Thursday, August 02, 2012

`Intimate Circumstances of One Particular Life'

Theodore Dalrymple, fortunate man, owns the four-volume first edition of Lives of the English Poets, Dr. Johnson’s first-among-equals masterpiece, of all his works the one I most wish I had written, even more than his Dictionary. With his “Life of Savage,” Johnson invented biography as we know it in English, an eccentric and highly personal species of biography, unburdened with scholarly scaffolding or neurotic devotion to minutiae. Nor is he afraid to pass judgment on his subjects and their works. As Dalrymple notes, “Johnson peppers his biographical sketches with moral observations of great interest.” 

I first read the Lives as a freshman English major seriously in need of learning and self-confidence, and Johnson served as a useful model. In an eighteenth-century survey class, we were assigned a selection – Milton, Pope and Swift, as I recall – but I read the entire book over the Christmas break and the effect was liberating. That a man could be so casually learned, have such easy access to deep reserves of poetry and detail, and muster it to bolster moral and artistic arguments, suggested to this eighteen-year-old a template for living. Johnson respected tradition if not reputation. He could be eloquently brutish and write of Swift: 

“The person of Swift had not many recommendations. He had a kind of muddy complexion, which, though he washed himself with Oriental scrupulosity, did not look clear. He had a countenance sour and severe, which he seldom softened by any appearance of gaiety. He stubbornly resisted any tendency to laughter.” 

I still associate this with one of John Simon’s more amusing assaults on Barbra Streisand: “Miss Streisand looks like a cross between an aardvark and an albino rat surmounted by a platinum-coated horse bun. Though she has good eyes and a nice complexion, the rest of her is a veritable anthology of disaster areas. Her speaking voice seems to have graduated with top honors from the Brooklyn Conservatory of Yentaism.” The difference being, Johnson mingles admiration with distaste in his assessment of Swift: 

“It was from the time when he first began to patronise the Irish, that they may date their riches and prosperity. He taught them first to know their own interest, their weight, and their strength, and gave them spirit to assert that equality with their fellow-subjects to which they have ever since been making vigorous advances, and to claim those rights which they have at last established.”

Often, Johnson is composing a species of oblique autobiography, as in his “Life of Watts”:

“His tenderness appeared in his attention to children and to the poor. To the poor, while he lived in the family of his friend, he allowed the third part of his annual revenue, though the whole was not a hundred a-year; and for children he condescended to lay aside the scholar, the philosopher, and the wit, to write little poems of devotion, and systems of instruction, adapted to their wants and capacities, from the dawn of reason through its gradations of advance in the morning of life.”

In his customary headstrong fashion, Johnson mixes criticism and biographical detail, the personal and the documentary, and forges a new, vital, bursting-at-the-seams literary form, one that paved the way for Boswell’s masterwork. His Lives are messy and unsystematic. What makes them essential is Johnson’s critical acumen (even when his judgments are mistaken), moral passion and deep understanding of, and sympathy for, human nature. Richard Holmes writes in Dr. Johnson & Mr. Savage (1993):

“In Johnson’s hands, biography became a rival to the novel. It began to pose the largest, imaginative questions: how well can we know our fellow human beings; how far can we learn from someone else’s struggles about the conditions of our own; what do the intimate circumstances of one particular life tell us about human nature in general?”

1 comment:

George said...

I am no fan of Barbra Streisand. Yet I think that in a more civilized state of society, John Simon would have been horsewhipped, repeatedly, on the steps of his club for such remarks. After Simon had reviewed, mostly favorably, one of Norman Mailer's later novels (Harlot's Ghost?), Mailer let go with a long letter to the NY Times Book Review, stating among many other things, that he Mailer had challenged him Simon to arrange a meeting to discuss Simon's handling of Mailer's daughter (an actress) in a review; Mailer implied that Simon had chickened out. He included an anthology of such descriptions--I have long forgotten the actresses' names, but dare say most of them passed for good looking women to most who trusted in their own eyes rather than Simon's.

The Life of Milton is perhaps my favorite for its obiter dicta.