Sunday, July 30, 2017

`More Consolatory than Alarming'

“. . . in books which best deserve the name of originals, there is little new beyond the disposition of materials already provided; the same ideas and combinations of ideas have been long in the possession of other hands.”

In short, novelty is a self-regarding myth. The pool of truths is finite, as is our willingness to draw from it. An author striving after originality has steered into a cul-de-sac. Call it the Modernist Fallacy. Writing in The Rambler on this date, July 30, in 1751, while at work on his great Dictionary, Dr. Johnson reminds us that “all definitions of the same thing must be nearly the same.” No one wants to rely on a “creative” dictionary.

The writer working today who most closely embodies Johnsonian learning, wit, compassion and plainspoken distaste for cant is Theodore Dalrymple. That’s good news for those of us who still read Johnson “for pleasure or instruction.” In Dalrymple we hear the reassuring voice of happy, undefeated, open-minded, open-eyed pessimism:

“Some people will be alarmed to discover that, underneath the surface, nothing much has changed in human conduct; but for my own part, I find it more consolatory than alarming. In the first place, I rather like the imperfections of human nature: I find the prospect of a world in which everyone is good, and holds his opinions with precisely the strength that the evidence for them justifies, supposing that justification could be calibrated with such precision, to be very intimidating. And a world in which everyone were beautiful would be a world in which no one were beautiful.”

[Dalrymple has often written about Dr. Johnson, most memorably here.]

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