Thursday, July 18, 2013

`This Idiot Had Been at the Moment Inspired'

We assumed the grownups were smarter than us, even when they behaved stupidly. Oafishness masked their true selves, which were brilliantly incisive and witty. When we got older, we would understand the subterfuge and adopt it ourselves, becoming comparably incisive and witty. But then we slowly woke to our delusion. The grownups were at least as dumb as we were. The mystery eluded them, too. Each of us, we learned with bitterness, remains an indelible amalgam of accomplishment and near-idiocy, and our insights into the true nature of others are pathetically incomplete and self-serving. We’re strangers to ourselves and others. 

In 1739, the satirical painter and printmaker William Hogarth was visiting the home of Samuel Richardson, author of Clarissa. Hogarth observed a stranger standing at the window, “shaking his head, and rolling himself about in a strange ridiculous manner. He concluded that he was an idiot, whom his relations had put under the care of Mr. Richardson, as a very good man.” 

The stranger was Samuel Johnson and the author of the anecdote was his future biographer, James Boswell. Johnson soon joined the conversation with Hogarth and Richardson, condemning George II as “unrelenting and barbarous.” Boswell adds, “In short, [Johnson] displayed such a power of eloquence, that Hogarth looked at him with astonishment, and actually imagined that this idiot had been at the moment inspired.” The painter and lexicographer-poet became friends, and after Hogarth’s death in 1764, Johnson wrote four lines about him, quoted in a footnote by Boswell: 

“The hand of him here torpid lies,
That drew the essential form of grace;
Here clos’d in death the attentive eyes,
That saw the manners in the face.” 

Boswell, the greatest of biographers, remains misunderstood, dismissed as a pox-ridden drunk, an idiot savant of literature. Privately, Boswell questioned his own gifts and suspected he was the fraud his detractors have dismissed. In his diary on Dec. 22, 1775 (Boswell: The Ominous Years 1774-1776), he writes, in a passage many of us could claim as our own: 

“There is an imperfection, a superficialness, in all my notions. I understand nothing clearly, nothing to the bottom. I pick up fragments, but never have in my memory a mass of any size. I wonder really if it be possible for me to acquire any one part of knowledge fully. I am a lawyer. I have no system of law. I write verse. I know nothing of the art of poetry. In short I could go through everything in the same way.”

1 comment:

George said...

Does he remain misunderstood? Macaulay died a long time ago, and some very good critics have had their shot at rehabilitating him. Marvin Mudrick is good on Boswell.