Monday, March 24, 2014

`I Left the Matter Uncertain'

“Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” 

Is it Dr. Johnson’s best-known quip? The kicker, of course, is “wonderfully.” Johnson was a satirist, among other things. Had the adverb been “intensely,” would we remember the line and would Boswell have bothered quoting it? Instead, Johnson sounds like Swift. In Distant Intimacy: A Friendship in the Age of the Internet (Yale University Press, 2013), Frederic Raphael writes to Joseph Epstein about “everyone’s favourite Englishman”: 

“Johnson was ugly and self-made and, I suppose, must have been enchanting in person, even though he doesn’t look as though he washed a lot. Many of his obiter dicta are worth bumping into, although that stuff about knowing that one is to be hanged in a fortnight’s time `concentrates a man’s mind’ has that tincture of callousness which approximates to the nastiest kind of camp (the attachment `concentration’ loiters adjacent to this obligatory Sontag reference).” 

I’ll leave the unpacking of the bookish word play to the reader, except to report that earlier in the volume, Epstein devotes more than two pages to Sontag, starting with: “If Susan Sontag only looked like Cynthia Ozick (plain, matronly, white hair, large round spectacles), American intellectual life would be a good bit healthier.” No argument there, though I don’t hear the hint of callousness Raphael detects in Johnson’s wisecrack. Harshly amusing, yes, but not uncaring. Chief among the qualities of so gruff a man was compassion. Consider the context. William Dodd was an Anglican priest born in 1729, who lived extravagantly and was known as the “Macaroni Parson.” In February 1777, he forged a £4,200 bond in the name of a former student. On June 27, he was hanged at Tyburn. 

Johnson had ghost-written a sermon for Dodd, “The Convict's Address to His Unhappy Brethren,” and one of Johnson’s friends, William Seward, questioned the sermon’s true authorship. Even after Dodd was hanged, Johnson wished to publicly preserve the ruse. Boswell reports: 

“Johnson disapproved of Dr. Dodd's leaving the world persuaded that [the sermon] was of his own writing. `But, Sir, (said I,) you contributed to the deception; for when Mr. Seward expressed a doubt to you that it was not Dodd's own, because it had a great deal more force of mind in it than any thing known to be his, you answered, --`Why should you think so? Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.’ JOHNSON. Sir, as Dodd got it from me to pass as his own, while that could do him any good, there was an IMPLIED PROMISE that I should not own it. To own it, therefore, would have been telling a lie, with the addition of breach of promise, which was worse than simply telling a lie to make it be believed it was Dodd's. Besides, Sir, I did not DIRECTLY tell a lie: I left the matter uncertain. Perhaps I thought that Seward would not believe it the less to be mine for what I said; but I would not put it in his power to say I had owned it.'” 

The reasoning is attenuated, and Johnson in effect is lauding his own work, but one admires his rectitude. Less a “tincture of callousness” than a benignly ingenious exercise in sophistry.

1 comment:

marly youmans said...

I like your defense of Johnson! I knew the quote but not the context...

I don't often read volumes of letters, but no doubt those are interesting ones. I think my favorite Epstein article (of those I have read) is "What Yiddish Says," about Isaac Bashevis Singer.