Tuesday, December 19, 2017

`His Peculiar Sensitivity'

For a handful of writers I keep active a bookish all-points bulletin. When their names show up in something I’m reading, I slow down, ponder and sometimes enter the passages in the commonplace book, or at least record the source for future use. Shakespeare usually doesn’t qualify because he’s everywhere and most references are trivial, but Swift does and so do Zbigniew Herbert, J.V. Cunningham and Philip Larkin. Mostly I’m on the lookout for Dr. Johnson. Often the writer will cite one of Johnson’s overused and frequently out-of-context and misunderstood greatest hits, especially the one about patriotism, and those I ignore.

He showed up twice over the weekend, first in Diana Athill’s Alive, Alive Oh!: and Other Things That Matter (W.W. Norton, 2016). The title is pertinent because Athill will celebrate her 100th birthday on Thursday. In a chapter titled “Beloved Books” she writes:

“The two great writers I think about most often I love for their personalities rather than their artistry—and I do so in spite of the fact that I am glad that I never had to meet them: James Boswell, and Byron. Boswell I love for his journals, not for his portrait of Dr Johnson, marvellous though that is, and Byron for his letters, more even than for Don Juan.”

Johnson is almost ancillary to Anthill’s enthusiasm, but her understanding of the whoring, pox-ridden, drunken Boswell is deep and sympathetic: “What is irresistible about Boswell is his always wanting with passionate intensity to be a good man and making stern resolutions to that end, almost never failing to break those resolutions, and then recording this process with fascinated honesty, as though he were a naturalist recording the behavior of some strange creature.” Recounting Boswell’s strategic hunt for a wife, concluded when he married his “sensible and far from rich” cousin Margaret, Athill writes:

“She, knowing him well, would not have loved him, and neither would Dr Johnson, who did not suffer fools gladly, if Boswell had not had charm and (for all his absurdities) intelligence beyond the ordinary.”

In Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture (Regnery, 2017), Anthony Esolen says Johnson was among the “most powerful influences upon my thought when I was young.” He devotes almost three pages to Johnson’s well-known dismissal of cant and other foolishness in Boswell’s Life:
“My dear friend, clear your mind of cant. You may talk as other people do: you may say to a man, ‘Sir, I am your most humble servant.’ You are not his most humble servant. You may say, ‘These are sad times; it is a melancholy thing to be reserved to such times.’ You don't mind the times. You tell a man, ‘I am sorry you had such bad weather the last day of your journey, and were so much wet.’ You don't care six-pence whether he was wet or dry. You may talk in this manner; it is a mode of talking in Society; but don’t think foolishly.”

Clearly, Esolen feels a profound affinity with Johnson: “If Samuel Johnson had been born in our time, he would have had the genius drugged out of him by the various pharmaceutical enemies of boyhood: he might be finger-painting with Einstein and Mozart in a group home or a reformatory. But in the eighteenth century his peculiar sensitivity and his many obsessions made him more human, not less; more apt to perceive the motives and feelings of others, because he had been so accustomed to confronting the darkest and worst of his own self. Johnson was like the lone gladiator in the arena, said Boswell, standing up against the beasts when they came lunging from their cages.”

Johnson would applaud Esolen’s clear-sightedness. In an age when meaning is routinely squeezed from words like water from a sponge, we need truth-tellers immune to fashion and bullying. Esolen writes, in a very Johnsonian manner:

“I believe now that the `higher cant’ is too dangerous even for small talk, because we will inevitably end up thinking in its terms. Words like democracy, diversity, equality, inclusivity, marginalization, misogyny, racism, sexism, homophobia, imperialism, colonialism, progressivism, autonomy, and many others my readers might name are simply terms of political force and have no real meaning anymore. Some of them never had any meaning to begin with. Do not wash your food in chlorine. Do not sprinkle your thoughts with poison.”

Johnson lives.

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