Sunday, May 24, 2009

Lincoln: Mental Illness and Greatness

The article behind this link is not new; it's been online for almost four years. I came across it only recently, however. Joshua Wolf Shenk writes about Abraham Lincoln's life-long confrontation with clinical depression, a malady he overcame not by ending it, but by channelling it towards acts of great significance.
Many popular philosophies propose that suffering can be beaten simply, quickly,
and clearly. Popular biographies often express the same view. Many writers,
faced with the unhappiness of a heroic figure, make sure to find some crucible
in which that bad feeling is melted into something new. "Biographies tend
conventionally to be structured as crisis-and-recovery narratives," the critic
Louis Menand writes, "in which the subject undergoes a period of disillusionment
or adversity, and then has a 'breakthrough' or arrives at a 'turning point'
before going on to achieve whatever sort of greatness obtains." Lincoln's
melancholy doesn't lend itself to such a narrative. No point exists after which
the melancholy dissolved—not in January of 1841; not during his middle age; and
not at his political resurgence, beginning in 1854. Whatever greatness Lincoln
achieved cannot be explained as a triumph over personal suffering. Rather, it
must be accounted an outgrowth of the same system that produced that suffering.
This is a story not of transformation but of integration. Lincoln didn't do
great work because he solved the problem of his melancholy; the problem of his
melancholy was all the more fuel for the fire of his great work.

Regular readers will of course recognize why I especially appreciated this vigniette:
Elizabeth Keckley, Mary Lincoln's dressmaker, once told of watching the
president drag himself into the room where she was fitting the First Lady. "His
step was slow and heavy, and his face sad," Keckley 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." He had just returned from the War Department, he
said, where the news was "dark, dark everywhere." Lincoln then took a small
Bible from a stand near the sofa and began to read. "A quarter of an hour
passed," Keckley remembered, "and on glancing at the sofa the face of the
president seemed more cheerful. The dejected look was gone; in fact, the
countenance was lighted up with new resolution and hope." Wanting to see what he
was reading, Keckley pretended she had dropped something and went behind where
Lincoln was sitting so that she could look over his shoulder. It was the Book of

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Visiting from Instapundit which linked to your loyalty law post.

Reading the Union casualty lists, witnessing hesitant Union generals miss opportunities (McLellan after Antietam or Meade after Gettysburg) to shorten the war, abiding Northern politicians who would rather see the Union sundered than himself win re-election...yes, I'd be melancholy, too.

Friso, TX USA