Friday, May 31, 2013

`Plausible, Intelligent, and Faithful to the Pressure of the Moment'

In Chapter 8 of The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia, the title character asks Imlac why his father desires more wealth when “it was already greater than he durst discover or enjoy.” Imlac answers: “Inconsistencies…cannot both be right, but, imputed to man, they may both be true.” This is the voice of Dr. Johnson the moral and psychological realist. Naïve detractors might call him a cynic. We know he’s merely reporting the evidence of daily existence. Despite a century or more of social engineering, contradiction and internal division remain our essence. Without them, there would be no literature or music, no striving after excellence in any human realm.  Systematic consistency in a man or woman suggests severe mental illness or at least unpleasantness. Who cares for the company of clockwork regularity? That defines a robot, not a person. Paul Fussell in Samuel Johnson and the Life of Writing (1971) applies the insight to the writer himself: 

“And why shouldn’t Johnson be inconsistent? He had no notion that two hundred years after his time he would be an `object of study.’ He is engaged in a day-by-day struggle to be plausible, intelligent, and faithful to the pressure of the moment, and the schemes and systems of a reason-worshipping world—especially those systems the future has devised for making literature a teachable, memorizable subject—are irrelevant to his activity. Perhaps they are irrelevant to ours.” 

Fussell helps explain to me my growing devotion to Johnson as writer and man. It’s that notion of both writing and life as “day-by-day struggle to be plausible, intelligent, and faithful to the pressure of the moment.” It turns on the inconsistent, sometimes contradictory meanings of “professional.” The word can be applied, the Oxford English Dictionary suggests, to a person who “engages in a specified occupation or activity for money or as a means of earning a living, rather than as a pastime. Contrasted with amateur.” This meaning, reported since Shakespeare’s time, lies behind Johnson’s best-known bon mot: “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” A secondary meaning doesn’t emerge until the twentieth century: “has or displays the skill, knowledge, experience, standards, or expertise of a professional; competent, efficient.” This, too, in his sloppy, obsessive, idiosyncratic way, helps define Johnson. Both meanings are commendatory, but especially the second. Johnson practiced his craft with skill and dedication, whether assembling a dictionary or editing Shakespeare. 

I sense another, newer meaning to “professional,” one that emerged in recent decades as many classes of work grew increasingly “professionalized.” The closest entry to this sense I find in the OED is: “In humorous or derogatory use. Of a person: habitually making a feature of a particular activity or attribute, esp. one that is generally regarded with disfavour; inveterate.” In the older senses outlined above, one could be professional while maintaining one’s amateur status. One could earn a living while skillfully practicing a trade, and never stop loving it. Perhaps the truest professionals are amateurs.

The noun I associate with this newer “humorous or derogatory use” is careerist, which the OED defines as one who is “mainly intent on the furtherance of his career, often in an unscrupulous manner.” One thinks first of politicians and bureaucrats, of course, but the type has metastasized across all boundaries. One encounters them in academia, in hospitals and at newspapers. David Myers has detected it in the literary world and diagnoses “a generational shift toward the literary career and away from a conception of literature (in Cynthia Ozick’s words) as a `holy vessel of imagination.’”

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