Thursday, June 18, 2015

`The World is Both Infinitely Interesting and Amusing'

Theodore Dalrymple reminds us that “one is never more than a few lines in Doctor Johnson from good sense,” and surely this is among the chief reasons we read both writers. Dalrymple goes on: “for his writing abounds, as he says that Gray’s `Elegy” abounds, `with images which find a mirrour in every mind, and with sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo . . .I have never seen the notions in any other place; yet he that reads them here, persuades himself that he has always felt them.’” A pleasing planetary alignment: Gray, Johnson, Dalrymple. Astronomers have a splendid name for the phenomenon: syzygy.

Dalrymple borrows the title of his essay collection Threats of Pain and Ruin (New English Review Press, 2014) from Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” a poem loved for more than 260 years by the better poets and common readers alike:

“The applause of listening senates to command,
The threats of pain and ruin to despise,
To scatter plenty o’er a smiling land,
And read their history in a nation’s eyes,

“Their lot forbade: nor circumscribed alone
Their growing virtues, but their crimes confined;
Forbade to wade through slaughter to a throne,
And shut the gates of mercy on mankind. . .”

There can be no equality in life. Only death delivers it, leveling the differences among men, tyrannically imposing the final democracy. We’re human, and require frequent reminding of the commonplaces. Dalrymple identifies the theme of the “Elegy” as “the vanity of human pride.” As Ishmael observes, “To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme,” and no theme is mightier. Dalrymple continues: “Few are the people also who would deny that Gray’s `Elegy’ . . . is one of the great poems in English: it has that quality which marks out masterpieces from other works, namely that its impact never lessens however many times it is read.”

For Dalrymple and other serious readers, books and life are mortally interleaved. One withers without the other. Life without books implies a poverty of spirit. Books without life are sterile. In his introduction to Threats of Pain and Ruin, Dalrymple cites his eighteenth-century forebear again: “What is written without pain, said Doctor Johnson, is rarely read with pleasure. Rarely, perhaps, but not, I hope, never: for the little essays in this book were written, I must confess, without much angst. In part this was because, in writing them, I had no thesis to prove, no axe to grind, except that the world is both infinitely interesting and amusing, and provides us with an inexhaustible source of materials for philosophical reflection.”

Dalrymple makes a modest modification in Johnson’s observation about writing, presumably to better echo Gray’s line. What Johnson said, according to William Seward’s Biographiana (1799), as collected in G.B. Hill’s Johnsonian Miscellanies (1897), is not “pain” but “effort”: “What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.”

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