Sunday, May 17, 2015

`He Laughs Like a Rhinoceros'

A friend reminds me that Saturday was the anniversary of Boswell’s first meeting with Johnson, in 1763, in Tom Davies’ bookshop in Russell Street, Covent Garden. That the two unlikely and perfectly matched friends should meet in a bookshop is only fitting; that the Englishman should sting the Scot with a memorable one-liner, even better. When Davies divulged Boswell’s national origin, the Scot quickly and rather pathetically defended himself: “Indeed I come from Scotland, but I cannot help it.” To which Johnson replied: “That I find is what a very great many of your countrymen cannot help.”                                

Not even romantic love is so resistant to understanding as friendship. Opposites attract – and repel. There’s no predicting the intensity, devotion or longevity of a friendship, though if my experience is representative, a sense of humor helps, whether of the coolly witty sort, or the more raucous, Rabelaisian, full-body-laugh variety. Here, in his Life of Johnson, on this date, May 17, in 1775, Boswell inadvertently gives away at least one secret of their friendship: 

“I passed many hours with him on the 17th, of which I find all my memorial is, `much laughing.’ It should seem he had that day been in a humour for jocularity and merriment, and upon such occasions I never knew a man laugh more heartily. We may suppose, that the high relish of a state so different from his habitual gloom, produced more than ordinary exertions of that distinguishing faculty of man, which has puzzled philosophers so much to explain. Johnson’s laugh was as remarkable as any circumstance in his manner. It was a kind of good humoured growl. Tom Davies described it drolly enough: `He laughs like a rhinoceros.’”

Hilarity, it seems to me, is the perfect complement to “habitual gloom.” Who has more to laugh about than a devoutly serious man?

1 comment:

James said...

Thanks for noting this momentous occasion in literary history. Samuel Johnson with a "Rabelaisian" laugh; how wonderful.