Thursday, January 28, 2010

`Impishness, Almost'

Boswell asked Johnson about John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728) and its reputation for making criminality attractive to playgoers. Johnson was skeptical:

“...I do not believe that any man was ever made a rogue by being present at its representation.”

He modifies his judgment somewhat, saying “I do not deny that it may have some influence, by making the character of a rogue familiar, and in some degree pleasing.” It’s as though we are spectators in the theater of Johnson’s mind, watching him revise his thoughts. Boswell next reports: “Then collecting himself, as it were, to give a heavy stroke: `There is in it such a labefactation of all principles as may be injurious to morality.”

In his Dictionary, Johnson defines “to labefy” as “to weaken; to impair.” By the 20th century, “labefactation” had labefied to “labefaction.” The etymology is Latinate, of course -- labare, “to totter,” and facere, “to make.” Webster’s gives “a weakening or impairment esp. of moral principles or civil order.”

I would suggest Johnson had his doubts about Gay’s roguish play but was also having fun, probably at Boswell’s expense. Johnson was a ferocious arguer but also a wit, often of a distinctly playful sort. His prose like his conversation is wonderfully limber and expressive, not the pompous, desiccated stuff detractors claim. In an essay about Johnson collected in Literary Distractions (1958), Ronald Knox writes:

“…the intellectual trick which is perhaps most characteristic of him is that of coining a phrase, usually with one good long word [“labefactation”] at the heart of it, to act as ballast, which sets on record for all time, marmoreally [“one good long word”], Johnson’s attitude to this or that, this person or that. It is probably a mistake to think of Johnson as specially fond of long words; certainly a mistake to think you can parody Johnson by using a lot of long words. He wrote at a period when long words were used; what is probably the best sentence in his Journey to the Western Islands is written, I think, entirely in monosyllables. But he had a playful love of using a long word now and again for its judicial effect; it was a kind of signature.”

Knox’s observation is acute and serves to remind us that Johnson, like many writers of the 18th century, could be witty or even raucously funny without announcing the fact and chortling at their own comic sense. Look at Dryden, Pope, Swift and Sterne – all funny men, all elegant writers. Consider Boswell’s next sentence, after the one deploying “labefactation”:

“While [Johnson] pronounced this response, we sat in a comical sort of restraint, smothering a laugh, which we were afraid might burst out.”

Yes, but who would do the laughing, and at whom? Knox writes later in his essay:

“This occasional note of frivolousness – impishness, almost – suffices to mark out Johnson clearly enough from the highbrows, of his own age or another.”

1 comment:

Andrew McGilllivray said...

Johnson was just as impishly judicial six years later (aet 72) with 'a bottom of good sense' Tellingly, it is English ‘bottom’ that is his provocative first choice, while he keeps ‘fundamentally sensible’ in reserve, to be brought down on tittering heads like a mace. The play on ‘fundament’, which he coyly defines as the ‘back part of the body’, serves merely to up the ante.‘Where’s the merriment?’ Never very far way with Johnson.