Monday is always a bad day for me as I suffer from post-natal depression, or rather, I have been subject to mild and occasional attacks of what I prefer to call accidie for as long as I can remember. Depression is a clinical condition treatable with medication and psychotherapy; accidie (or acedia) is the debilitating effect of ennui, treatable by exposure to excitement or a cold shower. Accidie is transitory, temporal; depression can be lasting, sometimes permanent. Depression sufferers are often unaware of the cause of their misery; those afflicted with accidie know exactly what drives their mental lethargy – boredom, melancholia induced by reflection on the human condition, nostalgia for a real or imagined past and lovesickness.
It was at school while studying the perennially lovesick Elizabethan lyricists that I first heard the term mentioned, a master using it to describe the despair over unrequited love included in the verse and drama of John Lyly, Sir Thomas Wyatt, John Ford, Thomas Nashe, William Shakespeare and others. From the mid 16th century and well into the 17th melancholia was a full-blown epidemic. Some scholars point to the war with Spain and an uncertain political and religious climate but, more likely, melancholy, along with a lean and pale demeanour, was a fashion of the time and helped set off a well-cut ensemble of cloak, tights and doublet in lamp black. Much of its popularity can be attributed to the tradition that Aristotle claimed melancholy to be the most desirable human condition, providing intellectual powers. This lasting concept was largely based on Cicero’s writing ‘Aristotle says that all geniuses are melancholic’ and reinforced by Plutarch’s ‘Aristotle, declaring that the great natures are melancholic, such as Socrates, Plato and Hercules, records that Lysander too…..was afflicted with melancholy’.
The term, accidie, originally from the Greek akedia – lack of care (for life and one’s self), has long been out of fashion as doctors invent new terms for the endless varieties of mental illness they identify. It first arose in the 4th century CE when early Christian monks, hermits and ascetics followed the example of Anthony the Great and set up cenobitic communities in Egypt’s Nitrian desert. Among the Desert Fathers, as they are known, some failed to adhere to the stringent asceticism and solitary life, neglecting their religious duties, generally ‘letting themselves go’ and becoming the first sufferers of accidie, a sin listed among Evagrius Ponticus’ 8 patterns of evil thought compiled in 275CE. Two centuries later Pope Gregory I combined Evragius’ sins of sorrow (depression) and accidie (sloth) to give us our standard list of Seven Deadly Sins. Knowingly or not, he had, rightly, eliminated depression as a sin.
Whereas depression, aka the Black Dog (an expression associated with Winston Churchill but already in use in the 18th century), is a most dreadful illness, accidie has its supporters. ‘Melancholy’, wrote Victor Hugo, ‘is the pleasure of being sad’. ‘Depression’ added Susan Sontag ‘is melancholy minus its charm’. Beaudelaire, an accidie sufferer if ever there was one, tells us that he ‘can barley conceive of a type of beauty in which there is no melancholy’. Hamlet suffered from accidie. Some say Sherlock Holmes was bi-polar, but he definitely suffered from boredom, as did Graham Greene. The English author has been labelled as manic-depressive, but Paul Theroux, who knew Greene, describes him as ‘an authentic melancholic’ in his article for the New York Times, ‘Damned Old Graham Greene’. Greene’s ennui was such that he rarely spent more than a few weeks in one place, constantly moving between his properties in Antibes, Capri and Paris. Sex as well as travel, rescued him from the old ennui, and he maintained a wife, a stable of mistresses as well as paying the odd visit to a prostitute, a habit likened by a friend to ‘paying someone to let you beat them at tennis’.
The actor George Sanders was another victim. Famous for Shere Khan’s patrician drawl in The Jungle Book, George ended it all by swallowing 5 bottles of Nembutal in a hotel on the Costa Brava. He was 65 and world-weary in spite of marrying BOTH Zsa Zsa AND Magda, two thirds of the notoriously glamorous Gabor sisters. ‘Dear World’, he wrote in a suicide note, ‘I am leaving you because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool. Good luck!’
It must have been sometime between 8 and 8.15 when I woke up. I always have a good stretch on waking but this time I was startled when my left hand encountered another body in the bed, which was a surprise because Honeybee is usually well gone by 8 am. Imagine my shock when I found the body belonged to none other than Scarlett Johansson, wearing nothing but diamond studs in each earlobe and a dash of Mitsouko behind each ear; not even a small residue of polish on a toe-nail. Shock gave way to puzzlement as I began wondering how she had got in; I‘m fairly sure I never gave her a key. ‘How?’ I asked. ‘Under the flower pot’ she replied. Of course, she would have known that’s where keys are kept from her considerable film experience. Most people only know the public Scarlett, the Hollywood Star twice voted ‘Sexiest Woman Alive’ by Esquire magazine. Here with me she can do what she enjoys best, curling up on the couch in one of my old sweaters, watching the footy with a Tim Tam and cup of tea. I next remember waking up again around 11. Scarlett had gone, leaving not so much as a faint whiff of Mitsouko on the pillow. Lying there I realised I had narrowly escaped a very unpleasant scene. If Honeybee had decided to go in late to the office there would have been hell to pay. I spent an hour cleaning up, searching for dyed blonde hairs and stray items of La Perla underwear, but all was clean. Then I moved the spare house key from under the flower pot and hid it under the watering can. That should put a stop to Scarlett’s dangerous games!
Have just finished reading ‘Good Sense vs Doom and Gloom’ a review in the Financial Review of Johan Norberg’s book ’10 Reasons to Look Forward to the Future’. Being occasionally despondent as I contemplate the inevitability of decay, I am always interested in some hopeful news. So what is Mr Norberg offering to cheer us up? Life, he says, is getting better, a fact not generally understood because journalists find calamities more sensational reporting than good news. Poverty, worldwide, he says, is diminishing with only 10% of humanity subsisting on less than $2 per day; 68% of the world’s population now has modern sanitation; better nutrition and the spread of education has raised the IQ level in America to an average of 118. So why, I ask, are so many Americans trying to elect Donald Trump to the White House? Violence, it seems, is down, the homicide rate among hunter-gatherer societies being 500 times what it is in Europe today, probably thanks to the CCTV camera. This is a mathematician’s view of the world. Norberg ignores the rise of greed and selfishness that came hand in hand with increased prosperity; the proliferation of retirement villages for abandoned parents; the decline in human contact as the virtual eclipses the real world. In her book ‘Acedia & Me’, Kathleen Norris sums up pretty well why many do not believe in a better future. Advertising ploys, she says, engender dissatisfaction with our highly structured, multi-tasking lives. We are oversaturated with data but receive little real information. ‘In this hyped-up world, broadcast and internet news media have emerged as acedia’s (indifference’s) perfect vehicles, demanding that we care, all at once, about a suicide bombing, a celebrity divorce and the latest advance in nanotechnology.’
The future’s not what it used to be.
Saw such a good film on TCM, ‘This Time for Keeps’, made in 1947 and starring Jimmy Durante and Esther Williams, the ‘Million Dollar Mermaid’. Esther carved gracefully through the water without the aid of the oxen shoulders developed by today’s aquatic stars and still managed to look ravishing in a bathing costume that covered only slightly less than a burkini. There are stories that she and Johnny Weissmuller once dated – what swimming champions they might have produced! Once his career as Tarzan and Jungle Jim was over, Johnny, winner of 5 Olympic gold medals, could be found greeting punters at the door of Caesars Palace in Las Vegas in the company of that great boxing champion, Joe Louis. How are the mighty fallen in the midst of battle!
Now, back to the film and a word on its very impressive location. I’d never heard of Mackinac and had to resort to Google to learn that it was an island in Lake Huron, a beautiful holiday resort, its centrepiece a stunning Victorian Hotel with a veranda like the keyboard of a giant grand piano. It’s also in Michigan, a state which doesn’t normally get a good press, being often depicted in permanent winter, the natives in caps with flaps, speaking slowly with Swedish accents while shovelling snow from their shop fronts; solitary men sitting on camp stools fishing through holes in the ice. It sounds like the sort of climate that would produce a hefty number of accidie sufferers. But no, in her book ‘The Geography of Melancholy, Tara Isabel Burton tells us that it’s not nature but cities that evoke melancholy. The countryside may alter its complexion as seasons change but it remains basically in situ. Nature attracts Romantic poets like Wordsworth, Shelley, Byron and Coleridge whereas the melancholia sufferers are urban writers like Beaudelaire, Graham Greene and the late, lamented Jeffrey Bernard who wrote the Low Life column in The Spectator. After his death in 1997, a collection of his articles was published under the splendid title ‘Reach for the Ground – The Downhill Struggle of Jeffrey Bernard’, a catalogue of the writer’s drunken but insightful meanderings in that one time capital of melancholia – London’s Soho. Cities alter permanently each day; what you loved about your neighbourhood in your youth almost certainly will not be there in fifty years’ time, not even if it’s a 12th century monastery if you live in Aleppo. I’m not sure about this argument, I’m pretty sure I could find some writers who felt aliens in the bush. I would agree that there are certain cities that induce melancholy. I can think of Perth (Australia), Eboli (Italy) and Ashford (England). Lille (France) used to be sad but has cheered up recently. Burton cites Lisbon, a city that even has a word, ‘saudade’, to describe nostalgia for its past, a sadness that apparently finds expression in fado. Istanbul, the author claims, is depressed over losing its former greatness and, like Portugal, has a name (huzun) for this sense of loss. Big mistake of course, changing the name; Constantinople had a much more solid ring to it. I cannot say I found Trieste depressing although I admit the name does sound a bit like the French word for sad. We are off to Tasmania next week; must remember to pack the Prozac.
A ferry ride into the city aboard the good ship Sirius. Broad of beam, she bustles around Sydney harbour in her cream and olive livery. It’s not a lively crowd she ferries from Neutral Bay to Circular Quay, mostly people quietly on their way to work; men and women in dark suits concerned with interest rates and the unexpected downturn in sales, talking only into cell-phones. Sirius’s workmates join her as we nose into her No 4 berth; Golden Grove, Lady Northcote, Friendship, all names of ships of the First Fleet, names that won’t be forgotten in 100 years (unlike those of Olympic swimmers) their origins lost in time, but still powerful enough to form part of the great litany of ships whose names alone are a history lesson. Argos, Nina and Pinta, Lusitania, The Pelican, Kon Tiki. Once a famous name like Cutty Sark would help sell a brand of whiskey; now ships are named after products, forcing sailors to winch up spinnakers bearing the names of radio stations or software companies. Damn shame.
A bottle of really heavy Australian wine last night has left me very slightly hungover this morning. Ah, the wrath of grapes! My suffering, however, was nothing like the hangover described by Sir William Connor writing under the pseudonym ‘Cassandra’ for the London Daily Mirror between 1935 and 1967, the Golden Age of the Press, the days before Dirty Digger Murdoch replaced bona fide journalists with hacks and hackers.
A hangover is when your tongue tastes like a tram driver’s glove. Your boots seem to be steaming and your eyes burn in their sockets like gooseberries. Your stomach spins slowly on its axis and your head gently swells and contracts like a jelly in a tideway. Voices sound far off and your hands tremble like those of a centenarian condemned to death. Slight movements make you sweat, even as you shiver from the deadly cold that is within you. Bright lights hurt your eyes, and jeering, gibbering people from the night before seem to whisper in your ears, and then fade with mocking, horrible laughter into silence. The finger-nails are brittle and your skin hangs on you like an old second-hand suit. Your feet appear to be swollen, and walking is like wading through a swamp of lumpy, thick custard. Your throat is cracked and parched like the bottom of an old saucepan that has boiled dry. The next moment the symptoms change, and your mouth is stuffed with warm cotton wool. When you brush your hair you are certain that there is no top to your skull, and your brain stands naked and throbbing in the stabbing air. Your back aches and feels as though someone is nailing a placard to your shoulder blades. Knee joints have turned to dish water and eyelids are made of sheets of lead lined with sandpaper. When you lean on a table it sways gently and you know for certain that you are at sea. Should you step off a kerb you stumble, for it is a yard deep and the gutter yawns like a wide, quaking trench. You have no sense of touch and your fingertips feel with all the acuteness of decayed firewood smeared with putty. The nostrils dilate and smell the evil air. You believe that you are in a horrible dream but when you wake up you know that it will all be true. Your teeth have been filed to stumps and are about to be unscrewed one by one from your aching jaw. You want to sleep, but when you close your eyes you are dizzy, and you heel over like a water-logged barrel crammed with old, sodden cabbage stalks in the Grand Junction Canal. When you read your eyes follow each letter to try to spell the words, but in vain – no message reaches you empty, sullen brain. Should you look at a simple thing like a tree, it will appear that the bark is gradually crawling upwards. Lights flash and crackle before you and innumerable little brown dwarfs start tapping just below the base of your skull with tiny, dainty hammers made of compressed rubber.
O Death, where is thy sting?
And Lo, it was the Sabbath, and I was sent forth unto the laundry to fetch a bottle of wine for it was the Feast of the Father and our firstborn was coming to lunch. And he came not alone, saying ‘Behold, this is my new companion and her name is Dizzi, which meaneth she that causeth men’s heads to turn’. Verily I say unto you she was a peach, but I was silent on the matter lest I be named cad. And our firstborn laid a gift at my feet and it was a set of Philips Screwdrivers from Bunnings and the price-tag showed they had cost $2.85. I waxed wrathful, saying ‘Is it not written “Honour thy Father and thy Mother”? Are you not clothed by Armani? Do you not drive a Series 3 BMW?’ And our firstborn wept with remorse and my wife comforted him, cursing me and saying ‘Verily, thou art an abomination among men, you know not of the financial burdens that beset our son.’ What man can compete with a woman who serveth up the honey and when she handeth out the vinegar, who can equal her? And we sat at the table and it was laden with the good things of Mosman, with corn and bread and meat in abundance. And I said ‘Is this not a standing rib roast which costeth an arm and a leg? I would have been pleased with a shoulder of lamb from Coles.’ And my wife answered ‘Go thy way, O Simple One! Know ye not by now that of all manner of mannah a standing rib roast is our son’s favourite?’ And I replied saying ‘Is this not MY day? Are we not celebrating the Day of the Father?’ And then the Heavens erupted and there was much weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. And afterwards there was silence for seven days and seven nights.