Tuesday, February 25, 2014

`You Cannot Alter One Conjunction'

Dr. Johnson is often at his most autobiographical when most absent from the page. Consider The Rambler #203, published on this date, Feb. 25, in 1752. Johnson’s wife, Elizabeth Jervis Porter -- “Tetty” to her husband – was dying. She was sixty-three; Johnson, forty-two. The following month the author presented his wife with the first collection of Rambler essays published in book form. She signed the first of the six volumes on March 16, leaving the only sample of her handwriting that survives. On the evening of the following day, March 17, she died, and Johnson for more than thirty years seldom ceased grieving. Rambler #203 opens with these stately words:

“It seems to be the fate of man to seek all his consolations in futurity. The time present is seldom able to fill desire or imagination with immediate enjoyment, and we are forced to supply its deficiencies by recollection or anticipation.” 

Johnson is not a writer for those seeking palliative uplift. Even without knowing the autobiographical subtext, his thoughts stir us with their dignity and gravitas, but offer little consolation.  Nowhere does he mention Tetty nor her illness and imminent death, nor does he resort to the first-person singular. He never mentions God, but writes: 

“…this felicity is almost always abated by the reflection that they with whom we should be most pleased to share it are now in the grave. A few years make such havock in human generations, that we soon see ourselves deprived of those with whom we entered the world, and whom the participation of pleasures or fatigues had endeared to our remembrance.” 

The essay moves with the inexorability of a syllogism, dispatching the false consolations of material wealth and renown. “Hope is the chief blessing of man,” he concludes, hinting at the afterlife, “and that hope only is rational, of which we are certain that it cannot deceive us.” Rambler #203 is logically argued and tightly written, as though only artful form could contain Johnson's anguish. His discipline as a writer and his instinct for form are the opposite of Emerson’s and his more recent heirs. Charles Lamb, in an undated fragment collected in Vol. 6 of the Life, Letters and Writings of Charles Lamb (ed. Percy Fitzgerald, 1892), writes of Dr. Johnson: 

“A close reasoner and a good writer in general may be known by his pertinent use of connections. Read any page of Johnson, you cannot alter one conjunction without spoiling the sense: it is a linked chain throughout. In our modern books, for the most part, the sentences in a page have the same connection with each other that marbles have in a bag: they touch without adhering.”

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