A Competent Knowledge of Oneself

My late mother told me of an old German proverb from her childhood: every little animal has its little pleasure. My little pleasure is old books: the sight of an Eighteenth Century title page sends me into raptures that most people would find difficult to understand or empathise with. Compassion for a person suffering from a sickness would probably seem more in order to them.

Booksellers keep tempting me with the catalogues; recently, for example, I received a catalogue devoted entirely to early printings of the works of Alexander Pope (1688 – 1744), the greatest English poet of the Eighteenth Century. I wanted to buy everything, but it would have cost me approximately £475,000 to do so.

I particularly coveted, at £9000, the first edition of The Narrative of Dr Robert Norris Concerning the strange and deplorable Frenzy of Mr John Denn.., published in 1713. In this pamphlet, Pope pretended to be Robert Norris, MD giving an account of the madness of John Dennis.

Dennis (1658 – 1737) was a literary critic who had written a book-length criticism of Addison’s smash-hit tragedy, Cato, for which Pope had written a prologue. Not worrying too much about the stigmatisation of the mentally-ill, Pope wrote his pamphlet satirising Dennis as being out of his wits.

In the pamphlet, Dr Norris is called to Dennis’s lodging by his landlady, ‘who was taken ill of a frenzy last April,’ manifesting itself by, among other things, his repeated calling out of ‘Cato, Cato, Cato,’ whom the landlady assumes to be a witch of some kind. She gives Dr Norris a sample of Dennis’ urine, from the examination of which he is able to conclude ‘the whole temperament of his body to be exceeding hot.’

Dr Norris, who at the time of the landlady’s arrival was ‘pondering the case of one of my patients,’ goes to Dennis’ lodgings, where Dennis, paranoid, thinks he has come from the King of France to lock him up in ‘a bastile.’ Dishevelled, Dennis is surrounded by books of which Norris has never heard (they are all the titles of books by Dennis).

Dennis calms down a little and tells the doctor that all that is the matter with him is that his legs are swollen. Norris asked him how he came by his swollen legs, to which Dennis replies, ‘By a criticism.’ ‘A criticism!’ says the doctor, ‘that’s a distemper I never read of.’ Dennis replies: ‘S’death, sir, a distemper! It is no distemper, but a noble art. I have sat fourteen hours a day at it; and are you a doctor, and don’t know there’s a communication between the legs and the brain?’

The doctor comes to his conclusion:

The symptoms of his madness seem to be desperate; for Avicen [Avicenna] says, that if learning be mixed with a brain, that is not of a contexture to receive it, the brain ferments, till it be totally exhausted. We must eradicate these undigested ideas out of the pericranium, and reduce the patient to a competent knowledge of himself.

A competent knowledge of oneself, the whole secret of human existence! I did not buy the pamphlet, even though the last one sold at auction was in 1962, and the last one ever sold was in 1982, but in very poor condition.

Copyright 2013 Anthony Daniels

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