Thursday, November 14, 2013

`The Throne of Human Felicity'

New, much younger acquaintances, bright and amusing people, invited me to accompany them to a bar for an evening of “civilized dissipation,” as one of them put it. My younger self proved that this attractive phrase, all warm and cheery for most, is for me a delusional oxymoron. No war stories, I promise, but I could never drink in a civilized fashion. I went straight from nerd to Neanderthal, and skipped charming all together. I confess to indulging in nostalgia for the dark warmth of a tavern and good company, but those are my weaker moments. I have no argument with social drinking. It’s just not for me, or anyone around me when I'm drinking. Boswell, after all, reports Dr. Johnson saying: “There is nothing which has yet been contrived by man, by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern or inn.” And in his Life of Johnson (1787), Sir John Hawkins writes: 

“In contradiction to those, who, having a wife and children, prefer domestic enjoyments to those which a tavern affords, I have heard him assert, that a tavern-chair was the throne of human felicity.—`As soon,’ said he, `as I enter the door of a tavern, I experience an oblivion of care, and a freedom from solicitude: when I am seated, I find the master courteous, and the servants obsequious to my call; anxious to know and ready to supply my wants: wine there exhilarates my spirits, and prompts me to free conversation and an interchange of discourse with those whom I most love: I dogmatise and am contradicted, and in this conflict of opinion and sentiments I find delight.’” 

We know Johnson had his troubles with alcohol, especially in his younger years. In The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides (1785), Boswell reports Lady M’Leod, when Johnson declines a drink, as saying “I am sure, sir, you would not carry it too far,” to which Johnson replies: “Nay, madam, it carried me. I took the opportunity of a long illness to leave it off. It was then prescribed to me not to drink wine; and having broken off the habit, I have never returned to it.” Johnson is the rare moralist who speaks not from theory but experience. My one reservation about the passage quoted by Hawkins is Johnson’s love of “dogmatising.” Genius can get away with it. In full battle dress, cannon bristling, Johnson must have been a wonder of nature, a delightfully impressive spectacle. Most of us, when pontificating – bloviating, blustering, bullshitting – are merely tiresome.

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