Wednesday, September 26, 2012

`A Very Serious Business'

Read accounts by those who knew him and the subject of Samuel Johnson’s enthusiastic fondness for food and drink -- along with his sloppiness, looming bulk, shabby clothing, bullish demeanor and facial tics -- is invariably underlined. His manners, it seems, were not the most exquisite and his tastes were not refined. When circumstances permitted, the gourmand in him outweighed the gourmet. Even devoted friends took note of Johnson’s unapologetic gluttony. William Temple in The Character of Doctor Johnson (1792) writes: 

“He eats voraciously, and in the most disgusting manner, pawing his meat with his great coarse, sooty hands. Though excessively fond of wine, yet like savages and the vulgar, when he has once tasted it, knowing no moderation, he has renounced it entirely, confining himself to lemonade. This he swallows to a nauseous excess; and wherever he dines, the table is strewed with lemon skins (whose juice has trickled through his dirty finger) like the bar of a tavern.” 

Sir John Hawkins, who in 1787 published the first biography of Johnson, four years before Boswell’s, writes: 

“Johnson looked upon [eating] as a very serious business, and enjoyed the pleasure of a splendid table equally with most men. It was, at no time in his life, pleasing to see him at a meal; the greediness with which he ate, his total inattention to those among whom he was seated, and his profound silence in the hour of refection, were circumstances that at the instant degraded him, and showed him  to be more a sensualist than a philosopher.” 

James Northcote in his 1813 biography of Sir Joshua Reynolds, who painted Johnson’s portrait three times, reports: 

“The uncouth manner in which he fed himself was indeed remarkable. I well recollect when dining once at Sir Joshua’s with him, he scalded his mouth by hastily and as awkwardly eating some of a beef steak pie when too hot; this, however, he passed off with a smile, saying that `beef steak pie would be a very good if it would ever be cold.’” 

One savors Johnson’s disregard for social niceties and the way he revels in food. When dining with the proudly abstemious, consumers of soy-milk-and-bean-sprout gruel, for whom eating is an impertinence, a concession to one’s animal nature, I’m tempted to follow Johnson and obey my inner trencherman. Never trust a finicky eater or one who turns dining into applied ethics. As though to confirm the ample anecdotal evidence, Boswell in his Life quotes Johnson as saying: “Some people have a foolish way of not minding, or pretending not to mind, what they eat. For my part, I mind my belly very studiously, and very carefully; for I look upon it, that he who does not mind his belly, will hardly mind anything else.” 

The problem begins when one minds nothing else, which clearly was not the case with Johnson. In 1962 the London Sunday Times invited seven writers, including W.H. Auden and Evelyn Waugh, to pick one of the Seven Deadly Sins and write about it. The results were published that year as a book. The great travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor selected Gluttony and invented a character, Mr. Vertigern, to anatomize the subject: 

“At least girth-control invites no anathema, if we can but practice it. Always remember that outside every thin man lurks a fat man trying to climb in.” 

And Fermor leaves us with this: 

“There is another peculiar thing about gluttony: its physical penalties may be the heaviest, but it is the sin that leaves us with the lightest deposit of guilt. One feels like St. Augustine – of Hippo, not Canterbury – postponing his reformation. `Give me frugality and sobriety, Oh Lord,’ one might paraphrase him, `but not yet.’ Sed noli modo! But it’s no good. Cerberus and the hailstones [Dante’s punishments for gluttony] are waiting.’”

1 comment:

zmkc said...

Fascinating - I would love to know where to find the full Leigh Fermor text. I'm assuming that, having been published in 1962, it's not on some Sunday Times Internet archive?