Saturday, November 27, 2010

`The Past is All We Are'

Dr. Johnson masquerades as a past-loving, present-loathing crank, dwelling in delusory nostalgia for a Golden Age. When Boswell asks him to compare their England to the England of Johnson’s youth, he replies:

“Ah, sir, hadst thou lived in those days! It is not worth being a dunce now, when there are no wits.”

This he uttered in 1769 at the age of sixty (while discussing Pope's Dunciad), and one longs to hear what he would make of our wit-less century. One of the pleasures of reading Johnson, of living with him across a lifetime, is the reassuring certainty he will eventually contradict himself, or seem to, for he is like us, always human, only more so. Consistency can be so inhibiting and dull. In 1783, age seventy-four, Johnson tells Boswell:

“I am always angry when I hear ancient times praised at the expense of modern times. There is now a great deal more learning in the world than there was formerly; for it is universally diffused. You have, perhaps, no man who knows as much Latin and Greek as Bentley; no man who knows as much mathematicks as Newton; but you have many more men who know Greek and Latin, and who know mathematicks.”

Like any thinking, feeling person of advanced middle years, Johnson feels the passing of time like a nagging ache in the joints. He neither denies the discomfort nor longs for radical remedies. Rather, his prescription is palliative care. He soothes symptoms, for the diagnosis is invariably chronic and fatal. The past is neither unblemished nor worthy of scorn. His concern is conserving what is best, not obstructing the new because it’s new. Familiarity, Michael Oakeshott wisely notes, is what we esteem in the present, not the past. These thoughts are prompted by a protracted reading of C.H. Sisson’s Collected Poems (Carcanet, 1998), including “In the Silence” from 1993, when Sisson turned seventy-nine:

“The future is too far:
The past is all we are.”

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