Friday, October 10, 2014

`Infelicity Is Involved in Corporeal Nature'

“If Johnson had been able to `feed on a fellowship,’ he would probably have written nothing except a few sermons, and lived life in a twilight of reputation.” 

Rewarding scholarship sounds like a capital idea. In engineering, the academic preserve I know most intimately, promising student engineers are rewarded with fellowships to underwrite their research. Ideally, they grow as scholars, knowledge deepens, we all benefit. The story in the softer realms – art history, English, psychology – is less certain. 

The observation above is drawn from a piece written in 1959 by John Wain (1925-1994) on the occasion of Dr. Johnson’s 250th birthday and collected in Essays on Literature and Ideas (Macmillan and Co., 1963). Wain, who would publish his biography of Johnson in 1974, is referring to a remark Johnson made about a fellow student, Jack Meeke, during his one-year stay at Oxford University: “About the same time of life, Meeke was left behind at Oxford to feed on a fellowship, and I went to London to get my living; now, Sir, see the difference of our literary characters!” Johnson can be forgiven his unseemly show of braggadocio. As he writes in “The Vanity of Human Wishes”: 

“When first the College Rolls receive his Name,
The young Enthusiast quits his Ease for Fame;
Resistless burns the fever of Renown,
Caught from the strong Contagion of the Gown;
O'er Bodley's Dome his future Labours spread,
And Bacon's Mansion trembles o’er his Head.” 

In the writer we sense a strong identification with his subject. Like Johnson (and Shakespeare and Arnold Bennett, about whom he also wrote books), Wain was born in a small Midlands town. Neither was born to privilege. Both wrote and lived by their writing. Johnson, he says in the biography, “loved the university, but irritably shrugged off the claims of authority.”(I quote this as a former university dropout who earned his degree on the installment plan, thirty years after my contemporaries.) One feels perfectly at home admiring Johnson because he is so much like us, but more so. His sufferings and weaknesses we recognize and his genius is so essentially human, a state he never transcends. Wain quotes The Rambler #32 with approval: 

“The cure for the greatest part of human miseries is not radical, but palliative. Infelicity is involved in corporeal nature, and interwoven with our being; all attempts therefore to decline it wholly are useless and vain: the armies of pain send their arrows against us on every side, the choice is only between those which are more or less sharp, or tinged with poison of greater or less malignity; and the strongest armour which reason can supply, will only blunt their points, but cannot repel them.” 

Wain writes: 

“Johnson’s whole way of life, as well as his intellectual position, can be deduced from that passage. Human suffering could be met, but only my putting on armour supplied by `reason,’ and taking reasonable advantage of the `palliative’ cures, innocent diversions which enabled a man to forget his unhappiness. No one ever threw himself  into blameless enjoyments with more zest than Johnson, who loved a good dinner and an evening’s talk so well that he declared `a good tavern or inn’ the happiest invention of the human mind.”

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