Saturday, February 13, 2016

`He Is a Great Man Riddled with Flaws'

“All this would be terribly sad if it weren’t so endearing.”

We might say this of a sick child or, in a more grandiose mood, the Human Condition. English has no one-word synonym for the emotion described, that familiar mingling of poignancy, sympathy, ache and fondness. The authors, Philip and Carol Zaleski (Prayer: A History, 2005), refer to a breakfast reported by Boswell on June 11, 1784. Dr. Johnson has just said he once contemplated assembling an anthology of prayer, accompanied by an essay on the subject, and his tablemates encourage him to take up the task:

“He seemed to be a little displeased at the manner of our importunity, and in great agitation called out, `Do not talk thus of what is so awful. I know not what time God will allow me in this world. There are many things which I wish to do.’ Some of us persisted, and Dr. ADAMS said, `I never was more serious about anything in my life.’ Johnson. `Let me alone, let me alone; I am overpowered.’ And then he put his hands before his face, and reclined for some time upon the table.”

Johnson is seventy-four and had suffered a stroke one year earlier. He has emphysema, edema, gout and arthritis. Never healthy, he has always known depression. In a July 1784 diary entry he describes his state of mind as tristitia gravissima, or “terrible sadness.” He died six months after the memorable breakfast. The Zaleskis, who devote six of their four-hundred pages to Johnson, suggest it was the notion of publically addressing the subject of prayer that so disturbed Johnson:

“Could it be that he sensed something amiss in a cri de coeur that lasts a lifetime? He may have glimpsed what, in the hindsight of centuries, has become obvious to many of his readers: that for Johnson, the longing for metanoia, with its self-recrimination, resolutions, and tearful pleading to God, mattered more than reform itself, that only during the de profundis petition did he feel fully alive; that he was a Don Juan of prayer, valuing the chase and the first heady moments of conquest; but when faced with the long, steady grind of marriage—the vigilance and sacrifice necessary to maintain his new life—he backslid, eager to enjoy the chase once more. Thus in the confusion of his great heart, attraction to sin and desire for change waltzed together down the decades, to the endless fugue of petitionary prayer.”

The Zaleskis’ gloss is intriguing and respectful of Johnson, but not convincing. They describe a self-dramatizing figure I hardly recognize. That Johnson was sick, guilt-ridden and depressed is inarguable. But he was equally hard-working (though sorely tempted by idleness), gifted and compassionate. Unlike many of us, he recognized his weaknesses and wrestled with them daily. His life was laborious, not easeful. The authors’ conclusion – “attraction to sin and desire for change waltzed together down the decades” – applies to most of us, after all, leaving out only the sociopathic. This accounts for Johnson’s enduring attractiveness to us as man and writer. With his wracked sense of humility, he never claimed to transcend the human lot. His weakness was ours. He was like us, but brilliantly, articulately so. The Zaleskis’ write:

“Johnson invites love, as much as anyone who has ever picked up a pen. We love his honesty, his boldness, his courage, his golden ear for language. We love his ugliness and ungainliness, his irascibility, his self-doubts, his twinned perceptiveness and blindness toward himself. He is a great man riddled with flaws, above us and yet one of us, and as such claims our admiration and compassion.”

In short, Johnson is like us, only more so.

[Carol Zaleski returns to the subject this week in “Doctor Johnson’s failures.”]

1 comment:

Choderlos Laclos said...

Well, reading Carol Zaleski's comments about Johnson's " failure to “scheme life,” the near futility of hygienic self-improvement." I have to say that the poor fellow sounds as though he was pathological in some way. Such repeated distress! Did he think this was how his maker intended him to live? Perhaps he should have trusted his saviour better. He certainly seemed to lack what us gals here in France call the 'joie de vivre."