Monday, March 14, 2016

`In the Ardour of Invention'

“I have seen the meteors of fashions rise and fall, without any attempt to add a moment to their duration.”

On this date, March 14, in 1752, Samuel Johnson published The Rambler #208, the last in that run of periodical essays. Most Tuesdays and Saturdays beginning in 1750, Johnson reliably if sometimes complainingly turned out brief prose meditations on subjects of his own choosing that remain unmatched in English for gravitas, moral authority and wit.  Anyone who has written for deadline must respect Johnson’s industriousness. His subject in the broadest sense is what it means to be human. We read The Rambler after more than two and a half centuries because Johnson’s understanding of who we are remains pertinent and true; in fact, more pertinent than anything written today. That might serve as a working definition of what constitutes a classic: work not just readable but ever fresh and useful.

The sentence quoted above is typical Johnson. As always, he is immune to fads and fancies, a quality he shares with the best essayists from Montaigne to Orwell and Epstein. Almost by definition, an essay is idiosyncratic, as personal as DNA, not beholden to authority real or imagined, and yet accessible to thoughtful readers. Johnson’s humility mingles with pride:  

“He that condemns himself to compose on a stated day, will often bring to his task an attention dissipated, a memory embarrassed, an imagination overwhelmed, a mind distracted with anxieties, a body languishing with disease: he will labour on a barren topick, till it is too late to change it; or, in the ardour of invention, diffuse his thoughts into wild exuberance, which the pressing hour of publication cannot suffer judgment to examine or reduce.”

Surely every dutiful blogger nods in agreement. What I most admire in The Rambler is Johnson’s refusal of triviality. He ignores “the idle sports of imagination” and achieves timelessness. By his standards we are Lilliputians mired in banalities.

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