Tuesday, June 22, 2021

'He Was Almost Excessively Human'

“Johnson was on the whole a just man, but he was almost excessively human.” 

Not the severest verdict ever pronounced. What does it mean? Almost anything, depending on how much you value an honest assessment of what it means to be human. The more credulous of Rousseau’s offspring see untrammeled hippie innocence. The rest of us discern a more complicated state of affairs. We know the best are capable of committing atrocities; the worst, of performing (briefly) saintly deeds. George Saintsbury is writing of Johnson in The Peace of the Augustans, published in 1916, the year of the Somme. The book comes with a delightful subtitle: A Survey of Eighteenth-Century Literature As a Place of Rest and Refreshment. His observation comes in the context of Johnson’s mixed evaluation of Jonathan Swift as man and writer. Saintsbury concedes that Johnson “pretty certainly felt some fear of his own melancholy view of life passing, as it did in Swift's case, into unmitigated misanthropy.” Like Johnson, Saintsbury lifts specifics into shrewd generalities. Here are the sentences subsequent to the one at the top:     


“Everybody must have observed in his fellow-men, and he must be a very excellent or a very obtuse person who has not observed in himself, at least a tendency, requiring to be guarded against, to exaggerate not merely personal offences, but personal neglects, slights, and other misères. It is hardly too much to say that presumed negative injuries of this kind rankle in sensitive dispositions even more than open and positive attacks or affronts.”


In a footnote to the phrase concluding with “misères,” Saintsbury drily observes: “Of course actual saints do not require even to guard against this: but a good many people are not saints.”


Those who like their understanding of others neat, without much complication, ought to look elsewhere, not to Swift and certainly not to Johnson. When readers tell me Johnson is dull and depressing, I know that for them life is dull and depressing. Like Shakespeare and Tolstoy, Johnson is life, the whole contradictory mess, heaven and hell mortally mingled. We have much to learn from him about how to be human. The person who most reminds me of Johnson in the way he overcame obstacles (including poverty), asserted his genius and became a decent human being is Louis Armstrong. In Sprightly Running: Part of an Autobiography (1962), John Wain, who a decade later would publish a biography of Johnson, writes of him:


“Amid all this settled conviction of hopelessness, he was sociable, welcomed friends, reveled in talk, devoured books. All this I did too. No wonder I took over his attitudes en bloc; but they were the wrong attitudes. Brave, dignified, and admirable in his case, they were foolish and even cowardly in mine. When Johnson wrote the sentences that rang in my head, he was old, racked with diseases, emotionally shattered by the deaths of those he loved, with nothing ahead but a failing of powers and a death that might or might not appear as a merciful release. Such a man would make himself ridiculous and contemptible by counterfeiting youthful abandon; but it was just as absurd for me, at the age of twenty, to adopt his granite attitudes.”


We can best imitate Johnson by fumblingly learning what it means to be human and striving to write well.


Richard Zuelch said...

Johnson seems to be "hot" these days. Two anthologies of his writings have been published in the last two or three years, along with Leo Damrosch's marvelous book, "The Club."

Also: I'd like to see you do a blog post on Saintsbury one of these days - another interesting (and voluminous) writer.

Tim Guirl said...

I recently finished reading a section of Selected Writings of Maurice O'Connor Drury (Bloomsbury, 2017) in which he writes about his conversations with Wittgenstein, who was a great admirer of Samuel Johnson. He especially liked his Prayers and Meditations for the honesty with which they portrayed the human condition.

Baceseras said...

I can confirm Wittgenstein's attachment to Johnson from Norman Malcolm's memoir of Wittgenstein, which I read a few months ago. It was the second edition of the memoir, including all of Wittgenstein's letters to the author: in one of them he warmly recommends the Prayers and Meditations. Malcolm doesn't say whether the graft took, which I try not to interpret direly.

From his American colleague and friend Wittgenstein gratefully received packages of pulp detective-story magazines. He singled out for special praise the offbeat Norbert Davis, a writer so obscure that Malcolm, even with the help of a great university library, could find no bibliographic trace of him.

Faze said...

Wittengenstein makes a brief appearance in Ben Schott's excellent new P.G. Wodehouse pastiche, "Jeeves and the Leap of Faith".