“Beckett loved Samuel Johnson. He was always referring to Johnson. `Rasselas is a grand book. He could be rude—but he had a kind heart. Towards the end of his life he suffered from dropsy. Water was blowing him up. When the doctors would not drain more of it off, he asked his servant [Frank] Barber – a negro, they were together for years – for a knife and stabbed and stabbed his own legs.’”
When, as kids, we dropped something on the floor, invariably someone observed: “You must have the dropsy.” The definite article was puzzling. If we were clumsy and given to dropping things, why “the dropsy?” Today, doctors diagnose edema, but the the is a vestigial trace of the old medical terminology for fluid retention in the soft tissue, before the discovery of digitalis. Similarly, one has “the croup” or “the hives.” Dropsy is from the Greek hydor, “water,” by way of Old French and Middle English.
Beckett’s admiration for Johnson’s work and life is well documented. He no doubt remembers the leg-slashing incident as an act of savage desperation, literally self-lacerating, but I suspect Beckett is also moved by Johnson’s stoical courage in the face of suffering and impending death. The event he describes occurred late on Dec. 12, 1784, the day before Johnson’s death at age seventy-five. In his biography, W. Jackson Bate recounts a veritable Merck Manual of maladies suffered by the writer at the end of his life: general circulatory disease, made evident six months earlier by a stroke; chronic bronchitis and emphysema, accompanied by growing breathlessness; congestive heart failure, the cause of Johnson’s fluid retention; and rheumatoid arthritis. Together, the emphysema and congestive heart disease resulted in what Johnson and his doctors called “asthma.” In Paradise Lost, Milton might have been diagnosing Johnson: “Dropsies, and Asthma's, and Joint-racking Rheums.”
The dropsy, by the end, had spread from Johnson’s chest to his feet and lower legs. Johnson asked his surgeon, William Cruikshank, to make additional cuts in his legs to drain the fluid. The doctor feared infection and necrosis, and had only gently lanced the surface. Bate reports Johnson’s protest: “Deeper, deeper; I want length of life, and you are afraid of giving me pain, which I do not value.” Another witness reports him saying: “I would give one of these legs for a year more of life, I mean of comfortable life, not such as that which I now suffer.” A friend of Johnson’s, William Windham, later spoke with Frank Barber and gave this account:
“He had compelled Frank to give him a lancet, and had besides concealed in the bed a pair of scissors, and with one or the other of these had scarified himself in three places, two in the left leg, etc….of which one in the leg [was] not unskillfully made; but the other in the leg was a deep and ugly wound from which, with the other, they suppose him to have lost nearly eight ounces of blood.”
Johnson seems to have believed that the dropsy, the swelling from fluid of the soft tissue in his legs, was the source of his illness rather than a symptom. Sir John Hawkins reports in his biography of Johnson:
“He looked upon himself as a bloated carcass; and, to attain the power of easy respiration, would have undergone any degree of temporary pain. He dreaded neither punctures nor incisions.”
Boswell, perhaps out of respectful deference toward his friend, makes no mention of the leg-slashing. Johnson’s last known words were made to his friend the Italian teacher Francesco Sastres. When he entered the room, Johnson reached out and said, “Iam Moriturus” – “I who am about to die.” Bate notes that the lifelong fighter may have been thinking of “the ancient Roman salutation of the dying gladiators to Caesar.” That is, “Ave, Imperator, morituri te salutant.”