Friday, April 24, 2009

`The Paradigm of Civilization and Proportion'

“Dr [Johnson’s] dogmatisme was the façade of consternation. The 18th century was full of ahuris [“bewildered people”] – perhaps that is why it looked like the age of `reason’ – but there can hardly have been many so completely at sea in their solitude as he was or so horrifiedly aware of it – not even Cowper. Read the Prayers & Meditations if you don’t believe me.”

At last, The Letters of Samuel Beckett: 1929-1940 has arrived, and my first act was to look up the other Samuel, Johnson, in the index, where I found 35 citations. The passage above is from a letter to his friend Thomas McGreevy, written Aug. 4, 1937. Beckett spent several years in the nineteen-thirties researching Johnson’s life and work, focusing on his relationship with Mrs. Thrale. The result was an abandoned play, “Human Wishes,” not published until 1984 as a “dramatic fragment” in Disjecta.

Of growing interest to me are the occult kinships and unacknowledged convergences between writers separated by time and space. This relates to Guy Davenport’s notion that every text is a response to another text, whether or not the author announces it or is even aware of it. Everyone knows Beckett revered his countryman, James Joyce, but how many of Beckett’s avant-garde-minded admirers know of or share his lifelong fascination with Dr. Johnson? The letters’ editors (the first of a projected four volumes) tell us Beckett visited Johnson’s birthplace in Lichfield by himself on Aug. 1, 1935. The following year he translated Johnson’s famous letter to Lord Chesterfield into German. He also suggests that a film of Johnson’s life be made, with Charles Laughton in the starring role. All of this suggests Beckett felt a deep emotional identification with his fellow scholar and melancholic. In How It Was, her memoir of a 30-year friendship with Beckett, Anne Atik writes:

“Johnson was the one subject most certain to animate Sam, no matter how despondent he’s been before. There were many evenings, as mentioned, when he could say nothing [much like Johnson – and Cowper], show nothing, would hide his eyes and answer mechanically, albeit with his never-failing courtesy, until Johnson’s name came up (I’d bring it out like whiskey, or medicine). He dipped into Johnson constantly, for sheer pleasure; it was a source of relief, and, for the sake of our conversations, he was very glad that I considered it such, too.”

Atik continues:

“He had innumerable books concerning Johnson, as well as a 1799 edition of his Dictionary. One day he came in with a delighted expression on his face, giving a quick rub to his nose, smoking his cigar, saying, `Just read this in Johnson’s Dictionary – his definition of `lamentation’: `audible wail’…Johnson’s conversation – in spite of his notorious rages – was for Sam the paradigm of civilization and proportion; his kindness and hospitality to the poor and helpless, exemplary.”

Beckett’s mention of Cowper (1731-1800) is unexpected, though it shouldn’t be, given the poet’s history of depression and failed suicides. He mentions having read Lord David Cecil’s 1930 biography of Cowper, The Stricken Deer (in an Aug. 7, 1936, letter to McGreevy), but adds: “How did he ever manage to write such bad poetry?” I wonder if Beckett knew Cowper’s “Lines Written During a Period of Insanity,” in particular the final stanzas:

“Hard lot! encompassed with a thousand dangers,
Weary, faint, trembling with a thousand terrors,
I'm called, if vanquished, to receive a sentence
Worse than Abiram's.

“Him the vindictive rod of angry Justice
Sent quick and howling to the centre headlong;
I, fed with judgement, in a fleshy tomb, am
Buried above ground.”

ADDENDUM: Dave Lull passes this along:

"Anne Atik in How It Was also wrote of SB: `Sam never asked tokeep any book I lent him . . . .' `But there was one he did want to keep: . . . in the fall of 1988 . . . the relatively recent biographyof Johnson by Walter Jackson Bate . . . .' `I pressed the book on him, knowing that there was material there which he couldn't possibly have read. I did not have to wait long for his reaction. For the first and only time he asked whether he could keep it, looking at me very intently, his eyes all but declaring, 'No way, sorry, you can't sayno.' `We talked about it at subsequent meetings, going over favourite titbits: Johnson's miserable time in Oxford, his shame at not having the proper shoes; the time that - as I kept reminding him - Oliver Edwards, one of Johnson's fellow students, said, on meeting him again, 'You are a philosopher, Dr Johnson. I have tried too in my time to bea philosopher but I don't know how, cheerfulness was always breaking in.' Or the extraordinary George Psalm-anazar, etc...[Ms. Atik's ellipsis] Sam often spoke of those in any way connected to Johnson or his period - 'Kit' Smart ('I'd as lief pray with Kit Smart as anyone else') and his circle of friends, Garrick, Burney, Goldsmith etc. - as though he'd known them intimately. He did.'" (pages 78-79)

"I enjoy knowing this for some reason."

Me too, Dave.


Nige said...

Yes - or the last lines of The Castaway - 'No voice divine the storm allay'd,
No light propitious shone;
When, snatch'd from all effectual aid,
We perish'd, each alone:
But I beneath a rougher sea,
And whelm'd in deeper gulphs than he..'

And isn't 'the facade of consternation' a wonderful phrase?

Eric Thomson said...

"Buried above ground ...who up below So hourly died that he lived on till now" (First Love) Depressives splice quite nicely.

Rebecca V. O'Neal said...

@Nige - I clung to those exact lines in Cowper's The Castaway while beating back my own bouts of ennui. For me, it was because he seemed to have fully expressed, nearly 200 years before my birth no less, exactly what I was feeling - more eloquently and pithily than I ever could.

These "occult kinships and unacknowledged convergences" can be comforting - the writer finding solace in the written. I'm now having a Montaigne moment - "On Idleness" seeming particularly poignant, relevant.

Anonymous said...

i was pleased to discover that Wittgenstein was a Dr Johnson fan. i think certain writers have a 'presence' which comforts, fascinates, teaches, almost independently of, or parallel to, anything they actually write. i think it's to do with their strength of character, it seems like a battle flag held high for all to see. You end up reading their biographies as much as their actual words, not out of idle secondariness but because their very lives seem a great book, in which much may be read; not their words only but their deeds.

i too visited Dr Johnson's home. i had an interview in Lichfield and took the opportunity to pay homage.

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