Magazine | March 9, 2009, Issue

Chance of a Ghost

Conservatives, it says here, are happier than liberals. I am looking at this much-discussed study from New York University on “The Palliative Function of Conservative Ideology.” So far as I can make out — and you should by no means quote me on this; my powers of attention are not what they should be, for reasons to be explained — the conclusion of the study is that we conservatives don’t fret so much about social inequality. With one less thing to fret about, we’re happier. Well, that’s nice. This seems to me just another shot at proving how smug and callous conservatives are, leaving those sensitive, neurasthenic souls of the other party to anguish over the wretched of the earth.

Happier we may be, in the generality, net-net and long-term, but a conservative can be as glum as you please when the mood takes him. Ay, in the very temple of the Right, veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine, as Keats did not quite say. She’s fixed her cold grip on me recently, and I report to you now from beneath the sign of Saturn.

Part of it is the weather. It hasn’t snowed for days, but there’s been no warmth, so old, congealed, dirty snow is everywhere. Few meteorological consequences are as unsightly or depressing. The caked gray mess brings to mind the gloomier kind of Russian poet — Yesenin, perhaps — or the even gloomier Scandinavian variety. The champion here is surely Sigbjørn Obstfelder, a late-19th-century Norwegian, whose verses should not be read in the cold and dark: “I found a corpse between the glints of snow, / the snow candles, / a corpse, still living, / a poor frostbitten starling . . .” And that was a Christmas poem!

Another part is work. I am preparing a book for the presses. These late stages of dealing with the editor’s comments and suggestions bring one face to face with one’s own faults of spelling, grammar, usage, punctuation, style, and structure. It’s necessary work, and a routine part of the book-production process, but as a lesson in one’s own fallibility, it’s humbling . . . which is only a pace or two away from being humiliating. I ought to be inured to this, having had much sterner lessons in human imperfection during my days as a computer programmer. No matter how carefully you check and test, there’s always one misplaced comma in your code that brings the company’s overnight processing cycle to a juddering halt, followed by an irate 3 a.m. call from the data center.

And some other part is temperamental. The old four-humors model of personal character was not completely misguided, and there are plenty of melancholics here on the political right, whatever those NYU researchers think they have found. Churchill had his “black dog” (a phrase he took from Dr. Johnson, another conservative depressive); Teddy Roosevelt nursed that odd enthusiasm for the wistful, death-haunted poems of E. A. Robinson; and the great Tory anarchist Enoch Powell, asked by an interviewer in his old age how he would like to be remembered, stunned the radio audience by replying: “I should like to have been killed in the war.”

#page# Glum people have not had a good press, though. Dante put them at the bottom of the Styx, where:

Fix’d in the slime they say: “Sad once were we

In the sweet air made gladsome by the sun,

Carrying a foul and lazy mist within:

Now in these murky settlings are we sad.”

C. S. Lewis, perhaps with Dante in mind, made the pessimistic Puddleglum an inhabitant of the marshes. (The character is supposed to have been based on Lewis’s gardener.)

The gold standard for commentary on the blues is Robert Burton’s 1621 Anatomy of Melancholy. Dr. Johnson said it was the only book that ever got him out of bed two hours earlier than he wished to rise, though he thought it “overloaded with quotation.” Burton gives melancholy a thorough work-over: symptoms, causes, cures. He covers both nature and nurture, with especially lurid descriptions of congenital melancholy. Old men’s children, he tells us, are “most apt to this disease,” while “foolish, drunken, or hare-brained women most part [sic] bring forth children like unto themselves, morose and languid.” Most ill-favored of all are the offspring of a menstruous coupling: “Those luckless ones begotten at this period of lunar influence are commonly mad, doting, stupid, ailing, filthy, impotent, plague-ridden, of the lowest vitality, & robbed of all strength of mind & body.” Good grief!

Burton offers plenty of cures. For love melancholy, forgetfulness; for religious melancholy, resignation. The golden rule in all cases, he tells us, is “Be not solitary, be not idle.” He actually recommends mathematics as a distraction: “Extract a square root, or study Algebra. . . . By this art you may examine how many men may stand one by another in the whole superficies of the Earth, some say 148,456, 800,000,000.” Who were those “some,” I wonder?

Modern mind science suggests that melancholics may be seeing things more clearly than the smiley-face multitude. Researchers S. Taylor and J. Brown (“Illusion and Well-Being,” 1988) found that mentally healthy people are better at self-deception: “It appears to be not the well-adjusted individual but the individual who experiences subjective distress who is more likely to process self-relevant information in a relatively unbiased and balanced fashion.” So the more depressed and maladjusted you are — up to a point, surely — the more likely it is that you are seeing things right, without bias.

Well, we gloomsters all know that! It’s one of life’s trade-offs, truth for happiness. Smile away, suckers. But then . . . wouldn’t that mean that all those happy conservatives in the NYU study are . . . wrong?

The heck with it. The snow is still dirty, but the sky is clear and bright, with no wind. I shall go for a walk in the woods, “in the sweet air made gladsome by the sun,” and cherish the sunlit world I am privileged to lease a small portion of for a short span. I shall count my numerous blessings as I walk, look for signs of spring, and ignore dead starlings. There’ll be no murky settlings for me. Begone, dull care!

John Derbyshire — Mr. Derbyshire is a former contributing editor of National Review.

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