Saturday, September 27, 2014

`The Very Essence of Manliness and Condensation'

We grow sensitized to significant names, turning our minds into indiscriminate search engines. I happen regularly upon “Chekhov” and “Jonathan Swift” because those writers are often more important to me than the context in which I might find them. Another name frequently unearthed by Kurp-Google is Samuel Johnson. Without searching, I happened this week upon three notable references to him. The first was in The Skeptic: A Life of H. L. Mencken (2002) by Terry Teachout: 

“Like Johnson, Mencken was resolutely unsentimental, ebulliently grim, full of the sanity that comes from an unswerving commitment to common sense. But for Johnson `the mind can only repose on the stability of truth,’ while Mencken found nothing to be `wholly good, wholly desirable, wholly true.’ This unequivocal rejection of the possibility of ultimate truth, a position irreconcilable with his scientific rationalism, left him with nothing but a concept of `honor’ as shallow as the Victorian idea of progress in which he believed so firmly (and so paradoxically). Though he was for the most part a genuinely honorable man, honor for Mencken would seem to have been little more than a higher species of etiquette. In 1917 he wrote of himself: `His moral code…has but one item: keep your engagements.’ No more revealing thing has ever been said about H.L. Mencken.” 

In “The Artist,” an article published in 1924 and collected in A Mencken Chrestomathy (1949), Mencken referred to Johnson as “the Roosevelt of the Eighteenth century. Johnson was the first Rotarian: living today, he would be a United States Senator, or a university president.” This is amusing, a classic Mencken takedown, but utterly mistaken. Elsewhere, Mencken said: “The first Rotarian was the first man to call John the Baptist, Jack.” And he called Calvin Coolidge a Rotarian. It was an all-purpose slander.    

Second, I found C.S. Lewis writing on June 22, 1930 (The Letters of C.S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves, 1914-1963, 1986):

“I am delighted to hear that you have taken to Johnson. Yes, isn't it a magnificent style — the very essence of manliness and condensation. I find Johnson very bracing when I am in my slack, self-pitying mood. The amazing thing is his power of stating platitudes — or what in anyone else wd. be platitudes — so that we really believe them at last and realise their importance. Doesn't it remind you a bit of Handel? As to his critical judgment I think he is always sensible and nearly always wrong. He has no ear for metre and little imagination. I personally get more pleasure from the Rambler than from anything else of his & at one time I used to read a Rambler every evening as a nightcap. They are so quieting in their brave, sensible dignity.” 

Lewis gets Johnson almost right, certainly righter than Mencken. About platitudes: Read naively, Shakespeare, Milton and Johnson seem filled with them because for centuries readers have sifted their words for wit and wisdom. It’s a common reaction among students: “I didn’t know [fill in the blank] said that.” “Always sensible and nearly always wrong?” Not quite. Think of what he writes about Swift. Easy to quibble, but even when wrong he’s usually compelling. 

Third, I found this in a brief essay, “What Is Prayer?” in Village Hours (Canterbury Press, 2012) by Ronald Blythe: 

“On Sunday, I preached on Dr Johnson, who wrote his prayers down. Although he was masterly in his summing up of other men, he was ill-suited to sum up himself. Mercifully, he had James Boswell to tell him who he was. Thus we have two accounts of him which never quite come together. But then this would happen to most of us. Autobiography and biography may be about the same person, but they are sure to be miles apart.” 

Who among us could accurately sum himself up? Montaigne, perhaps, though he would have denied it. We’re blind to ourselves and generally to others.

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