Friday, April 21, 2017

`An Insensibility and Heaviness Upon Me'

“My thoughts have been clouded with sensuality, and, except that from the beginning of this year I have in some measure for born [forborne] excess of Strong Drink my appetites have predominated over my reason.”

When it comes to drink, pay attention to the small things, the casually phrased declarations: “in some measure” and “excess.” Ask a drunk if he has been drinking and he’s likely to say “nope” or “a little.” A lie chaser invariably follows a drink. The drinker here is Samuel Johnson, in entries from his diary dated April 21, 1764 (Diaries, Prayers, and Annals, Yale University Press, 1958). Johnson’s moral sense is persuasive because it’s rooted in experience, not high-toned priggishness. He convinces without trying. Yes, Johnson was a drinking man, at least through his middle years. As Donald Newlove, writing from life, makes clear in Those Drinking Days: Myself and Other Writers (1981):

“Great writing about alcohol is an ocean without shoreline and I have a thick notebook of excerpts from world literature to attest to it, a sheaf of quotations to help me keep sober. One of the most stirring recoveries from excessive drinking was made by Dr. Samuel Johnson two centuries ago.”

The practice of rigorous, often daily moral inventory was a common one in the eighteenth century. A fitful churchgoer, Johnson is writing in his diary on the eve of Easter. “A kind of strange oblivion has overspread me, so that I know not what has become of the last year,” he, the most scrupulous of writers, confesses, “and perceive that incidents and intelligence pass over me without leaving any impression.” This from the man who devoted nine years to compiling almost single-handedly A Dictionary of the English Language (1755). Later the same day, Johnson spells out a list of resolutions. Three times he refers to his habitual “idleness,” a fault few of us would perceive in him. One wonders what he means here: “To provide some useful amusement for leisure time.”

Twice he mentions his wife, Elizabeth “Tetty” Johnson, who died on March 17, 1752. He never remarried and never stopped grieving for her. When he writes, “I will renew my resolutions made at Tetty’s death,” it is useful to look at his diary from twelve years earlier:

“Grant me the assistance and comfort of thy Holy Spirit, that I may remember with thankfulness the blessings so long enjoyed by me in the society of my departed wife; make me so to think on her precepts and example, that I may imitate whatever was in her life acceptable in thy sight, and avoid all by which she offended Thee.”

This is Johnson the realist. Even a beloved wife is humanly flawed, and can be instructive, a moral object lesson. Near the end of his 1764 resolutions he writes:

“I perceive an insensibility and heaviness upon me. I am less than commonly oppressed with the sense of sin, and less affected with the shame of Idleness. Yet I will not despair. I will pray to God for resolution, and will endeavour to strengthen my faith in Christ by commemorating his death.”

His numbness is telling, an emotional  shutdown that resembles a reaction to trauma, a sort of “shell-shock” without war. Johnson adds: “I prayed for Tett.”

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