Sunday, November 06, 2011

`I Have to Admire Somebody Like That'

One stoned night – probably morning – some forty years ago we sat around the living room, as sophomores will, playing with ideas and issuing diktats. Sense is fluid in such settings, alternately ignored and imposed, and at some point the subject of privileged times and places materialized: If you could transport yourself to any time anywhere in history, when and where would that be?

A friend, a history major and today a museum curator, promptly chose Munich, November 1923. His object was at once noble and romantic. He would kill Hitler during the Beer Hall Putsch before he could be sent to Landsberg and write Mein Kampf.

My time-travel fantasy was equally romantic but less focused and, typically, rooted in books: London, circa 1760. I had recently been introduced to eighteenth-century England by a professor and had fallen hard for it (and her, in my customary unrequited fashion). I had no mission in mind and just wanted to hang around with Johnson, Boswell, Sterne, Hogarth, Smollett, Fielding, Goldsmith and Burke. A few decades earlier it would have been Swift and Pope. The thought that most of these men would have had nothing to do with an ill-mannered, underbred youth from the Colonies never entered my head.  

If the parlor game were revived today, my reply would remain the same, and I’m pleased to know the poet-novelist Fred Chappell shares my taste in historical eras and is more articulate about it than I could ever be. Asked to pick an alternate time and place by Irv Broughton (The Writer’s Mind: Interviews with American Writers, Vol. III, 1990) he explains:

“In the eighteenth century, there was the freedom to be a writer. It’s the first time we had professional writers, and also I admire the thought and impulse of the eighteenth century. Rationalism seems to me a tenable way of thought…That was the clearest period of human thought—the most detailed, the most involved, sometimes the most despairing. But it gave us, besides all the eighteenth-century literature we usually think of, it gave us our American Constitution.”

I wish I had said that, and he almost makes me contemplate changing my answer to late-twentieth-century North Carolina, but Chappell is just warming up. Asked to name his favorite eighteenth-century thinker, he replies:

“Samuel Johnson. I like a man who knows his own mind. I don’t like these wishy-washy guys who pussyfoot around with their statements. I like somebody who says something definite. I like all The Lives of the Poets. The judgments sometimes seem to us right on and sometimes they seem to us scatterbrained these days. Nevertheless, the authority of the prose, the ability to handle abstractions in such a way that they don’t seem abstract in the least but have the conviction of concrete statements, the ability to read and perceive the inner outlines, the inner structure of work, that seems to me to be very rare; and the ability to put things in definite form with seeming ease, even in conversation—I have to admire somebody like that.”

I might add to Chappell’s explanatory list of virtues Johnson’s human sympathy, his humility, his humor and ferocity, and the enormity of his learning. Few people have known as much about so many bodies of knowledge, from chemistry and theology to lexicography and the history of English poetry, as Johnson. Who wouldn’t want to meet him?  


mike zim said...

That coterie is my choice as well. Preferably, we'd be on adjacent "thrones of human felicity".

Terry Teachout said...

Time: 1934. Place: the Cherry Blossom, Twelfth Street and Vine, Kansas City. Coleman Hawkins comes to town with the Fletcher Henderson band and drops in on an after-hours jam session, and Lester Young comes by to cut him. I'm there, baby.

Helen Pinkerton said...

Patrick, I, too, would choose London in Johnson's time, with all the men and women whose conversation and writing he enjoyed. But shouldn't we add Joshua Reynolds to the group? And we would all have to do a lot more reading than we have, if we dared to open our mouths in that company.

Donald said...

Patrick, are you familiar with this poem, by the Australian poet R.F. Brissenden? Perhaps you will like it.

Samuel Johnson Talking

Two things he was afraid of--madness and death...

His great body shambled, groaned and stank,
Kicked stones, climbed mountains, rolled through
London streets;
Or snorted clumsy joy between the sheets
With ageing Tetty. When he ate and drank
Sweat dewed the straining forehead. Every breath
With every year grew harder: the huge frame,
Always ungovernable, in the end became
An enemy he hated more than death.

But words he loved and mastered: when he talked
Confusion died; the world grew still to hear
His voice commanding chaos into art.
Language became the tight-rope which he walked
Above the mindless rush of guilt and fear
That thundered like Niagara in his heart.

R. F. Brissenden