Wednesday, June 29, 2016

`Only Then Had He Set to Work'

For all his pathological fear of idleness, Dr. Johnson always ended up working like a blinkered draft horse. Here he parodies himself and others who must fritter and fuss before going to work:

“I sat yesterday morning employed in deliberating on which, among the various subjects that occurred to my imagination, I should bestow the paper of today. After a short effort of meditation by which nothing was determined, I grew every moment more irresolute, my ideas wandered from the first intention, and I rather wished to think, than thought upon any settled subject; till at last I was awakened from this dream of study by a summons from the press: the time was come for which I had been thus negligently purposing to provide, and, however dubious or sluggish, I was now necessitated to write.”

The damning phrase: “I rather wished to think, than thought upon any settled subject.”  We all know those who don’t so much write as wish they had written, who fall a thousand times for the same self-paralyzing ruse. We wish many of them, of course, had remained costive. In The Rambler #134, published on this date, June 29, in 1751, Johnson generalizes his observations on writer’s block to include all of his contemporaries:

“There is nothing more common among this torpid generation than murmurs and complaints; murmurs at uneasiness which only vacancy and suspicion expose them to feel, and complaints of distresses which it is in their own power to remove.”

Human nature remains the same across centuries. I have been rereading Pages from the Goncourt Journals (trans. Robert Baldick, Oxford University Press, 1962). In the entry for Jan. 25, 1885, Edmond de Goncourt writes of a visit from Alphonse Daudet and his wife:

“Daudet went on to say that during all those years he had done nothing at all, that all he had felt had been a need to live, to live actively, violently, noisily, a need to sing, to make music, to roam the woods, to drink a little too much and get involved in a brawl. He admitted that at that time he had had no literary ambition, but just an instinctive delight in noting everything down, in recording everything, even his dreams. It was the [Franco-Prussian] war, he declared , which had changed him, by awakening in him the idea that he might die without having achieved anything, without leaving anything durable behind him. . . . Only then had he set to work, and with work had come literary ambition.”

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