Monday, October 06, 2008

`A Good But Flawed Man'

“In any made thing a repair that is thoughtfully done adds a pathos that a new object or one that has fallen into disrepair cannot have.”

On Sunday, my brother and I spoke of the wonderful English painter Rackstraw Downes, who edited Fairfield Porter’s Art in Its Own Terms: Selected Criticism 1935-1975, which I pulled from the shelf, seeking, I suppose, consolation. Earlier in the day I read the final pages of Peter Martin’s Samuel Johnson: A Biography, and felt some of the melancholy experienced when leaving an old friend one sees only infrequently. The sentence quoted above, written by Porter in the nineteen-fifties, might be applied with justice to Johnson, whose life was a long effort at thoughtful, tortuous self-repair. His disadvantages from the start were obvious – compromised health, few social privileges, poverty, a monstrous engagement with depression and madness – but his life is a tale of ongoing spiritual mending. To know his life and take it to heart is to repudiate self-pity and the blame of others for our failings and difficulties. Consider Martin’s description of Johnson’s final days:

“What several of the written accounts of these last days reveal is that the two dominant, opposing keynotes of his mental state during the last weeks of his life were desperation and calm acceptance of God’s mercy. His desperation to try anything to survive gradually evolved into some measure of peace about what he realised was his imminent death, but it appears also that his desperation did not cease until very shortly before he died, and that a last frantic clutching at the possibility of life may indeed have hastened his end.”

To read such a scene is to be filled with admiration and a wish to emulate Johnson’s courage. This is why Johnson remains bottomlessly interesting and worthy of yet another biography. His life is an allegory of all human life as it might best be lived. “What Makes Dr. Johnson Great?” one of Theodore Dalrymple’s best essays, was published two years ago in City Journal. He frames the piece with his effort to convince a Russian-born friend of Johnson’s eminence. Here’s part of his answer:

“What Johnson said of the London of his time, that it contains all that human life can afford, seems also true of his own life. Johnson is a good but flawed man, always trying to be, but not always succeeding in being, a better one: he is proud, he is humble; he is weak, he is strong; he is prejudiced, he is generous-minded; he is tenderhearted, he is bad-tempered; he is foolish, he is wise; he is sure of himself, he is modest; he is idle, he is hardworking; he is opinionated, he is consumed by doubt; he is spiritual, he is carnal; he is hopeful, he is despairing; he is skeptical, he is credulous; he is melancholy, he is lighthearted; he is deferential, he is aware that he has no superior in the world; he is clumsy of body, he is elegant of mind and diction; he is a failure, he is triumphant. We never expect to meet anyone who, to such a degree, encompasses in his being all human vulnerability and human resilience.”


Anonymous said...

That has to be one of my all-time favourite blogs posts, thank you.

NigelBeale said...

I enjoyed Martin's book...believe he wrote one on Boswell too didn't he? About ten years ago I went on a bit of a Johnson bio buying now the proud owner of some 25-30volumes...have been meaning for a long time to read the one by Hugh Kingsmill...a friend of Malcolm Muggeridge; apparently it's very good.

NigelBeale said...

Richard Holmes also wrote an interesting dual bio of Johnson and Savage...