Tuesday, April 11, 2017

`You Are Irascible'

On April 11, 1775, Johnson and Boswell visited the villa of Richard Owen Cambridge on the banks of the Thames, near Twickenham. “As a curious instance how little a man knows,” Boswell writes, “or wishes to know, his own character in the world, or, rather, as a convincing proof that Johnson’s roughness was only external, and did not proceed from his heart, I insert the following dialogue.” The scene recounted nicely illustrates the conviction that no man, not even Johnson, possesses definitive self-knowledge, which would include some understanding of how others perceive us. Each of remains a mystery, and much of life consists of trying to solve it. Johnson says:

“`It is wonderful, Sir, how rare a quality good humour is in life. We meet with very few good humoured men.’”

Boswell, his reliable foil, counters: “I mentioned four of our friends, none of whom he would allow to be good humoured. One was acid, another was muddy, and to the others he had objections which have escaped me.”

Acid is self-explanatory. What of muddy? I assumed it meant opaque or unclear; in this context, muddle-headed, confused. The OED confirms my guess: “not clear in mind; confused, muddled. Now rare.” Interestingly, the word formerly meant “partly intoxicated,” and Johnson is quoted using it elsewhere in the Life: “Not that he gets drunk, for he is a very pious man, but he is always muddy.” Boswell continues:

“Then, shaking his head and stretching himself at ease in the coach, and smiling with much complacency, he turned to me and said, `I look upon myself as a good humoured fellow.’ The epithet fellow, applied to the great Lexicographer, the stately Moralist, the masterly critick, as if he had been Sam Johnson, a mere pleasant companion, was highly diverting; and this light notion of himself struck me with wonder.”

Another blow to Boswell’s hero-worship. One of the deep pleasures of rereading the Life of Johnson is observing Boswell’s evolving understanding of his friend. His love grew as he grew up and shed illusions. Johnson’s biography is also Boswell’s autobiography, oblique and intermittent. Boswell concludes the scene:

“I answered, also smiling, `No, no, Sir; that will not do. You are good natured, but not good humoured: you are irascible. You have not patience with folly and absurdity. I believe you would pardon them, if there were time to deprecate your vengeance; but punishment follows so quick after sentence, that they cannot escape.’”

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