Tuesday, May 03, 2016

`The Sublime of the Commonplace'

On this date, May 3, in 1777, in a letter to his childhood friend John Taylor, Dr. Johnson outlined a typically candid self-diagnosis: “My nights continue to be very flatulent and restless, and my days therefore are sluggish and drowsy. After physick I have sometimes less uneasiness, as I had last night, but the effect is by no means constant; nor have I found any advantage from going to bed either with a full or any empty stomach.”

Johnson always remained fond of Taylor and judged him “a very sensible, acute man” who worked as both a parson and a dairy farmer, but whose deportment was “by no means sufficiently clerical.” Taylor spoke often of his bullocks, an obsession Johnson, a devoted urbanite, found endlessly amusing. And yet, when Johnson’s wife Hetty died in 1752, Taylor was the person to whom he wrote of his loss. One admires a man equally comfortable sharing news of a death and gastrointestinal distress with a friend. In a letter to Taylor dated Sept. 9, 1779, Johnson asks, “Are you well? If you are let me know it.  If you are afflicted with any disease, take care that you do not make it worse by discontent.” Later in the same letter, Johnson returns to the theme of GI discomfort: “I suspect that I have eaten too much fruit this summer, but that temptation is near an end.”

About Johnson there is always an acceptance of the merely human. In A Paul Elmer More Miscellany (The Anthoensen Press, 1950), the editor, Arthur Hazard Dakin, includes a brief note on Johnson by More, who begins with a mild rebuke:

“The Rambler and, to a lesser extent, Johnson’s other works are filled with solemn reflections on the oldest and tritest of themes—on death and time and the vanity of life and the deceitfulness of the human heart and the consolations of religion. There is no attempt to renovate these ancientest of topics by paradox or unexpected applications, and the language is often slow and sometimes overweighted.”

More isn’t finished. Rather, he’s setting us up. Johnson’s gravitas, in fact, is among the reasons we so often return to his work:

“Why, then, do these commonplace reflections on man and the world have to the true Johnsonian a meaning and a power that make the cleverness of England’s modern school of essayists seem like the crackling of thorns under an empty pot? . . . It is because, however they may sound to the inexperienced reader, they were not commonplace to Johnson himself, but the fruit of vivid personal experience. His philosophy might be described as the sublime of the commonplace.”

1 comment:

The Sanity Inspector said...

I've been browsing that collection, and I also like his observation on Ben Franklin:

Here was almost, if not quite, the most alert and most capacious intellect that ever concerned itself entirely with the present.