Friday, May 25, 2018

'No Message for Children or for Lovers'

“Contemporary criticism of Johnson is for the most part anonymous, scurrilous, and nugatory.”

The sentence above was written by the Oxford University scholar R.W. Chapman (1881-1960) in his essay “Samuel Johnson,” first published in 1926 and collected in Johnsonian and Other Essays and Reviews (Clarendon Press, 1953). Context tell us that by “contemporary” he means of Johnson’s time, not his. Johnson was the sort of writer who would inevitably antagonize certain readers, especially other writers, and would turn others into sycophants. Truth-telling always intimidates someone, and Johnson’s sensibility made him a force of nature, feared by critics and admirers alike.

I single out Chapman’s sentence for his use of nugatory. The OED defines it as “trifling, negligible; of no intrinsic value or importance; worthless.” It’s a word one might wait a lifetime to use fittingly. English is rich in words that sound nothing like what they mean. Despite its echo of nougat, nugatory delivers little sweetness. In his Life, Boswell uses the word to describe Johnson’s dismissal of a writer in 1770: “Lord Lyttelton’s Dialogues [of the Dead], he deemed a nugatory performance. ‘That man, (said he,) sat down to write a book, to tell the world what the world had all his life been telling him.’”

Lyttelton’s Dialogues reads like the anemic cousin of Walter Savage Landor’s five-volume Imaginary Conversations (1821-29). Johnson dismisses it with the withering casualness it deserves. Chapman understands and approves of Johnson and his strategies:      

“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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