Arguably it's a fate preferable to oblivion – surviving as a literary footnote because one’s book is memorably eviscerated by a much greater writer. We know Soame Jenyns because Samuel Johnson in 1757 reviewed his Free Inquiry into the Nature and Origin of Evil. Even Johnson’s most learned and level-headed biographer, W. Jackson Bate, calls Jenyns’ volume “a foolish book and foolish in many ways,” but concedes Johnson uses “an array of artillery” to demolish it. Jenyns’ thesis reminds me of a television interview some forty years ago with another deep thinker, Arlo Guthrie, who denied the existence of evil with these words: “If it is, it’s gotta be good.” Q.E.D.
The latest writer to examine Jenyns’ book, Johnson’s cannonade and the nature of evil is Theodore Dalrymple in “Modernity’s Uninvited Guest”:
“Self-understanding may even have regressed since Johnson, for no man was better at self-examination than he. If more people proved adept at it, perhaps the prevalence of evil would decline. Johnson was highly imperfect, knew himself to be so, and always struggled against his imperfections without expecting more than partial victory.”
Dalrymple’s eye is focused almost exclusively on the question of evil, so he makes no mention of the nineteen words in Johnson’s essay that I prize above all the others. They distill Johnson’s thinking and echo my own:
“The only end of writing is to enable the readers better to enjoy life, or better to endure it.”
Writing instructs and that doesn’t necessarily make it dictatorial, elitist, self-righteous or school-marmish. A good writer writes with authority. He has something to give us – pleasure, insight, information – something he convinces us is worth having. He may do so by arguing, explaining, seducing or amusing. An exchange takes place: He convinces us to listen and we give our attentiveness, which is respectful but neither naïve nor credulous. If he tries too hard – if he tailgates like an overheated driver – the contract is broken and we close the book. If we are writers and don't uphold our end of the bargain, we're soon out of readers. Yvor Winters writes:
“Write little; do it well.
Your knowledge will be such,
At last, as to dispel
What moves you overmuch.”