Wednesday, July 16, 2014

`Lies Dress the Best'

In the final stanza of “A Desert Cure” (The Laughing Hyena and Other Poems, 1953), probably colored by the three years (1947-50) he spent teaching English in Egypt, D.J. Enright prescribes austerity in the deployment of words: 

“Lies dress the best. Leave them to dry there—words—
On the verge of meaning, or purge in the open desert:
Shaken by the silent wind, shattered by the speechless sand.” 

The best lies dress the best, we might add. A gifted liar dresses his fabrications in fine fabrics, not in chintz, but not in too fine a finery either, so as to raise suspicions. The best lies dress down. They’re drab, dressed to discourage the second look. Though suspicious of language, Enright remains abjectly in love with it, as every writer ought to be. In “Johnson without Boswell,” in a collection of reviews from the Times Literary Supplement titled Poets and Poetry (Clarendon Press, 1911), John Bailey writes: “The signal merit of Johnson’s writings is that he always means what he says and always says what he means. He may always have talked for victory; but, except, perhaps in the political pamphlets, he always wrote for truth.” The congruence of saying and meaning ought to be self-evident, but we’re daily fed words intended for satiety not sustenance. In contrast, consider The Rambler #54, in which Johnson assumes the voice of Athanatus, whose friend has died. “The friend whom I have lost,” he writes, “was a man eminent for genius, and, like others of the same class, sufficiently pleased with acceptance and applause. Being caressed by those who have preferments and riches in their disposal, he considered himself as in the direct road of advancement, and had caught the flame of ambition by approaches to its object.” 

Johnson describes the fate that awaits some of the best among us; not merely premature death, but the scuttling of unrealized dreams and the befuddlement felt by survivors: 

“But in the midst of his hopes, his projects, and his gaieties he was seized by a lingering disease, which, from its first stage, he knew to be incurable. Here was an end of all his visions of greatness and happiness; from the first hour that his health declined, all his former pleasures grew tasteless. His friends expected to please him by those accounts of the growth of his reputation, which were formerly certain of being well received; but they soon found how little he was now affected by compliments, and how vainly they attempted, by flattery, to exhilarate the languor of weakness, and relieve the solicitude of approaching death.” 

When he edited The Oxford Book of Death (1983), Enright quoted Johnson more than any writer except Shakespeare.

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