Saturday, September 18, 2021

'A Noble Unconsciousness Is in Him'

“On the whole, a man must not complain of his ‘element,’ of his ‘time,’ or the like; it is thriftless work doing so. His time is bad: well then, he is there to make it better!” 

Few would identify these cheery words as the work of Thomas Carlyle, the least cheery of men. Dr. Johnson brought out something beyond mere admiration in Carlyle, a deeply moral identification. The passage is drawn from his 1840 lecture “The Hero as Man of Letters,” in which Carlyle lauds the absence of fuss in Johnson, the indifference to impressing his fellows and polishing his image. Making the world better is too often the slogan of those who would destroy it. Johnson had no interest in utopia-building:


“Mark, too, how little Johnson boasts of his ‘sincerity.’ He has no suspicion of his being particularly sincere, — of his being particularly anything! A hard-struggling, weary-hearted man, or "scholar" as he calls himself, trying hard to get some honest livelihood in the world, not to starve, but to live — without stealing! A noble unconsciousness is in him.”


Plagued with fears of idleness and madness, Johnson often self-prescribed work as the cure. Carlyle calls the attitude “rude stubborn self-help.” And we are its beneficiaries: “Had Johnson left nothing but his Dictionary, one might have traced there a great intellect, a genuine man. . . . There is in it a kind of architectural nobleness; it stands there like a great solid square-built edifice, finished, symmetrically complete: you judge that a true Builder did it.”


David Ferry, now ninety-seven years old, writes in “That Evening at Dinner” (Of No Country I Know: New and Selected Poems and Translations, 1999):


“The books there on the bookshelves told their stories,

Line after line, all of them evenly spaced,

And spaces between the words. You could fall through the spaces.

In one of the books Dr. Johnson told the story:”


Johnson endlessly reiterates his theme: books alone are not enough. At best, they are less than half a life. They are riddled with lacunae, gaps, spaces. Ferry rounds out his stanza with lines from Johnson:


“‘In the scale of being, wherever it begins,

Or ends, there are chasms infinitely deep;

Infinite vacuities . . . For surely,

Nothing can so disturb the passions, or

Perplex the intellects of man so much,

As the disruption of this union with

Visible nature, separation from all

That has delighted or engaged him, a change

Not only of the place but of the manner

Of his being, an entrance into a state

Not simply which he knows not, but perhaps

A state he has not faculties to know.”


The start of the quoted passage, preceding the ellipsis, is drawn from Johnson’s review of Soame Jenyn’s A Free Inquiry into the Nature and Origin of Evil (1759). The balance is from The Rambler #78, published Dec. 15, 1750. The sentence preceding it, and filling in the antecedents, is:


“Milton has judiciously represented the father of mankind, as seized with horror and astonishment at the sight of death, exhibited to him on the mount of vision.”


The reference is to Paradise Lost, Section XI, lines 461-465. Two paragraphs later in the Rambler essay Johnson writes:


“[A] perpetual meditation upon the last hour, however it may become the solitude of a monastery, is inconsistent with many duties of common life. But surely the remembrance of death ought to predominate in our minds, as an habitual and settled principle, always operating, though not always perceived; and our attention should seldom wander so far from our own condition, as not to be recalled and fixed by sight of an event, which must soon, we know not how soon, happen likewise to ourselves, and of which, though we cannot appoint the time, we may secure the consequence.”


Johnson was born on this date, September 18, in 1709.

1 comment:

Take it easy said...

It was Auden who (I think) stated that in his view the ideal essay would be made up of nothing but quotations. In this excellent piece you've come close to matching his ideal. There is much to learn here, much to consider, and almost all of it is given to us first-hand. That this is not an easy thing to do should go without saying.