Saturday, December 17, 2011

`He Is Nothing of Any Thing'

Boswell reports that Johnson is characteristically common-sensical, with a moral twist, when it comes to holiday observances:

“Christmas might be kept as well upon one day of the year as another; but there should be a stated day for commemorating the birth of our Saviour, because there is danger that what may be done on any day, will be neglected.”

Johnson here is less concerned with ecclesiastical niceties than with human nature. We procrastinate (see The Rambler #134). I have Christmas presents yet to buy, eight days before the big day, but here is a fitting and convenient way to assuage Johnsonian anxieties: Samuel Johnson Christmas ornaments. I’m partial to the Hodge, made of “high quality porcelain”:

“Instantly accessorize bare wall-space with our Hodge Ornament (Oval) Oval Ornament. Makes great room or office accessories, fun favors for birthday parties, wedding or baby shower Ornaments, or adding a unique, special touch to gift-wrapped packages. Comes with its own festive red ribbon for hanging. Hang 'em up!”

Also tempting are “Daddy’s Little Lexicographer” and the cucumber ornament, with an inscription edited down from this passage in Boswell’s The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides:

“It has been a common saying of physicians in England, that a cucumber should be well sliced, and dressed with pepper and vinegar, and then thrown out, as good for nothing.”

But I’ve settled my mind on the ornament inscribed “A man may be so much of every thing that he is nothing of everything.” This comes late in Boswell’s Life, when Johnson is seventy-four and a year away from death. Here is the full passage:

“I shall here insert a few of Johnson’s sayings, without the formality of dates, as they have no reference to any particular time or place.

“‘The more a man extends and varies his acquaintance the better.’ This, however, was meant with a just restriction; for, he on another occasion said to me, `Sir, a man may be so much of every thing, that he is nothing of any thing.’”

Prudent words. Well-roundedness, like open-mindedness, has its limits. In small type, J.V. Cunningham’s epigram might almost fit on a cheery Christmas ornament:

“This Humanist whom no beliefs constrained
Grew so broad-minded he was scatter-brained.”

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