Friday, May 07, 2010

`Sometimes the One, Sometimes the Other'

Self-revelation in the wrong hands – self-important hands, meaning most hands -- can be deadly. The temptation is to counterfeit strong emotion and pass it off as sincerity, something important and true, in the expectation of readers congratulating our “searing honesty.” If lanced and drained of false sentiment our essays, blogs and memoirs would heal without scars. The anomaly is a writer who reveals himself reluctantly, without posturing or preening, an after-thought more powerful for being oblique.

In the May issue of The New Criterion, Theodore Dalrymple (dba Anthony Daniels) concludes “A Shared Wretchedness” (subscription required), his comparative assaying of Jonathan Swift and Samuel Johnson, with intimate but carefully reticent self-disclosure:

“The Swift-Johnson dialectic, between uncontrollable, or at any rate uncontrolled, rage on the one hand (which has its illicit pleasures) and Augustan detachment on the other (a short step from indifference), is one that I have felt myself. My entire medical career has been spent among civil wars that pitted injustice against ambition or in situations in which vice and folly had no penalty and wisdom and virtue no reward. How was I to react? By shrugging my shoulders and accepting that ’twas ever thus and that the problem lies with Original Sin? Or that saeva indignatio, which suggests that things ought to be different? Should I take Johnson for my model, deeply and humanely understanding, or Swift, deeply outraged, at the risk of the accusation of misanthropy? The odd thing is that these two responses arise from the same apprehension. I still do not know the answer; I veer between the two. Detachment or involvement? Sometimes the one, sometimes the other.”

Placed at the conclusion of a moral/literary essay, Daniels’ shift to first person is bracing. The voice, though scholarly, is not a scholar’s. In its balancing of phrases and weighing of almost identical opposites, the stance is closer to Johnson’s than Swift’s, though both abhorred cant, that most Johnsonian of words. One of his definitions of it in the Dictionary is “a whining pretension to goodness, in formal and affected terms.” Along similar lines, Dalrymple’s soft allusion to Twelfth Night is revealing. Olivia (Act IV, Scene 1) says to Sir Toby Belch:

“Will it be ever thus? Ungracious wretch,
Fit for the mountains and the barbarous caves,
Where manners ne'er were preach'd! out of my sight!

No comments: