“We talked of sounds.”
What a charming way to recall a conversation with friends. And what a seemingly unlikely topic, though one rich in potential with the proper companions. Conversationalists possessing wit, experience and well-stocked memories can make any subject compelling.
This day, April 19, in 1772, was Easter. Boswell and General Pasquale Paoli, leader of the Cosican resistance, met at Johnson’s house before dinner. They spoke first of whether blind people could perceive color by touch. The subject is less ridiculous than it sounds. Neuroscientists have investigated this variation on synesthesia, a capacity much enjoyed by Nabokov. Johnson, of course, was skeptical. Paoli mentions that jugglers and “fraudulent gamesters” – card sharps – could recognize cards just by touching them. Johnson, the voice of common sense, says “the cards used by such persons must be less polished than ours commonly are.” The next topic of conversation, as recounted by Boswell in the Life of Johnson:
“We talked of sounds. The General said, there was no beauty in a simple sound [obviously, Paoli was born too early to hear Count Basie's piano], but only in an harmonious composition of sounds. I presumed to differ from this opinion, and mentioned the soft and sweet sound of a fine woman’s voice.”
JOHNSON: “No, sir, if a serpent or a toad uttered it, you would think it ugly.”
BOSWELL: “So you would think, Sir, were a beautiful tune to be uttered by one of those animals.”
JOHNSON: “No, Sir, it would be admired. We have seen fiddlers whom we liked as little as toads. (laughing).”
Johnson seems to have had something against the violin (as did Nabokov). In his Johnsonian Miscellanies (1897), George Birkbeck Norman Hill reports William Seward saying: “Dr. Johnson was observed by a musical friend of his to be extremely inattentive at a concert, whilst a celebrated solo player was running up the divisions and subdivisions of notes upon his violin. His friend, to induce him to take greater notice of what was going on, told him how extremely difficult it was. ‘Difficult do you call it, Sir?’ replied the Doctor; ‘I wish it were impossible.’”
Dr. Johnson never heard Joe Venuti.