Tuesday, May 22, 2012

`Johnson's Impressed Me by Being Human'

I’ve been reading a good deal lately in a book called `Prayers and Meditations’ by Dr Johnson. I like it very much.”

So writes Ludwig Wittgenstein in a July 19, 1940, letter to his friend Raymond Townsend (Wittgenstein in Cambridge 1911-1951, ed. Brian McGuinness, 2008). His fondness for Johnson is hardly a surprise. With gusto he also read, in their original languages, St. Augustine, Pascal, Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience. Georg Henrik Von Wright, who succeeded Wittgenstein as professor at Cambridge, says Wittgenstein experienced “deeper impressions” from writers “in the borderlands between philosophy, religion, and poetry” than from the formal Western philosophical tradition, which certainly fits Johnson. In his biography of Wittgenstein, Ray Monk suggests he never read Aristotle. Samuel Beckett, too, was a great Johnson admirer, though also deeply read in formal philosophy.

In a letter to his student and friend Norman Malcolm, dated Sept. 8, 1945, Wittgenstein writes:

“The other day I read Johnson’s `Life of Pope’ and liked it very much. As soon as I get to Cambridge I’m going to send you a little book `Prayers and Meditations’ by Johnson. You may not like it at all,--on the other hand you may. I do.”

Johnson’s biography of Pope is one of the masterpieces in his Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets. In it Johnson writes of the poet:

“…but he read only to store his mind with facts and images, seizing all that his authors presented with undistinguishing voracity, and with an appetite for knowledge too eager to be nice. In a mind like his, however, all the faculties were at once involuntarily improving. Judgement is forced upon us by experience. He that reads many books must compare one opinion or one style with another; and when he compares, must necessarily distinguish, reject, and prefer.”

On Oct. 6, 1945, Wittgenstein mails a copy of Johnson’s Prayers and Meditations (third edition, H.R. Allenson, 1928) to Malcolm, and writes in the accompanying letter:

“This is the little book I promised to send you. It seems to be out of print so I’m sending you my own copy. I wish to say that normally I can’t read any printed prayers but that Johnson’s impressed me by being human. Perhaps you’ll see what I mean if you read them. As likely as not you won’t like them at all. Because you will probably not look at them from the angle from which I see them. (But you might.) If you don’t like the book throw it away.”

I admire people who give away books they love but attach no strings. Wittgenstein tells Malcolm he can read the Johnson or not. If he does read it, he’s free to like it or not. If he doesn’t like it, he can throw it away. Few things are more irksome than gifts wrapped in expectations. Go here to read selections from Johnson’s Prayers and Meditations. For example:  

“April 20, 1764, GOOD FRYDAY.

“I have made no reformation, I have lived totally useless, more sensual in thought and more addicted to wine and meat, grant me, O God, to amend my life for the sake of Jesus Christ. Amen.

“I hope

“To put my rooms in order*.

“I fasted all day.

“* Disorder I have found one great cause of idleness.”

Wittgenstein knew similar torments and made similar resolutions.

1 comment:

Helen Pinkerton said...

Your comments on Samuel Johnson's "Prayers and Meditations" sent me to my recently acquired (by gift) fine press edition of "Doctor Johnson's Prayers," edited by Elton Trueblood (James Ladd Delkin, Stanford University, California, 1945). The editor observes that "the form of most of the Prayers is that of the Collect, the form most demonstrated in the Book of Common Prayer." It is a "reasonably strict one, proceeding from Salutation to Ascription, to Petition, to Reason for Petition, to Conclusion." In each of the 99 selected prayers in this edition, with apparently effortless grace, Johnson records, through this conventional rhetorical form the unique and profound devotional experience of one of the most extraordinary minds in English literature. It is not surprising that Wittgenstein recommended the Prayers to a friend. However, I find the fragmentary "Meditations," which are frequently reprinted with the "Prayers," less admirable because less finished and less effective. Like Johnson in these, we all at some time self-scrutinize, make resolutions, break them, chastise ourselves, and those of us given to writing sometimes record this in our diaries. But few of us, I think, have ever left to posterity prose of the quality of Johnson's "Prayers." They are comparable to Donne's "Holy Sonnets," and other poems of the earlier period. I don't know what "angle" Wittgenstein read the prayers from, but in their straightness and purity of expression they stand uncomplicated by any "linguistic" or "analytical" diversions.