Friday, May 30, 2014

`To Put You in Mind of Johnson'

The Search for Good Sense: Four Eighteenth-Century Characters (1958) by F.L. Lucas, the critic, classicist, British intelligence officer during World War II and longtime instructor at Cambridge, best known for his volume on writing and appreciating good prose, Style (first published in 1955 and returned to print in 2012), is an old-fashioned and charmingly readable book, representative of a genre that once flourished and is now almost extinct. Lucas mingles history, biography and literary criticism, and is not shy about making ethical judgments. He confides in his reader. The war, the Holocaust and Communism leave their marks on Lucas and his book. Implicitly, with his frequent references to Hitler, Stalin and their followers, Lucas contrasts the twentieth century with the eighteenth and concludes we have little to brag about. 

Lucas’ four characters are Johnson, Chesterfield, Boswell and Goldsmith. In his scheme, not surprisingly, Johnson is the sun to the lesser satellites. Johnson plays a similar role in his subsequent volume, The Art of Living: Four Eighteenth-Century Minds (1959), devoted to Hume, Horace Walpole, Burke and Benjamin Franklin (one wishes he had, in addition, taken on Gibbon and Sterne, who make passing appearances in both volumes). Lucas is no hagiographer: “We treasure [Johnson’s] memory partly because he was often wise and good, but partly -- let us own it -- because he could also resemble an intoxicated hippopotamus.” (For another taste of Lucas’ approach, here’s what he says two chapters later about Johnson’s biographer: “The central dissension over James Boswell turns on the question -- ass or genius?”) In the last three and a half pages of his hundred-page chapter on Johnson, Lucas attempts to summarize his subject by asking what we can learn from him “in general.” 

First, Johnson teaches “the inestimable value of individuality.” Second, “individuality grows warped if it loses honesty,” which Lucas bolsters with Johnson’s “Clear your mind of cant.” Third, courage, what Lucas calls “the courage to ignore, when necessary, hostile opinion, and the courage to face unpleasant facts.” Fourth, reason: “Our rather seedy century has lost faith in reason, as in individual liberty.” Fifth, “Johnson’s vitality and gaiety.” Lucas writes: “He would never hold the place he does, had he been as over-earnest as Carlyle, as humourless as Ruskin, as languid as Walter Pater.” And sixth: “…he is a monument to the magic power of style.” Lucas elaborates: 

“His originality and strength lie, not in his views, but in his power to state them with vigour and vividness unsurpassed. His horse-sense is delivered with the kick of a horse; his spoken style had the weight of a hammer, and the edge of a sword.” 

True to the anti-cant spirit of his subject, Lucas adds what he calls “warnings” about Johnson, starting with the way he ignored “the supreme importance of health in mind and body.” He notes how Johnson, in The Vanity of Human Wishes, replaces Juvenal’s “mens sana in corpore sano” [“a sound mind in a healthy body”] with “a healthful Mind, / Obedient Passions and a Will resign’d.” Next, Lucas points out that Johnson’s own passions were far from “obedient”: “To us, probably, he would be far less interesting and amusing if he had kept pride, passion, and prejudice under better control. But it would have been better for him.” Third, and most dubiously, Lucas says Johnson is “an example of bad style as well as of good. At times his heavier writings become a dreary landscape measured only by longitude and platitude.” This applies only to the minor works – the drama Irene, for instance, which is virtually unreadable and unstageable. Lucas gives the almost-the-last-word, Johnson’s “best epitaph,” to William Gerard “Single-Speech” Hamilton, as reported by Boswell: 

“Johnson is dead. Let us go to the next best. There is nobody; no man can be said to put you in mind of Johnson.”

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