Sunday, May 25, 2014

`Upon Which Johnson Directly Swam Into It'

While my youngest son and his fellow swimmers competed against another team, and my wife worked poolside as a scorer and I manned the concession stand, my thoughts turned on a beautiful spring morning in Houston to – death, of course, and madness. I remembered the one who was “not waving but drowning,” and the one who resolved that “the day was beautiful and it seemed to him that a long swim might enlarge and celebrate its beauty.” Morbid, perhaps, but that’s one of the risks run by a bookish sort of mind. Everything reminds you of something else, and the connection isn’t always cheery. Even as a kid I preferred lakes and rivers to swimming pools – the chemicals, the unnatural blue of the pool walls and the lifeguards like safety storm troopers, enforcing the rules and killing the fun. It was all prologue to today’s risk-free, fun-free age of bicycle helmets, seat belts and swimming goggles. Some of us have felt otherwise. Here is Boswell reporting, in 1775, on Dr. Johnson’s surfeit of fearlessness, even when swimming:not waving but drowning

“He feared death [Boswell writes], but he feared nothing else, not even what might occasion death…. One day at Mr. [Topham] Beauclerk’s house in the country, when two large dogs were fighting, he went up to them, and beat them till they separated; and at another time, when told of the danger there was that a gun might burst if charged with too many balls, he put in six or seven and fired it off against a wall. Mr. [Bennet] Langton told me that when they were swimming together near Oxford, he cautioned Dr. Johnson against a pool, which was reckoned particularly dangerous; upon which Johnson directly swam into it. He told me himself that one night he was directly attacked in the street by four men, to whom he would not yield, but kept them all at bay, till the watch came up, and carried both him and them to the round house.”

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