Wednesday, July 08, 2015

`A Warm Comfortable Feeling, Late at Night'

To his monstrous wife Sylvia, Christopher Tietjens, “the last Tory,” is an “eighteenth-century figure of the Dr. Johnson type.” One recalls that Johnson in his Dictionary defines Tory as “one who adheres to the ancient constitution of the state, and the apostolical hierarchy of the church of England,” while a Whig is “a member of a faction.” The ever-Johnsonian C.H. Sisson, in defense of Johnson’s Tory, describes it as “a four letter word” (“A Four Letter Word,” The Avoidance of Literature: Collected Essays, 1978). In Last Post (1928), the concluding volume of Ford Madox Ford’s great tetralogy Parade’s End, Tietjens reads to his older brother Mark, who is paralyzed and whose relations with Christopher have been strained by Sylvia’s lies:

“Over Boswell, the brothers had got thick as thieves with an astonishing intimacy—and with an astonishing similarity. If one of them made a comment on Bennet Langton it would be precisely the comment that the other had on his lips. It was what asses call telepathy, nowadays . . . a warm comfortable feeling, late at night with the light shaded from your eyes, the voice going on through the deep silence of London that awaited the crash of falling bombs.”

Ford implies that the sharing of Boswell’s words by the brothers constitutes a sanctuary of civilization in a world threatened again by barbarism in the form of German bombs and domestic egotism. This may be my favorite literary depiction of reading. I admire the choice of book, obviously, and its ability to ease fraternal friction, at least briefly. The brothers, for a few moments, achieve some of the unlikely fondness that existed between Boswell and his subject. In the next paragraph, Ford permits Mark to trump his brother:

“ . . . Well, Mark accepted Christopher’s dictum that he himself was an eighteenth-century bloke and was only forestalled when he had wanted to tell Christopher that he was more old-fashioned still—a sort of seventeenth-century Anglican who ought to be strolling in a grove with Greek Testament beneath the arm and all . . .”

In the last of his many books, The March of Literature, published less than a year before his death in 1939, Ford writes of Johnson:

“This was a man who loved truth and the expression of truth with a passion that when he spoke resembled epilepsy and when he meditated was an agony. It does not need Boswell to tell us that; the fact shines in every word he wrote, coming up through his Latinisms as swans emerge, slightly draped with weeds, from beneath the surface of a duck pond. His very intolerances are merely rougher truths; they render him the more human – and the more humane.”

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