Wednesday, March 04, 2015

`He Is a Hero of Self-Creation'

“He believed that without accuracy of observation `particular features and discriminations will be compressed and conglobated into one gross and general idea.’” 

That mouthful “conglobated,” I suppose, is the giveaway. The Irish poet P.J. Kavanagh is quoting Dr. Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775). The passage appears in “Dis-conglobated,” an essay first published in the Spectator in 1984 (beware of the online typos), and I read it in People and Places: A Selection 1975-1987 (Carcanet, 1988). The OED defines conglobated as “gathered into a ball, rounded,” which reminds me of making meatballs, but the OED tells us Wordsworth had another use in mind in The Excursion: “conglobated bubbles undissolved.”(I keep dropping the “l” and turning it into the verb form for a central African nation.) Johnson seems fond of this peculiar word, as he used it in his 1756 review of Four Letters from Sir Isaac Newton to Doctor Bentley, Containing Some Arguments in Proof of a Deity: “Matter being supposed eternal, there never was a time when it could be diffused before its conglobation, or conglobated before its diffusion.” 

I learned of Kavanagh through his friendship with C.H. Sisson, whom I take to have been a man not easily befriended. I’ve not yet spent much time with Kavanagh’s poems but he has a knack for the learned-but-light newspaper or magazine squib – feuilletons, as we say down at the bowling alley. In “Dis-conglobated,” he has just read Johnson’s Journey for the first time while in Italy, and now is reading Rasselas and Walter Jackson Bate’s biography. Kavanagh, born in 1931, undertook his first reading of Johnson in his fifties, well into middle age. Johnson wrote for adults, though many of us first encounter him when we have barely left childhood. Kavanagh is duly impressed and he effortlessly gets Johnson: 

“I had thought of Johnson as a master of the massive, usually incontrovertible, generalisation. His curiosity, and humility before the facts, came as a surprise . . . For although I knew that Johnson was physically afflicted I had not known the extent of the psychological impediments he had to surmount. He is a hero of self-creation, and his methods—his `measures’—must be of great interest.” 

Back in London, Kavanagh attends a Johnson exhibition at the Arts Council, apparently in observance of the two-hundredth anniversary of the lexicographer’s death. He’s impressed by the quantity of prayers Johnson wrote and preserved, and notes, “. . . surely Johnson is unusual in the amount, and the care he took. It must have to do with his love of accuracy, he wished to make the formulation exactly measure up to the emotion, and the need.” Kavanagh then quotes lines from “The Vanity of Human Wishes”: 

“Still raise for Good the supplicating Voice,
But leave to Heav’n the Measure and the Choice.” 

Though he lauds Johnson’s “love of accuracy,” Kavanagh misquotes the poem, substituting “God” for “Good” – an understandable slip, one missed by multiple editors. What follows is the full passage from Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, quoted earlier by Kavanagh. Ostensibly, Johnson writes of travel writing, but broader applications are encouraged: 

“He who has not made the experiment, or who is not accustomed to require rigorous accuracy from himself, will scarcely believe how much a few hours take from certainty of knowledge, and distinctness of imagery; how the succession of objects will be broken, how separate parts will be confused, and how many particular features and discriminations will be compressed and conglobated into one gross and general idea. To this dilatory notation must be imputed the false relations of travellers, where there is no imaginable motive to deceive. They trusted to memory, what cannot be trusted safely to the eye, and told by guess what a few hours before they had known with certainty.”

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