On the 9th of October 1750, Samuel Johnson released one of my favourite Rambler essays, number 59, also titled ‘Suspirius, the Human Screech-Owl’.
Like many of my favourite Johnson essays, it’s one of those pieces where he outlines a certain type of character. Also, like many of my favourite Johnson essays, it’s not to be found in any of the readily available essay collections. (I’d always recommend getting a decent older collection of Johnson’s essays, or visit the fantastic website, Samuel Johnson’s Essays).
Pliny the elder said that the screech-owl is always a sign of heavy news, foretelling a fearful misfortune and that’s what Suspirius does.
“These screech-owls seem to be settled in an opinion that the great business of life is to complain.”
Not that Johnson is utterly averse to complaining, he loves a good moan as much as the next person. He declares that it’s perfectly fine “when the sigh arises from the desire not of giving pain, but of gaining ease.” What’s more, it’s one of the duties of friendship to hear each other complain and, in the right context, an act of complaint is a social one, inviting a collective moan that brings a small respite.
Were Suspirius goes wrong, is that he does nothing but complain and moan, even when things are going well. “They were born for no other purpose than to disturb the happiness of others, to lessen the little comforts, and shorten the short pleasures of our condition.” For Johnson, a man whose pleasures and little comforts are very fleeting, getting caught in the orbit of a Suspirius is a terrible thing. There’s a wonderfully weary specificity to how he notes that, “I have now known Suspirius fifty-eight years and four months, and have never yet passed an hour with him in which he has not made some attack upon my quiet.” There’s the feeling that just before writing the essay, Johnson has spent an hour with this person and is utterly tired of it all.
Suspirius (and I keep wanting to write Suspiria) is a relentless buzzkill. “Their only care is to crush the rising hope, to damp the kindling transport, and allay the golden hours of gaiety with the hateful dross of grief and suspicion.” There is no pleasant moment that can’t be re-framed as a portent of evil, no parade they can’t rain on.
What’s more, the screech-owl personality doesn’t just moan about the present, they cast melancholic shadows over the future. Johnson lists the writers who never finished their projects because of Suspirius, all the marriages that never took place and all the business ventures that never happened. He is not only intent on smothering the happiness of now, but strangling future happiness before it can happen.
Johnson’s only solution to people like this is to “exclude screech-owls from all company, as the enemies of mankind and confine them to some proper receptacle, where they may mingle sighs at leisure, and thicken the gloom of one another.”
Screech-owls like Suspirius still exist, and while it may not be possible to confine them to some proper receptacle, there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that such people can spread their negativity. While simply cutting those people out might be the best solution, it’s not always possible. Instead, find the things that make you positive, try and make a positive difference to others and try not to jump onboard that negative train. I’m pretty susceptible to being swept along by these negative spirals and sometimes there’s a power in being able to simple recognise and name the cause.