As a parlor game, it must be at least two centuries old, judging from William Hazlitt’s “Of Persons One Would Wish to Have Seen.” The premise is simple and inviting: Name the person from the past you would most like to meet, and give your reasons. Hazlitt’s essay was published in 1826, and he says the party in question had occurred about 20 years earlier. The game was proposed by Charles Lamb, who promptly rejected the nominations proposed by another guest: Sir Isaac Newton and John Locke.
Lamb argues that both, indeed, were “the greatest names,” “but they are not persons.” Pressed to explain, Lamb said: “`That is…not characters, you know. By Mr. Locke and Sir Isaac Newton, you mean the Essay on the Human Understanding, and the Principia, which we have to this day. Beyond their contents there is nothing personally interesting in the men. But what we want to see any one bodily for, is when there is something peculiar, striking in the individual, more than we can learn from their writings, and yet curious to know.”
Lamb’s distinction is shrewd, perhaps informed by personal disillusionment. I know from experience that meeting an object of one’s enthusiasm can be unpleasant and disillusioning. I once interviewed by telephone a renowned jazz pianist, a musician I respected if not loved, though he is loved by many others. He was unabashedly rude, offensive and narcissistic. That was more than 20 years ago, and since then I have not once listened voluntarily to his music. Obviously, a one-man embargo against one jazz musician is business as usual. Who care? This guy forgot about me shortly after picking up the telephone to take my call.
Back to Hazlitt: The guests push Lamb to name his choices “from the whole range of English literature,” and he obliges:
“Lamb then named Sir Thomas Browne and Fulke Greville, the friend of Sir Philip Sidney, as the two worthies whom he should feel the greatest pleasure to encounter on the floor of his apartment in their nightgowns and slippers, and to exchange friendly greetings with them.”
The other guests laugh and Lamb explains:
“`The reason why I pitch upon these two authors is, that their writings are riddles, and they themselves the most mysterious of personages. They resemble the soothsayers of old, who dealt in dark hints and doubtful oracles; and I should like to ask them the meaning of what no mortal but themselves, I should suppose, can fathom. There is Dr. Johnson; I have no curiosity, no strange uncertainty about him; he and Boswell together have pretty well let me into the secret of what passed through his mind. He and other writers like him are sufficiently explicit: my friends whose repose I should be tempted to disturb (were it in my power), are implicit, inextricable, inscrutable.”
Here I reluctantly part company with Lamb, because Dr. Johnson would be on my short list of people from the past I would wish to meet. Among my criteria would be a temperament compatible with my own, and while Johnson could be ferocious I flatter myself in thinking I would not burden him with tedious questions or unfair expectations. I would simply revel in his company, in his twitches and bon mots, and would hope I could amuse him.
Who else? Montaigne. Spinoza. Keats. Whitman. Thoreau. Henry James. Anton Chekhov. Isaac Babel. Osip Mandelstam. Samuel Beckett. Only Beckett’s life overlapped mine. My overriding fear with all of them would be that I would bore them. The likeliest to be indulgent and curious are Whitman and Chekhov.
I can’t resist quoting Hazlitt quoting a little more of Lamb. Here he is justifying his choice of Sir Thomas Browne:
“`When I look at that obscure but gorgeous prose-composition, the Urn-burial, I seem to myself to look into a deep abyss, at the bottom of which are hid pearls and rich treasure; or it is like a stately labyrinth of doubt and withering speculation, and I would invoke the spirit of the author to lead me through it. Besides, who would not be curious to see the lineaments of a man who, having himself been twice married, wished that mankind were propagated like trees!”
And you, dear reader? Who among the writers of the past would you invoke?