Saturday, August 29, 2015

`We All Sat Composed As At a Funeral'

Inside every sane, sober and honest man is a schoolboy waiting to shout Bottom!, if not something stronger, during the sermon. This is not a defense of anti-clericalism. Rather, it describes our essentially anarchic, pre-adolescent natures. Part of us remains forever in the third grade, when every suggestive word or sound elicits a snort. By nature we are divided, and no one is perpetually grown-up and well-mannered, or even civilized. The more disciplined among us just keep it under wraps. Consider a gathering held at the home of the recently widowed Mrs. David Garrick on April 20, 1781. Among those present were Johnson, Boswell and Reynolds. Boswell, who recounts the evening in his Life, describes it as “one of the happiest days that I remember to have enjoyed in the whole course of my life.” He writes of his friend, then seventy-one and just three years from death:

“Talking of a very respectable author, he told us a curious circumstance in his life, which was, that he had married a printer's devil. REYNOLDS: `A printer's devil, Sir! Why, I thought a printer's devil was a creature with a black face and in rags.’ JOHNSON: `Yes, Sir. But I suppose, he had her face washed, and put clean clothes on her. (Then looking very serious, and very earnest.) And she did not disgrace him; ­­ the woman had a bottom of good sense.’”

You can see where this is going. Boswell, who sought treatment for gonorrhea at least nineteen times, continues:

“The word bottom thus introduced, was so ludicrous when contrasted with his gravity, that most of us could not forbear tittering and laughing. His pride could not bear that any expression of his should excite ridicule when he did not intend it; he glanced sternly around, and called out in a strong tone, `Where's the merriment?’ Then collecting himself and looking aweful [sic], to make us feel how he could impose restraint, and as it were searching his mind for a still more ludicrous word, he slowly pronounced, `I say the woman was fundamentally sensible;’ as if he had said, hear this now, and laugh if you dare. We all sat composed as at a funeral.”

I admire Johnson’s sangfroid, the way he acknowledges the giggle-provoking thing he said by undercutting it with irony, and thus preserving his dignity. Boswell’s final comment – “We all sat composed as at a funeral” – is priceless. It reminds me of something Charles Lamb wrote in a letter in 1815 to Robert Southey: “I was at Hazlitt’s marriage, and had like to have been turned out several times during the ceremony. Anything awful makes me laugh. I misbehaved once at a funeral.”

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