Friday, January 08, 2016

`Pure Wine'

“The battle to convince the world that Dr. Johnson would remain a great thinker, great stylist, and great versifier even if Boswell had never existed seems unwinnable. Where T.S. Eliot failed, we far lesser scribes shall not presume to succeed.”

I had never thought of it as a “battle”; more as a childishly futile wish like perfect pitch or pan-lingualism. Johnson is forever fixed in Boswell’s amber, and that’s not the worst of fates. The book preserves libraries of his impossibly acute and amusing conversation alongside the moving allegory of his life. There are some who read Boswell and believe their duty done. Others take the biography merely as an introduction to the main event. The author of the passage above is R.J. Stove, whose César Franck: His Life and Times (2011) I read last year. He is the son of the late Australian philosopher David Stove. In his response to one of those end-of-year roundups, “The Best Books I Read in 2015,” R.J. Stove names Beerbohm’s Zuleika Dobson, The Politics of Plainchant in Fin-de-Siècle France (2013) by Katharine Ellis and Johnson’s Rambler essays. I confess that Zuleika Dobson is the single work by Beerbohm I’ll be happy never to read again, but you can’t fault Stove for conventional tastes. Consider this:

“But with The Rambler, aphorism after aphorism has acquired a chilling new relevance, given that 2015 saw hitherto Burkean conservatives—particularly though not, alas, exclusively in Australia—turn themselves again and again into honking, gibbering apologists for Charlie Hebdo’s blasphemous filth.”

Stove quotes from The Rambler #69, a reliable antidote to all that AARP-inspired rubbish about the Golden Years: “He that grows old without religious hopes, as he declines into imbecility, and feels pains and sorrows incessantly crowding upon him, falls into a gulf of bottomless misery, in which every reflection must plunge him deeper, and where he finds only new gradations of anguish and precipices of horror.”

Johnson is not theorizing. He writes from within his own anguish and without self-pity. Some readers will always value truth over mere consolation. If one were charged with distilling the essential Johnson from his sprawling output, he could readily fill a third of the volume with the best of The Rambler and the other periodical essays. Johnson bragged: “My other works are wine and water; but my Rambler is pure wine.”

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