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Chance Thoughts
by Sue Chance, M.D.
January 1996

Churchill's Black Dog

One of the things smart essayists do is read and ponder the writings of other essayists. Some time ago, I read a book by Anthony Storr titled Churchill's Black Dog, Kafkas's Mice & Other Phenomena of the Human Mind, in which Dr. Storr talked about the way the demons of certain historical figures become angels for the rest of us, since they impel their sufferers to rise above themselves - and we lesser mortals get taken along on their peculiar and soaring rides. He doesn't put it quite that way, but that's the idea. The principal figures he examines in some detail are Churchill, Kafka, and Newton; and since I find Churchill the most compelling, I'll recap some of Storr's essay while inserting my own thoughts and biases.

"Black Dog" was Churchill's name for his depression, and as is true with all metaphors, it speaks volumes. The nickname implies both familiarity and an attempt at mastery, because while that dog may sink his fangs into one's person every now and then, he's still, after all, only a dog, and he can be cajoled sometimes and locked up other times.

The man was in lustrous company - Goethe, Schumann, Luther, and Tolstoy to name but a few - all of them great men who suffered from recurrent depression. Who doesn't have at least a passing familiarity with the notion that depression sometimes acts as a spur to those of a certain temperament and native ability? Aware of how low they will sink at times, they propel themselves into activity and achievements the rest of us regard with awe.

Storr takes the approach that a "depressive nature" and feeling unloved goes hand in hand, and that Churchill's thinking he was unloved was a reasonable supposition, given his parents' neglect and disinterest. Step Two in Churchill's journey to leadership was compensatory, i.e., "If I can't be loved, I'll find a way to be admired." Another name for this decision is ambition, and the P.M's was apparently legendary. Ambition of such proportions is laden with fantasy - which, oddly enough, may have been exactly what was needed in that particular time, place, and circumstances. "The kind of inspiration with which Churchill sustained the nation is not based on judgment, but on an irrational conviction independent of factual reality. Only a man convinced that he had a heroic mission, who believed that, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, he could yet triumph, and who could identify himself with a nation's destiny could have conveyed his inspiration to others."

Another bit of fall-out from being unloved is hostility, and in a brilliant and amusing argument, Storr suggests that never has any depressive had such a wonderful opportunity for venting his aggressiveness as did Churchill. He had an enemy worthy of the word, an unambiguous tyrant whose destruction occupied him fully and invigorated him totally year in and year out. If all depressives could battle obvious and external wickedness in this way, they'd cease being depressed. To conclude: " 1940, his inner world of make-believe coincided with the facts of external reality in a way which very rarely happens... (he) became the hero that he had always dreamed of being. It was his finest hour. In that dark time, what England needed was not a shrewd, equable, balanced leader. She needed a prophet, a heroic visionary, a man who could dream dreams of victory when all seemed lost. Winston Churchill was such a man; and his inspirational quality owed its dynamic force to the romantic world of fantasy in which he had his true being."

Hear, hear.

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