Wednesday, May 02, 2018

`One of the Happiest I Have Ever Heard'

In the abstract we understand that none of us is good all the time. But when it comes to people we respect and admire, especially in the remote past, we practice a form of secular hagiography. We don’t want to be disappointed by the good guys. (The opposite, equally simplistic extreme is expecting to be disappointed.) In the frail human realm, every evaluation is a balancing act. Take Dr. Johnson. Most would reckon him a great man in the moral and literary senses, but he is not universally admired, nor was he during his life. He could be dismissive, impatient, contemptuous and touchy – common human failings. Boswell tells us in his Life that he dined with Johnson at Sir Joshua Reynolds’ home on this date, May 7, in 1778:

“. . . there was a very large company, and a great deal of conversation; but owing to some circumstance which I cannot now recollect, I have no record of any part of it, except that there were several people there by no means of the Johnsonian school; so that less attention was paid to him than usual, which put him out of humour; and upon some imaginary offence from me, he attacked me with such rudeness, that I was vexed and angry, because it gave those persons an opportunity of enlarging upon his supposed ferocity, and ill treatment of his best friends. I was so much hurt, and had my pride so much roused, that I kept away from him for a week; and, perhaps, might have kept away much longer, nay, gone to Scotland without seeing him again, had not we fortunately met and been reconciled. To such unhappy chances are human friendships liable.”

Johnson is sixty-eight; Boswell, thirty-seven. They have been acquainted for fifteen years. Boswell has matured and perhaps profited from Johnson’s example. He can afford to be philosophical about treatment that might have deeply wounded him earlier. Johnson’s self-centeredness on this occasion is embarrassing. He is already the Johnson we know, the dominant literary figure of his age, and he acts like a spoiled child. Six days later, Boswell dines with him again, this time at Bennet Langton’s. Boswell is honest and direct with his friend:

“He insisted that I had interrupted him, which I assured him was not the case; and proceeded —`But why treat me so before people who neither love you nor me?’ JOHNSON. ‘Well, I am sorry for it. I’ll make it up to you twenty different ways, as you please.’ BOSWELL. ‘I said to-day to Sir Joshua, when he observed that you TOSSED me sometimes — I don’t care how often, or how high he tosses me, when only friends are present, for then I fall upon soft ground: but I do not like falling on stones, which is the case when enemies are present. — I think this a pretty good image, Sir.’ JOHNSON. ‘Sir, it is one of the happiest I have ever heard.’”

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