter Martin's Samuel Johnson: A Biography) and it sends me back to Johnson’s strange moral tale The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia (1759) which I first read last year.

It is widely held that modern psychiatry emerged from ignorance and darkness in the early 20th c. and I suppose there is some truth in that. But Rasselas contains a startlingly modern and sympathetic portrayal of schizophrenia in considerable analytical detail. It also offers a rationale against prejudice and an explanation of our universal exposure to mental illness.

Most remarkably it sets out a therapeutic technique for the cure of schizophrenic symptoms based on kindly and respectful engagement with the patient and a subtle awakening of rationality which carefully avoids provoking paranoia and confrontation with delusional thoughts. This thoughtful and well-observed take on mental illness is little known and indeed Rasselas is hardly read even by scholars of Dr Johnson. He wrote the book in just a week when he was in dire poverty to raise money to help his dying mother. I believe Johnson’s insights into mental illness were based on his personal knowledge of and care for people with a serious mental illness (including the poet Christopher Smart) and his own Tourette’s Syndrome - and much deeper and darker symptoms of mental illness which terrified him throughout his life. Though famous for his dictionary, essays, poetry, etc in fact Johnson is most remarkable for his larger-than-life, boundless humanity – a timeless colossus of decency putting the likes of Voltaire into the shade.

There is scarcely anything written about Rasselas from a psychiatric perspective (perhaps they don't like it that he got there before them!) but I found this article from the 1960s which gives a thorough critique.

For a 21st c. guide to schizophrenia and recovery see Hafal's possibly less literary but bang-up-to-date leaflet here.