“I had no part in this learned disappointment, who am content to credit my senses, and to believe that rain will fall when the air blackens, and that the weather will be dry when the sun is bright. My caution, indeed, does not always preserve me from a shower.”
Once common-sensical, the words have turned audacious and bracing. Ours is a skeptical age, when skepticism means not open-minded questioning but adversarial stridency. We delight in doubting everything, arguing with everything, leaving nothing precisely what it is. We wish to be clever and not to be taken in like the credulous hoi polloi. Our skepticism is a universal corrosive that dissolves thinking, emotion and morals. Among sophisticates it serves as a genderless surrogate for machismo.
Unsurprisingly, the passage quoted above was written by Dr. Johnson in The Idler #17, on this date, Aug. 5, in 1758. Johnson’s customary concern is the contradictory nature of human nature. True to form, he continues: “Of those that spin out life in trifles and die without a memorial, many flatter themselves with high opinions of their own importance, and imagine that they are every day adding some improvement to human life.” So much for do-gooders, meddlers and scolds. Johnson then eases into his true target: animal vivisection and its practitioners. By starting with the general and slowly focusing on the particular, Johnson suggests no one deserves blanket absolution. Morality is a spectrum on which we all find a place to occupy. Johnson writes:
“Among the inferior professors of medical knowledge, is a race of wretches, whose lives are only varied by varieties of cruelty; whose favourite amusement is to nail dogs to tables and open them alive; to try how long life may be continued in various degrees of mutilation, or with the excision or laceration of the vital parts; to examine whether burning irons are felt more acutely by the bone or tendon; and whether the more lasting agonies are produced by poison forced into the mouth, or injected into the veins.”
More than two and a half centuries later, this reads like the work of a writer Johnson heartily disliked, Jonathan Swift, and still has the power to disturb. (One can’t help but think of Dr. Mengele and his colleagues.) We’ve come a long way in a mere five paragraphs. By its conclusion, the essay turns into an anomaly in Johnson’s collected works. Almost an anomaly. In his notes to these lines in Cymbeline (1765) – “Your highness / Shall from this practice but make hard your heart” – Johnson writes, seemingly out of the blue:
“There is in this passage nothing that much requires a note, yet I cannot forbear to push it forward into observation. The thought would probably have been more amplified, had our author lived to be shocked with such experiments as have been published in later times, by a race of men that have practised tortures without pity, and related them without shame, and are yet suffered to erect their heads among human beings.”
The passage is left to stand, undeveloped, without larger context, an impassioned non sequitur. To study human contradiction and inconsistency, Johnson had only to look within. He was like the rest of us, only more so. The late Yeats scholar and longtime professor of English at Hollins College, John Rees Moore, wrote “Dr. Sam Johnson”:
“That great hulk of a man, Dr. Johnson,
Had many ills both of mind and body
As Boswell shows; in spite of melancholy
He could be merry, and simply bent on fun.
His opinions were bold, and I can tell you,
His authority was kingly, his generosity as well.
To his verbal sword Lord Chesterfield fell.
A writer writes better than he lives, it is true,
Nine years on his dictionary, what a noble feat!
Hester Thrale `betrayed’ him; he loved her still.
God might punish her; he never will.
He had a stroke, got back on his feet,
Wrote Lives of the English Poets, a masterpiece.
Let this master of words lie in perpetual peace.”
Not much of a poem but for that one line: “A writer writes better than he lives . . .” Perhaps Moore is answering Yeats’ “The Choice.”