For times when thoughts are less fragrant

Having spent most of my free time during the last several weeks on more educational pursuits, I was ready to indulge again in a little bit of escapist entertainment. I sought out an old, black-and-white film starring Basil Rathbone, whom I had admired in the role of a clean-shaven Sherlock Holmes. The film turned out to be The Mad Doctor (1941), in which Rathbone plays a physician and then psychiatrist. I already knew he would be a villain because he sported almost the same look with a thin moustache as he did in Love from a Stranger (1937), in which he was definitely a villain… see my logic there?! Actually, these 2 movies do have a similar premise, giving the roles much in common, but I would say The Mad Doctor is more interesting and slightly less linear.

In the scene where we first encounter the story’s main protagonist, Linda Boothe, she is cheerlessly helping run a wheel of fortune at a bazaar. Her movements, expressions, and tone of voice convey that she is clearly depressed. Her fiancé, Gil Sawyer, is concerned.

GIL: You haven’t been yourself lately; what’s wrong?

LINDA: Maybe I have been myself lately. Maybe that’s what’s wrong.

Screenshot from The Mad Doctor—scene where Gil (John Howard) visits Linda (Ellen Drew) at the bazaar

Her matter-of-fact reply struck me in the core. How many times have I ridden the waves of high and low moods, often seemingly incongruous with immediate circumstances, only to face the creeping realization that the lows are not few and far enough between, and they seem to get longer each time? (They don’t, but it can feel that way with a distorted sense of time.)

The book Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times by Katherine May describes this well. For example:

It winters in cycles, again and again, forever and ever. […]
To get better at wintering, we need to address our very notion of time. We tend to imagine that our lives are linear, but they are in fact cyclical.

In the meantime, we can deal only with what’s in front of us at this moment in time. We take the next necessary action, and the next. At some point along the line, that next action will feel joyful again.

Part of the acceptance of this, I believe, involves letting go of magical thinking. We live in an age where we are highly aware of “feelings about our feelings,” such as guilt about having negative thoughts. As if that were helpful in any way—it’s not. The inner critical voice accuses the tired soul of ingratitude, weakness, or sabotage… instead of letting the feelings simply make their way through.

Magical thinking is defined as “the belief that one’s ideas, thoughts, actions, words, or use of symbols can influence the course of events in the material world.” Young children are particularly prone to this, but of course it can extend well into adulthood. If one believes in an omniscient deity who knows one’s every thought, it follows that one might perceive one’s own thoughts to carry more consequences than otherwise. If one is brought up in a culture where speaking one’s mind freely is discouraged to some extent, one might be apt to censor thoughts lest they slip out in speech and cause misfortune. “Don’t jinx it!” someone might say, when you express optimism that something will go as hoped—usually this is spoken in jest, but that’s the caricature of the superstition.

I found out that The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows by John Koenig was published 2 months ago and is already a New York Times bestseller. Like so many others, I am delighted to see this, not only out of vicarious enjoyment of someone’s decade-long work coming to fruition, but also because, like so many others, the work brought validation to several innermost, undefined experiences. I am not alone, is the resounding roar of reading masses. My feelings have a name and they are not so uncommon after all.

n. the moment a conversation becomes real and alive, which occurs when a spark of trust shorts out the delicate circuits you keep insulated under layers of irony, momentarily grounding the static emotional charge you’ve built up through decades of friction with the world.

Sometimes, a little validation is all it takes to make a person feel better. I have noticed that for many of us, the mind has been so well trained at critical thinking and problem solving that it no longer thinks empathetically. When presented with an idea by another person (which could be a thought or feeling), our first instinct is to receive it as a foreign object, question it, interrogate it, and hold it up to scrutiny against several possible alternative points of view before it earns its acceptance in our mind (or not). I don’t think this is done on purpose, and it might be over in a few seconds, but I think this is the gist of the thought process of someone whose mind is very analytical. I hate to be on the receiving end, but I’m just as guilty of it.

If only more of us would consciously take the opposite approach, and treat a presented idea as “the norm” until the conversation guides otherwise, not because we think it is the norm, but to meet the other person where they are. If only more of us did this out of kindness, or natural response, and not because they practiced it so they could sell you something.

Back to The Mad Doctor—shortly after Linda’s candid description of her mental state to Gil, she meets the scheming Dr Sebastian, who charms her, and eventually does seem to cure her of her woes (contrary to my expectation). However, to erase his past, the mad doctor finds that he has one last crime to commit. He rushes into the apartment he shares with his accomplice, Maurice Gretz (played by Martin Kosleck), who at the moment is dousing himself with abandon in some cologne from a vintage atomizer bottle with a bulb at the end of a long tube.

Screenshot from The Mad Doctor—the shape of the cologne bottle is visible from the shadow on the door
Screenshot from The Mad Doctor

The pair proceed to go out and stalk their target. Maurice’s task involves a lot of lurking among crowds, but he appears to go unnoticed despite what I would imagine to be a massive amount of scent. Perhaps it was all ephemeral top notes, no match against the perpetual clouds of cigarette smoke and heavier perfumes of the day. Or perhaps the writers simply neglected the implications of this detail.

It’s always fun to guess at perfumes on screen. Soon, I’ll share some thoughts on perfumes off screen—so far the only kind we can actually smell.

5 thoughts on “For times when thoughts are less fragrant

  1. What a great post! It’s so interesting to follow the flow of your storytelling not knowing where and how it would turn.

    I am guilty of the “critical thinking,” and I need to think about it more (probably some pun was intended, but I’m laughing at myself, not you), but I was caught unexpectedly by that your passage because I did exactly what you described just a couple of hours ago after listening to the interview with Mel Robbins and her Hi 5 method.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks; I’m glad you enjoyed it! I was afraid it was getting into meandering rant territory, as sometimes happens when I find I need writing as an outlet more than usual.

      I hadn’t heard of the high 5 thing, so had to look it up… the website doesn’t give too much away, but I think I might have had a similar reaction! Guess it can’t hurt to try!?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I am going to try it (why not?), though now I’m even more annoyed because from listening to more than a couple of hours of the interview, I haven’t got the exact: do 1,2,3 – but rather a lot of explanations of WHY you should do it, the science of why it would work, anecdotes about people who used to be doubts and other blah-blah-blah – when I need just instructions, I already agree to try! 🙂
        Now I’m trying to figure out the exact recipe of the “5-4-3-2-1 tool” – approximately, with the same success. Something is wrong with me 🙂


        1. Ooh, I empathize with your frustration. I thought it was about high-fiving yourself in the mirror every day! High five for trying so hard to figure this new thing out. 😉


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