Friday, June 07, 2013

`A Collaborative Enterprise'

In “What Is It About Johnson?,” an essay collected in Samuel Johnson: The Arc of the Pendulum (eds. Freya Johnston and Lynda Mugglestone, Oxford University Press, 2013), the memorably named Isobel Grundy examines “what is it about Johnson that makes him so much studied, so much quoted, so much appealed to as an authority, yet so personally valued by his admirers, and on such various grounds.” A fruitful pursuit, one close to my heart, though I question Grundy’s use of “yet.” She suggests four explanations for our Johnsonian reverence: 

(1). “Pleasure from reading.” Grundy quotes Johnson’s “Life of Dryden”: “That book is good in vain, which the reader throws away.” Of course, one wouldn’t throw away a good book, only an inferior one. Reading Johnson – or Shakespeare, Melville, James, etc. – constitutes its own reward. 

(2). “Meaning or value: the sense that a book has given besides pleasure, that time reading is time invested as well as spent.” Well put. I never feel I’ve wasted my time reading Johnson, even familiar texts or passages. This is rooted in the long-established trust I feel in his company. He’s never cagey or cant-driven. His words are bluff and often can be tested against experience. 

(3). “The great writer must be a `brand’: that is, an identifiable, marketable commodity.” Here, Grundy loses me. I’ve never thought of Johnson or any other admired writer as a sought-after commodity. That might apply to Stephen King but not Swift or Pope. Grundy speaks of “brand loyalty,” a vulgarism that might apply to toothpaste or running shoes. Perhaps this is how literary academics think today. Grundy is professor emeritus of English at the University of Alberta. 

(4). “An author should somehow belong or relate to the reader personally.” Grundy here returns to form. This quality applies with special relevance to Johnson and his readers. He is preeminently our representative as a human being. He’s like us, only more so, and better able to analyze and articulate what it means to be human. Grundy writes: “For an author to offer personal contact, mind to mind, with a reader, is not a matter of writing personally or confessionally (confessional writing, indeed, often seems fairly oblivious of its readers).” 

Grundy says each of her four criteria is “colored by contrarieties,” though I think this is true of any first-rate writer. Contrariety implies tension and depth. A good sentence, a thought well-expressed, is transparent and at the same time suggests opacities. “The sky is blue” can never be an interesting statement unless the sky is not blue and the speaker has reasons for the denial. This explains why confessional writing is seldom of interest, or is of merely documentary interest. Grundy writes: 

“Johnson seldom offers a word without hard thinking behind it that unfolds, expands, changes shape in the reader’s mind; he seldom offers a sentence or paragraph or a whole essay whose direction can be foreseen. Objections raised en route sometimes redirect the entire argument. The effort one puts into reading him makes it, exhilaratingly, a collaborative enterprise.” 

When Grundy writes “Our personal relationship with him is no less personal for being that of mentor and disciple,” I at first agree with “mentor,” and then demur at “disciple.” Johnson doesn’t inspire discipleship, which carries a religious connotation that’s all wrong. (For “him” substitute “Jesus” in the sentence just quoted and read it again.) “Pupil,” yes; “follower,” no. And what can be more personal, more dynamically intimate, than a true teacher/student relationship? 

I quibble with some of Grundy’s formulations and conclusions, but clearly she honors Johnson with her devotion and depth of understanding. In her essay, she makes token gestures to kneejerk feminism and trendy politics, but about Dr. Johnson she is convincingly shrewd:
“The fame of Johnson the man of maxims needs no help from those who like to read him. But his readers (who owe him a debt of gratitude for pleasure enjoyed, for a sense of meaning in the maze of life, and for the sense of connection with which he honors them) need to keep reading him: honestly, carefully, through thickets and rough places in his always effortful and often paradoxical thinking.”

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