Friday, March 04, 2011

`In the Rapture of Attention'

The third of five portraits Sir Joshua Reynolds painted of his friend Samuel Johnson came to mind as I was tutoring my fourteen-year-old student after school on Thursday. The only light in his family’s dining room comes from the chandelier hanging above the table. Dust dims the low-wattage bulbs and I’m forever adjusting my bifocals, angling books and papers to maximize illumination and holding them against my nose.

I folded back the cover of my student’s algebra workbook, trying to decipher his hard-lead scrawl, when I remembered the picture Reynolds painted of Johnson in 1775 – an uncanny likeness to yours truly, I thought, but for the wig. (Has any great man ever looked less great than Johnson?) In his life of Johnson, John Wain says Reynolds “understood Johnson’s mind and heart perfectly,” and describes the portrait of Johnson that renders

“…the mature critic of literature and society. Like the first portrait it shows him working; not sitting at a desk producing a daily stint of words but holding up to his fierce, near-sighted gaze a book that in the rapture of attention he is grasping and forcing out of shape, the covers back to back (it will never be the same again). Once again one notices the hands: large, strong, actively participating in the thrust towards knowledge and ideas, as if wisdom were a juice that could be literally squeezed out of dry paper and ink.”

Certainly I’ve known “rapture of attention” while reading, though I wasn’t holding the algebra text with that degree of ardor. Once I snapped in half an old Oxford University Press edition of Ben Jonson’s plays while reading it, though its spine had already been cracked by previous readers. To identify with Johnson is a risky enterprise, at once presumptuous and inevitable. In his humanity he was superhuman. We read him to learn to bear our common, failing, myopic lot.

1 comment:

Eric Thomson said...

Johnson seems to have read in much the same way as he ate. ‘I mind my belly very studiously’ he once said, and equally studiously he bellied his mind. Fortunately perhaps, there are no portraits of Johnson tucking in (as he didn't care very much for this 'blinking Sam', a 'slobbering Sam' would have been beyond the pale), but Boswell’s description does the job quite well enough : ‘When at table, he was totally absorbed in the business of the moment; his looks seemed riveted to to his plate; nor would he, unless when in very high company, say one word, or the least attention to what was said by others, till he had satisfied his appetite, which was so fierce, and indulged with such intenseness, that while in the act of eating, the veins of his forehead swelled, and generally a strong perspiration was visible’ (Life, 1763 aetat. 54). Johnson and Reynolds had made an excursion together the year before, in August 1762. From James L. Clifford’s pamphlet ‘Johnson & Reynolds: their Trip to Devon’, acquired on a recent visit to the Gough Square House (my third), pp.6-7:

‘We have various descriptions of Johnson’s normal behaviour in a stagecoach. With his nearsightedness, there was not much pleasure in viewing the scenery. Instead he usually passed the time reading some old familiar classic. Once he took along a copy of Euripides, another time Lucan, and another Pomponius Mela. Occasionally he would throw the book down, if struck by some remark made by one of the other travellers, and would pour forth “his knowledge and eloquence in a full stream, to the delight and astonishment of his auditors.” On one occasion he surprised his companions by a long dissertation on the digestive faculties of dogs. When the coach halted for a change of horses or for dinner Johnson might vehemently attack a stewed carp, or whatever was supplied, using his fingers.’
Whether it was stewed carp or Euripides, Mela or melon, J. seems to have brought his prodigious digestive faculties to bear in the same rapture of attention.