Friday, June 22, 2018

'As Entertaining as His Indisposition Allowed'

Some of the saddest events are recognized only retrospectively. Few of us know the date of our death, and each year we pass it happily unaware. Boswell, unsuspecting at the time, relates an evening in 1784:

“On Tuesday, June 22, I dined with him at THE LITERARY CLUB, the last time of his being in that respectable society. The other members present were the Bishop of St. Asaph, Lord Eliot, Lord Palmerston, Dr. Fordyce, and Mr. Malone. He looked ill; but had such a manly fortitude, that he did not trouble the company with melancholy complaints. They all shewed evident marks of kind concern about him, with which he was much pleased, and he exerted himself to be as entertaining as his indisposition allowed him.”

Johnson was sick and would be dead in less than six months. Perhaps he suspected his visit to The Club would be his last. He had a terror of being alone and described solitude as “a state dangerous to those who are too much accustomed to sink into themselves.” To be clubbable, for Johnson, was to maintain sanity. He and Sir Joshua Reynolds founded The Club in 1764. It met weekly at The Turk’s Head on Gerrard Street in Soho. The original nine members included Edmund Burke and Oliver Goldsmith. New members could be elected only by unanimous vote, and later additions included Boswell, Adam Smith and Edward Gibbon. Walter Jackson Bate called the club “the most remarkable assemblage of diverse talents that has ever met so frequently for the sole purpose of conversation.”

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