Friday, October 31, 2014

`His Bellowings and Bangings'

When W.H. Auden edited and introduced G.K. Chesterton: A Selection from His Non-Fictional Prose (Faber and Faber, 1970), he included “The Real Dr. Johnson,” a brief essay posthumously collected in The Common Man (1950). What we are witnessing here is a three-way confluence of sensibilities. Chesterton wrote a three-act play about the great lexicographer. He published The Judgement of Dr. Johnson in 1927 and it was first staged in 1932. In addition, the theatrically minded Chesterton enjoyed performing in pageants in the role of Dr. Johnson. Auden, too, admired him, and Anthony Hecht has noted the “remarkable resemblance” between the two men. Chesterton opens his essay provocatively: 

“It is possible that there are still people in England who do not adore Dr. Johnson. These persons must be removed, if possible, by persuasion.” 

Chesterton defends Johnson against two “popular notions—that he was pedantic and that he was rude.” In his Dictionary, Johnson defines pedantry as “awkward ostentation of needless learning,” and in The Rambler #173 he calls it “the unseasonable ostentation of learning.” A pedant, whether of Star Wars or the Russo-Japanese War, is a showoff who uses learning, or at least an accumulation of facts, as a defense against his gnawing sense of inadequacy. By definition, a pedant is a bore and without humor. In literature, Edward Casaubon is the pedant incarnate. Johnson writes: 

“He is undoubtedly guilty of pedantry, who, when he has made himself master of some abstruse and uncultivated part of knowledge, obtrudes his remarks and discoveries upon those whom he believes unable to judge of his proficiency, and from whom, as he cannot fear contradiction, he cannot properly expect applause.” 

No thoughtful reader will see Johnson in these descriptions. His learning is earned honestly and wielded with purpose. Chesterton writes: “Johnson was the reverse of pedantic, for he used long words only where they would be effective. Generally it came to this, that he spoke pompously when Boswell spoke flippantly and flippantly when Boswell spoke pompously--a very sound rule.” Johnson possessed common sense wedded to a comic sense—anathema to the pedantically minded. As to the second accusation against Johnson, Chesterton is more sympathetic: 

“The charge of rudeness is much more real; but about this also an impression still surviving requires a great deal of correction. Taken in conjunction with the charge of pedantry, it has created the image of a bullying schoolmaster, a superior person who thinks himself above good manners.  Now Johnson was sometimes insolent, but he was never superior.  He was not a despot, but exactly the reverse.  It was his sense of the democracy of debate that made him loud and unscrupulous, like a mob.  It was exactly because he thought the other men as clever as himself that he sought in desperate cases to bear them down by clamour.” 

Coleridge, a monologist, dismissed Johnson, a dialogist if there ever was one, for his “bow-wow manner.” For Johnson, debate was not for softies. He argued for keeps, but it wasn’t personal. Truth mattered for Johnson, and he was its agent. Chesterton articulates what sounds like one of his customary paradoxes but is not:

“Johnson was a man of great animal impulsiveness and of irregular temper, but intellectually he was humble. He always went into every conflict with the idea that the other man was as good as he was, and that he might be defeated.  His bellowings and bangings of the table were the expressions of a fundamental modesty.” 

Even more than in Chesterton’s day, people are confounded by a mingling of combativeness and humility. To be humble, they assume, is to be demurely soft-spoken, well-mannered and agreeable, but truth often is inflammatory and unlikely to be popular. Many prefer complacent happiness to rancorous honesty. Chesterton lauds Johnson for his “gigantic realism.”

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