Sunday, May 12, 2013

`Reason Does Not Touch the Heart'

As an epigraph to his poem “In One Ear,” Joseph Salemi appends a passage from Boswell’s London Journal dated June 4, 1763:

“In the Strand I picked up a little
profligate wretch and gave her sixpence.”

Less than three weeks earlier, on May 17, Boswell had met Dr. Johnson for the first time, at Tom Davies’ bookshop. Over the next six weeks, the two men choreographed the makings of a friendship, but one wonders how much Johnson knew of Boswell’s life in London. After the sentence Salemi lifts from the Journal, Boswell writes: 

“She allowed me entrance. But the miscreant refused me performance. I was much stronger than her, and volens nolens [“willing, unwilling”] pushed her up against the wall. She however gave a sudden spring from me; and screaming out, a parcel more whores and soldiers came to her relief. `Brother soldiers,’ said I, `should not a half-pay officer r-g-r for sixpence. And here has she used me so-and-so.” 

The journal’s editor, Frederic Pottle, in the first edition (1950) adds a footnote to Boswell’s abbreviated word: “Roger, a word of other meaning than it has acquired since the introduction of radio-telephony.” Boswell continues: “I got them on my side, and abused her in blackguard style, and ten left them. At Whitehall I picked up another girl to whom I called myself a highwayman and told her I had no money and begged she would trust me. But she would not.” 

WWJD: What Would Johnson Do? This makes for unpleasant reading, compounded when we recall its author is the foremost biographer in the language, perhaps the father of the so-called New Journalism. None of this disturbs Salemi, a realist when it comes to human beings: 

“Boswell listened, Johnson talked.
Then the Scotsman went and walked
London's alleyways and mews
Seeking trollops from the stews.
All that weighty, sage advice
From the Doctor, without price,
Never made the slightest dent
On a youth whose natural bent
Drew him towards the rankest sluts
Brains were trumped by churning guts.
Such are humans. At the best
We may listen, be impressed,
Marvel at sagacious wit
Then go act as we see fit.
Mind and will stay far apart;
Reason does not touch the heart;
Impulse shatters logic's chain;
Argument goes down the drain.
Aristotle's books slam shut
When we are in heat or rut.”

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