Tuesday, December 16, 2014

`His Granite Attitudes'

“When I should have been running forward to embrace life, I was digging a fortification against it. With every reason for optimism, I became a stoical pessimist. Samuel Johnson was my favourite author, my moral hero; Boswell and The Rambler were constantly open on my table. Johnson reflected my mood exactly, because he put into dignified and resounding prose the sense of stoical resistance against hopeless odds.” 

This is one Midlands writer, John Wain (1925-1994), honoring another in Sprightly Running: Part of an Autobiography, published in 1962 when Wain already had five novels, two story collections and two volumes of poetry in print. The passage quoted is drawn from the chapter describing his wartime years at Oxford University. Johnson, too, attended the school, but could afford only one year of study, though in 1775, the university awarded him an honorary doctorate. Like Johnson, Wain was born into the lower-middle class in a working-class neighborhood, sensitizing him to class differences on both sides. He grew up during the Great Depression, relieved only by the war. Wain continues the account of his Oxford years: 

“I would murmur to myself. As if they were lyrics poems, sombre fragments of his lay sermons. `Life is everywhere a state in which there is much to be endured, and little to be enjoyed.’ [Rasselas, Chap. 11] `So large a part of human life passes in a state contrary to our natural desires, that one of the principal topics in moral instruction is the art of bearing calamities.’ [The Rambler #32] But it was not his gloom alone that made Johnson a hero to me. It was his tragic gaiety.” 

Wain’s understanding of, and kinship with, Johnson is profound. In that last sentence he echoes Yeats: “They know that Hamlet and Lear are gay; / Gaiety transfiguring all that dread.” When readers tell me Johnson is dull and depressing, I know that life for them must be dull and depressing. Like Shakespeare and Tolstoy, Johnson is life, the whole contradictory mess, heaven and hell mortally mingled. Wain goes on: 

“Amid all this settled conviction of hopelessness, he was sociable, welcomed friends, reveled in talk, devoured books. All this I did too. No wonder I took over his attitudes en bloc; but they were the wrong attitudes. Brave, dignified, and admirable in his case, they were foolish and even cowardly in mine. When Johnson wrote the sentences that rang in my head, he was old, racked with diseases, emotionally shattered by the deaths of those he loved, with nothing ahead but a failing of powers and a death that might or might not appear as a merciful release. Such a man would make himself ridiculous and contemptible by counterfeiting youthful abandon; but it was just as absurd for me, at the age of twenty, to adopt his granite attitudes.” 

Call it premature stoicism or affected philosophical armoring – the disease of bright, self-pitying young people. We wear it like an unearned trophy of war. If we’re fortunate, life or at least an uncommonly honest friend will knock it out of us. Johnson wasn’t Johnson when he was twenty. He had to wait for the appropriate time to become himself, and the outcome was never guaranteed. Wain is inverting Johnson’s observation in The Rambler #50: 

“If dotards will contend with boys in those performances in which boys must always excel them; if they will dress crippled limbs in embroidery, endeavour at gaiety with faltering voices, and darken assemblies of pleasure with the ghastliness of disease, they may well expect those who find their diversions obstructed will hoot them away; and that if they descend to competition with youth, they must bear the insolence of successful rivals.” 

Wain takes the title of his autobiography from Dryden’s drama Aureng-Zebe (1676): 

“None would live past years again,
Yet all hope pleasure in what yet remain;
And from the dregs of life think to receive
What the first sprightly running could not give.” 

[In 1973, Wain published a play about his hero, Johnson is Leaving, and edited the anthology Johnson as Critic. In 1975 he repaid his literary debt with Samuel Johnson: A Biography.]

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