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.