Johnson’s Tic

The Rambler (Vol III), 1801, Samuel Johnson (Image Source: Archive.org)

Samuel Johnson (1709 – 1784) one of the greatest essayists of the 18th century was also a lexicographer, biographer, editor, and poet. It is well known that Johnson suffered from several grave health conditions. He was blind in one eye, hard of hearing and had contracted scrofula in childhood, from which other complications had ensued. However, Johnson’s most obvious malady was a series of tics. William Hogarth once concluded he was “an idiot” and noted of Johnson: "shaking his head and rolling himself about in a strange ridiculous manner." There is a rich body of writing in the form of commentaries and biographical reports that describe Johnson’s odd “presence”, while simultaneously elaborating on his exceptional contributions to the English language. 

The poet, Alexander Pope remarks that Johnson’s infirmity “is of a convulsive kind.” It is characterized as: “attacking him sometimes, so as to make him a sad spectacle”. Pope’s description fits a painted portrait created by Johnson’s friend, Sir Joshua Reynolds (dated 1772), in which his fingers appear to be twitching, his brow is furrowed and mouth slightly open. 

It is interesting to note that Johnson, with his tendency for echolalia (the repetition of words and phrases) and of speaking to himself at length as well as pursuing compulsive actions (such as measuring his footsteps on exiting a room), founded a periodical titled: The Rambler (1750-52). 

In her diary, the English novelist and playwright, Frances Burney reveals: “His body is a continual agitation seesawing up and down; his feet are never a moment quiet; and in short his whole figure is in perpetual motion.”

Of Johnson’s involuntary vocalization and propensity for varied whistling sounds, his biographer, James Boswell writes that he sometimes released a half whistle or played his tongue backwards from the roof of his mouth as if clucking like a hen and when exhausted, after a long period of argumentation, he would blow out his breath like a whale.

The Rambler was mainly read by the growing British middle-class, it contained over 200 essays in Johnson’s uniquely articulated didacticism and neoclassical prose style.

In 1884, the prolific writer Guy de Maupassant published a story titled “Le Tic”, in which a character with a nervous tic becomes the source of a suspense plot set in Auvergne. By this time Maupassant himself was suffering from advanced syphilis and frequent spells of insanity. Some years later he attempted suicide, dying shortly before his 43rd birthday in a mental institution. It was the following year (in 1885) that the French Physician, Giles de La Tourette published his “Study of a Nervous Affliction” which led to the eponym “Tourette syndrome”, a neuropsychiatric condition of vocal and motor tics developing in childhood.  

References: As a state of excess and convulsion, tics swing from rhythmic to non-rhythmic behaviour patterns—ultimately as an inventory of repeating impulses. Moreover, they reveal a fundamental confusion between “the involuntary” and “the habitual”. The subject of a tic is therefore moving from binary conditions to that of an overwhelming “acting out” between states of vacillation, restlessness and debilitation. For a specific sum of time, you are the tic and the tic is you. 

T. J. Murray, Dr Samuel Johnson’s movement disorder, British Medical Journal (1979)

James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, London, Dent (originally published in1791), Everyman's Library, 1993

Frances Burney, The Diary of Fanny Burney, ed. L. Gibbs, London, Dent (1960)