Monday, November 10, 2014

`Writing Like a Man on Trial for His Life'

“The distinctive combination is one of psychological shrewdness and somber elevation, of humor and weight of experience, of irony and compassion. Hence the ring of authority even in single sentences that read like proverbs and are quoted time and again. . . .This aphoristic power, which makes him so quotable, was henceforth to be a distinguishing feature of his prose style, both written and spoken.” 

So writes W. Jackson Bate in the chapter devoted to The Rambler essays (1750-52) in his life of Dr. Johnson. He goes on to observe Johnson’s “desire to `manage’ experience by compressing it into condensed generality.” This neatly characterizes Johnson’s sensibility, its acuity and sharpness. Style is sensibility. Johnson’s aim is not to flatter and cajole the reader, thus seducing the audience, the strategy of most writers. Johnson assumes his readers share with him a common set of concerns – truth, the common lot of humanity, one’s moral reckoning in the world. In its essence, Johnson’s art is radically democratic: we’re all stuck in the same leaky boat. He would endorse Don Colacho’s observation: “Nobody will ever induce me to absolve human nature because I know myself.” Johnson’s vision is binocular. Without neglecting the commonplace and close-at-hand, he sees things sub specie aeternitatis. Consider The Rambler #68, published on this date, Nov. 10, in 1750: 

“The main of life is, indeed, composed of small incidents, and petty occurrences; of wishes for objects not remote, and grief for disappointments of no fatal consequence; of insect vexations which sting us and fly away, impertinencies which buzz a while about us, and are heard no more; of meteorous pleasures which dance before us and are dissipated; of compliments which glide off the soul like other musick, and are forgotten by him that gave and him that received them.” 

The Rambler #68 ranks among Johnson’s masterpieces. Recall that Hetty, his beloved wife, died earlier the same year, on March 17, when reading this later passage: “To be happy at home is the ultimate result of all ambition, the end to which every enterprise and labour tends, and of which every desire prompts the prosecution.” In his life of Johnson, John Wain writes: 

“Johnson’s style in The Rambler is heavier, denser, more close-packed than in his more relaxed later writings. He seems, during these years, to be writing like a man on trial for his life: loading each statement with all available meaning in case he should not be able to make another.”
That is, the way we all hope to write.

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