Tuesday, June 28, 2011

`Or Beset Life with Supernumerary Distresses'

James V. Schall, S.J., has been reading Johnsonian Miscellanies, two of the most entertaining and instructive volumes in the language, and calls them “a regular treasure house of solemn, delightful, witty, and touching remembrances.” Largely because he was so thoroughly human, compromised by faults and flaws like the rest of us, almost anything written about Johnson makes for compelling reading. Of Johnson’s gift for conversation, as chronicled by Boswell and others, Schall writes:

“We must remember that truth ultimately exists in conversation, not in books. Johnson’s conversations, like Plato’s dialogues, are the closest we can come in writing to conversing with a man who has gone before us.”

True enough, but had Johnson not been a writer of genius – author of the Dictionary, the periodical essays, “The Vanity of Human Wishes,” Lives of the English Poets – no one would have bothered recording his talk. He would have been a nullity, like most of us; not so much forgotten as never remembered. Schall quotes a remark attributed to Johnson in a section of the Miscellanies titled “Dicta Philosophica”: “Every man who writes thinks he can amuse or inform mankind, and they must be the best judges of his pretensions.” Schall comments:

“The man who writes has no idea who, if any one of mankind’s membership, will read his words or laugh at his jokes.”

Johnson’s comment restates his famous dictum from the Soame Jenyns review: “The only end of writing is to enable the readers better to enjoy life, or better to endure it.” Johnson would have understood and approved of David Slavitt’s “Youth, Age, Life, and Art” (Rounding the Horn, 1978):

“Innocent, young, I wove syntactical nets
to snare moments of joy, but when one gets
older, the trick is reversed, and, late at night,
to fend the beasts off—fear, rage, and despair—
that prowl the dark or hover in the air,
I sit in my circle of lamplight and I write.”

The writer, of course, counts as his own first reader, and ought to write in such a way as to please himself. Johnson knew his personal beasts intimately, and writes of them persuasively, in an unmistakably first-hand manner, as in The Rambler #126:

“Fear is implanted in us as a preservative from evil; but its duty, like that of other passions, is not to overbear reason, but to assist it; nor should it be suffered to tyrannize in the imagination, to raise phantoms of horror, or beset life with supernumerary distresses.”

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