Tuesday, October 04, 2016

`Let Us Breakfast in Splendour'

On this day, Oct. 4, in 1779, Boswell is in London and visits Johnson unannounced:

“I called at his house before he was up. He sent for me to his bed-side, and expressed his satisfaction at this incidental meeting, with as much vivacity as if he had been in the gaiety of youth. He called briskly, `Frank [Barber], go and get coffee, and let us breakfast in splendour.’”

Johnson is seventy years old. His reputation caricatures him as a gloomy, guilt-ridden, tormented soul, which is half the story, at most. His capacity for joy, for deriving undiluted pleasure from life, especially in the company of friends, was immense, and probably a balancing corrective to his depressive side. He was more complicated than most of his detractors. I love the image of Johnson, thirty-one years older than his visitor, still in bed and already primed for coffee and conversation. He uses breakfast as a verb. He’s an inspiration to all of us who remain dangerously subhuman for hours after waking. Another celebrator of breakfast is Saul Steinberg, born in Romania but an American for most of his life. In Reflections and Shadows (trans. John Shepley, 2002), he describes the first meal of the day as served in the U.S. to his old friend from Italy Aldo Buzzi:

“The only really good meal here is breakfast. When I traveled I ate breakfast at noon, too, and in the evening. A coffee and a local Danish pastry, or even some agreeable novelties. Ham or bacon and well-cooked eggs with toast. This dish comes with tasty home-fried potatoes, cooked with bacon and onion, or with French fries, on which you put ketchup. Raw ham doesn’t exist, but the cooked kind is excellent: Virginia ham with pineapple, smoked ham from the South, or Canadian bacon, which is a cross between bacon and ham. And sausages, and crisp waffles, imprinted by hot irons, which look like the backside of someone who’s been sitting without his trousers on a straw-bottomed chair . . .”

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