Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Enjoy, Endure

Decades of immersion in Johnsoniana – the work and life of Samuel Johnson – leave me convinced he’s the author of the purest distillation of his own thought and feeling (inextricably bound in Johnson) on record, and all in 19 words:

“The only end of writing is to enable the readers better to enjoy life, or better to endure it.”

Writing, in other words, is a moral act (a tautology if we assume every human act possesses a moral component). It carries responsibility and should not be undertaken frivolously. Writers enter into implied contracts with readers but the terms are elastic. Writers as various as Montaigne and P.G. Wodehouse help us “better to enjoy life” and both of them enable us “to endure it.” My only quibble with Johnson’s phrasing would be to replace “or” with “and” (not the odious “and/or”). I can’t think of a good or great writer who does not contribute to our enjoyment and endurance.

Alan Jacobs might agree. He has written a fine tribute to Johnson, “Man of Sorrow,” at Books & Culture. He too is taken with the passage quoted above, written by Johnson in 1756 in a review of Free Inquiry into the Nature and Origin of Evil by Soames Jenyns, whom Jacobs calls “an armchair philosopher.” Johnson makes him sounds like a naïve New Age twit. It’s fitting he is best remembered for the savage review Johnson gave his book, and equally fitting that Johnson’s shrewdest self-assessment should appear in a book review. He was a working journalist, a pen-for-hire, no sensitive plant awaiting the Muse. After quoting Johnson’s 19-word apologia, Jacobs writes:

"Jenyns' incompetent book does neither of these. Instead, by recommending a placid indifference to suffering, it relieves no one and magnifies frustration.”

That describes precisely how I react when reading self-help, pop psychology, pop religion or happy talk of any pedigree – no enjoyment, no endurance.

1 comment:

William A. Sigler said...

You view Johnson’s “purest distillation” as an apologia for writing as moral responsibility to the reader. I find that ironic, because the quote serves, in the context you strip it from, as part of Johnson’s willful misrepresentation as reader of Jenyns' writing:

“Of the productions of the last bounteous year, how many can be said to serve any purpose of use or pleasure! The only end of writing is to enable the readers better to enjoy life, or better to endure it; and how will either of those be put more in our power, by him who tells us, that we are puppets, of which some creature, not much wiser than ourselves, manages the wires! That a set of beings, unseen and unheard, are hovering about us, trying experiments upon our sensibility, putting us in agonies, to see our limbs quiver; torturing us to madness, that they may laugh at our vagaries; sometimes obstructing the bile, that they may see how a man looks, when he is yellow; sometimes breaking a traveller's bones, to try how he will get home; sometimes wasting a man to a skeleton, and sometimes killing him fat, for the greater elegance of his hide.”

As this passage shows, Jenyns was arguing that humans cause themselves pain by thoughtlessly torturing and killing animals for sport because it keeps us from understanding the compassion God has for man, which is our natural inheritance as part of the larger Chain of Being. In Johnson’s hands this becomes a simple-minded cosmology of God dismembering men like we do frogs limb by limb with glee. Spinning this fantasy to conclusion, he pronounces it unsavory because it does not bring pleasure to the reader, and thus he feels himself qualified to condemn Jenyns as not serving the utilitarian purposes of writing.

This insincere and bullying tone pervades the review, as Johnson turns passage after passage of Jenyns' perfectly lucid and sometimes distinctive text into ribbons of straw man logic.

It's clear that Johnson was only so comfortable with the New Age thinking of his time, as exemplified by Pope's dictum in “Essay on Man”:

"All nature is but art unknown to thee;
All Discord, Harmony, not understood;
All partial Evil, universal Good."

But why was Jenyns designated the proxy made to bear the charge of egotist without portfolio? Jenyns himself provides some insight on this, in his epitaph for Johnson that did extract vindication of sorts on this charge:

“Here lies poor Johnson. Reader, have a care,
Tread lightly, let you rouse a sleeping bear;
Religious, moral, generous and humane
He was—but self-sufficient, rude, and vain;
Ill-bred and over-bearing in dispute,
A scholar and a Christian—yet a brute.
Would you know all his wisdom and his folly,
His actions, sayings, mirth, and melancholy,
Boswell and Thrale, retailers of his wit,
Will tell you how he wrote, and talk’d, and cough’d and spit.”