One can’t be a purist, an advocate of inerrancy, when it comes to literature. Even Shakespeare, like Homer, nods. Titus Andronicus, anyone? Max Beerbohm is writing of Johnson in “London Revisited” (Mainly on the Air, 1946), a radio broadcast he made in 1935. He refers to one of Johnson’s best-known one-liners, as reported by Boswell: “No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” I can’t speak to that, as I’ve never been to London and the eighteenth century is long gone. What interests me is the mingling of right and wrong in writers.
In some, the ratio of wrong to right is like granite and feathers, respectively. Few sane people who are not scholars of totalitarianism will read Mein Kampf or The State and Revolution a second time. One probably ought to read them once, as it’s prudent to recognize evil of the systematic sort when it masks as a solution to all of our problems. In other writers the proportions are more troubling, and here’s where the reader’s sense of tolerance and judgment comes in. I can no longer read Pound. I’m tired of the excuses his partisans make (insanity, crackpot economic theories) for his anti-Semitism and Fascist sympathies. Besides, much of his poetry is gibberish, so he fails aesthetically too. He gives me no pleasure. My reactions to Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Pablo Neruda, Dorothy Parker and John Berger are similar, if less absolute. Nazis and Communists are unlikely to write anything worth reading, at least as literature, though what they produce may have documentary value.
Johnson’s ratio of wrong to right is impressively unbalanced in the right direction. Boswell reports his friend saying of Americans: “Sir, they are a race of convicts, and ought to be thankful for anything we allow them short of hanging.” True, remarks are not literature, but honest readers will acknowledge Johnson’s prejudices. He is a man of his time and place. Besides, he’s often funny when saying something outlandish. Johnson is like us, only more so. I think of him, with all his tics and neuroses, as the human default mode with genius thrown into the mix. As Beerbohm says, “otherwise we shouldn’t love him so much.”