Thursday, July 12, 2012

`But Still a Sage'

“Reading, not rapping tables, is the true necromancy.”

So writes F.L. Lucas in his introduction to The Search for Good Sense: Four Eighteenth-Century Characters (1958), namely Johnson, Chesterfield, Boswell and Goldsmith. Lucas is referring to what he calls “the inestimable advantage of books”:

“To keep company with the living Johnson, poor Mrs. Thrale had to sit up night after night, dropping with drowsiness, and brew tea at four in the morning. But for us, the whim of a moment can call the buried Johnson, majestic yet docile, from the dead; with the push of a little finger he retires meekly to his shelf again; and one may go to bed, if one will, `domestic as a plate,’ at eight p.m.”

In a footnote to the sentence about Mrs. Thrale, Lucas quotes Sir John Hawkins quoting Johnson: “`Whoever thinks of going to bed before twelve o’clock is a scoundrel.’” This scoundrel, after reading Lucas’ chapter Tuesday evening, long before midnight, pulled his reading copy of Boswell’s Life from the shelf and browsed, the way I might call a friend to resume an old conversation. Johnson is more familiar and real-seeming to me, though dead almost two-hundred thirty years, than many people I’ve known in the flesh. I know more about him and can more accurately gauge his reactions to the characters and situations in my life. I can trust his example, which in each of us is more persuasive than our words, written or spoken. Remember those bracelets that had a vogue some years ago, the ones engraved “WWJD?” Without fear of blasphemy I ask, “What would Johnson do?” Lucas writes:

“Even among the fictitious characters of literature there are few that we know so well as Johnson, or find so gripping, so inexhaustible.”

Lucas is hardly an idolater, any more than I am. He’s rough on Johnson for his “conversational brutality” and bearish manners, though I’ve always thought most of Johnson’s antagonists got precisely what they deserved. Lucas claims Johnson as a thinker “often flounders,” but says: “The four great qualities of Johnson’s mind seem to me its range, its quickness and wit, its honesty, and its power (above all, in talk) of clear and decisive utterance.” I might add its humility, common sense and absence of pretentiousness. So many of the nominally intelligent people we meet are poseurs, self-serving frauds out to promote themselves, sabotaging with narcissism whatever gifts they might possess. It’s no wonder Johnson, once a moral exemplar for literates, is dismissed as a dry-as-dust reactionary. Who in our age wants to hear what Boswell reports him saying?:

“That man is never happy for the present is so true, that all his relief from unhappiness is only forgetting himself for a little while. Life is a progress from want to want, not from enjoyment to enjoyment.”

To my ears, that sounds like a man speaking from life, his own difficult experience, not from a pulpit or lectern. For these reasons I trust Johnson as I trust few others, in life or books. Lucas writes:

“For Johnson, the main thing we have to do in life was to live it. Hence his passion for biography was only equaled by his contempt for the brute, impersonal facts of history. He would have agreed with Goldsmith’s `ingenious gentleman’ who, when asked what was the best reading for the young, replied `The life of a good man’; and, when asked the next best, replied `The life of a bad one’. But he refused to disguise his boredom at topics more impersonal, like the Punic Wars, or Catiline’s conspiracy. Here he reminds one of that Socrates who turned away from the physical studies of his youth, to pursue the great problems of human life and ethics. Like Socrates, or Confucius, or Montaigne, Johnson was a practical thinker, a moralist, a sage—often, indeed, blinded by passion, but still a sage.”

1 comment:

Roger Boylan said...

Excellent post, Patrick. Hear, hear. I second your praise of The Great Cham. Just thinking about the old boy somehow cheers me up.