Tuesday, April 08, 2014

`Splendor of Heart'

A reader wants to know more about the final paragraph of W. Jackson Bate’s The Achievement of Samuel Johnson (1955), the volume from which Robert D. Richardson takes the title of his most recent book, Splendor of Heart: Walter Jackson Bate and the Teaching of Literature (David R. Godine, 2013). The previous paragraph ends with a line from Johnson’s “Preface to Shakespeare”: “…the mind can only repose on the stability of truth.” Bate begins the next paragraph, unexpectedly, with a passage from a letter Coleridge wrote to Southey in 1794 about the crackpot political theory both were peddling, Pantisocracy. Its leading idea is, the poet says, “to make men necessarily virtuous by removing all Motives to Evil.” Johnson would have harrumphed ferociously at such dangerous naïveté. Bate quotes these lines: “The heart should have fed upon the truth, as insects on a leaf, till it be tinged with the colour, and show its food in every…minutest fiber.” Putting aside the dubious logic of the sentiment, Coleridge’s metaphor is vivid and beautiful. 

The truth, as Bate notes, channeling Johnson, is “far from simple,” and the heart “in its panic or calculated defenses, is far from being automatically receptive.” Bate then rises to stately Johnsonian eloquence: 

“Splendor of the heart is at most a slow and, in man’s tragically short life, a partial attainment; nor can it proceed apart from example. This indeed is the first premise and probably the final justification of the humanities: that the actual process of concrete example, in its particular and struggling context, takes precedence over abstractions.” 

Johnson is the most practical and common-sensical of writers and thinkers, the anti-theorist. Consider Boswell’s account of Johnson’s argument against Berkeley’s radical idealism: 

“After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the non-existence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it, ‘I refute it thus.’” 

Now that’s “splendor of the heart” by example, the sort of thing that inspires condescension among sophisticates. Without naming his source, Bate next quotes Johnson’s friend, Hester Lynch Piozzi, in her Anecdotes of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. During the Last Twenty Years of His Life (1786): “His soul was not different from that of another person, but…greater.” Johnson was like the rest of us, only more so. He was quintessentially human, not super-human, and that’s what made him great. Bate concludes his book:

“Trust—and from trust the open receptiveness that permits us to grow and learn from one another—is instilled by the union of familiarity and triumph, however precarious and hard-won. In Johnson the triumph is not added to the familiarity: it rises through the familiarity and by means of it.” 

We respond to Johnson’s familiarity, his kinship with us, regardless of our human frailty. Even with all of his enormous strength, he too was frail.


Dave Lull said...

Jacques Barzun on Berkeley:

As Coleridge put it, matter is like an invisible pincushion that we suppose necessary to hold the various "pins" that are our sensations... Berkeley asked: is the pincushion needed? Dr. Johnson -- no professional philosopher -- hearing of Berkeley's critique of matter, kicked a large stone "with mighty force until he rebounded from it," and said, "I refute it thus." But Berkeley never denied that things were real, hard as stone and heavy as Dr. Johnson. He pointed out -- and he has never been refuted -- that matter is a notion added to what the senses actually report. -- From Dawn to Decadence, p. 367

Quoted here by Gene Callahan:

"The Persistence of Error (Barzun Again)"


The Sanity Inspector said...

I love Johnson. I recently had a long, soul-purging phone conversation the other day, catching up & mending fences with a dear friend whom I had lost touch with over the past several years. Way too much had happened to both of us in the interim. A quote by the Doctor summed up the state of affair perfectly:

"To let friendship die away by negligence and silence, is certainly not wise. It is voluntarily to throw away one of the greatest comforts of this weary pilgrimage."

George Bernard Shaw may not have overestimated himself, but he certainly underestimated Johnson's gift when he said, "I have not wasted my life trifling with literary fools in taverns, as Johnson did, when he should have been shaking England with the thunder of his spirit."

Gene Callahan said...

Johnson's "refutation" of Berkeley shows that Johnson had probably never read Berkeley at all.