Thursday, November 12, 2015

`No Message for Children or for Lovers'

“Let us endeavor to see things as they are, and then enquire whether we ought to complain. Whether to see life as it is, will give us much consolation, I know not; but the consolation which is drawn from truth if any there be, is solid and durable: that which may be derived from errour, must be, like its original, fallacious and fugitive.”

The words are from a letter Dr. Johnson wrote to his friend Bennet Langton on Sept. 21, 1758. They come as a respite from the aggrieved spirit of our own age. The Oxford University scholar R.W. Chapman sees in them Johnson’s enduring attraction:

“The author of this advice was a man whom life had not used kindly. He was left, in middle age, a childless widower, with no relations, and few friends of his own generation. He had always been poor. He had never known health, or the ineffaceable delights of a happy childhood. His marriage we may believe yielded such happiness as its circumstances permitted.”

That’s all we have a right to ask for, of course, but it doesn’t stop of us from upping our demands like dictators and spoiled children. Johnson declined to play the victim or blame life’s unfairness on others, and that’s what makes him so convincing: he writes not theoretically but from life – his own life. I’ve written before about Chapman, who edited a one-volume edition of Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland and Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LL.D., while manning an artillery position in Macedonia during World War I. The essay quoted above, “Samuel Johnson,” was written in 1926 and collected in Johnsonian and Other Essays and Reviews (Clarendon Press, 1953). Chapman asks why readers ought to “celebrate” Johnson. Unlike Shakespeare, he does not “lead us into those dark places of the soul.” Unlike Plato or Shelley [!], he doesn’t “transport us into brighter regions, or show us the spirit of man loosed from earthly shackles.” In Johnson, Chapman finds something humbler and more reassuring: “He is no magician; he is only Samuel Johnson, a moral writer.” One might argue that a writer’s essential stuff, his medium, along with words, is morals. It’s Johnson’s bluffness that earns our trust. Chapman writes:

“His religion is not a religion of joy. He has no message for children or for lovers. . . .He will not let us soften the facts in our favour—he will always insist that we `clear our minds of cant’. We feel that he knows the worst; but we are confident that his understanding and his charity will not fail.”

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