Sunday, January 29, 2023

'A Lone Gladiator in the Arena'

“One of the most powerful influences upon my thought when I was young was James Boswell’s Life of Johnson. If Samuel Johnson had been born in our time, he would have had the genius drugged out of him by the various pharmaceutical enemies of boyhood; he might be finger-painting with Einstein and Mozart in a group home or reformatory.”


I’m not certain what Anthony Esolen means by “young” but in my case I discovered the world that is Dr. Johnson at age seventeen, thanks to a freshman survey course in English Lit. Yes, a Norton anthology. That's when I read Johnson’s “The Vanity of Human Wishes,” some of the periodical essays and Boswell, and that’s all it took – lifelong devotion. Around the same time I fell for Sterne.


I’m again reading Esolen’s Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture (Regnery, 2017). The passage quoted above is from the section in the first chapter titled “Clear Your Mind of Cant” (see Boswell, May 15, 1783). Esolen continues:


“But in the eighteenth century his peculiar sensitivity and his many obsessions made him more human, not less; more apt to perceive the motives and the feelings of others, because he had been so accustomed to confronting the darkest and the worst of his own self. Johnson was like a lone gladiator in the arena, said Boswell, standing up against the beasts when they came lunging from their cages.”


In his 1787 biography, Sir John Hawkins’ reports Johnson’s last known words were spoken to his friend the Italian teacher Francesco Sastres. When Sastres entered the room, Johnson reached out from his bed and said, Iam Moriturus – “I who am about to die.” W. Jackson Bate notes that the lifelong fighter may have been thinking of “the ancient Roman salutation of the dying gladiators to Caesar.” That is, Ave, Imperator, morituri te salutant, as reported by Suetonius. Johnson’s dying was painful and protracted. His body was failing while his mind raged on. He read the Bible and translated Horace.


Johnson’s physique was large and powerful, yet his health was frequently compromised, starting with scrofula as an infant. All his life he feared losing his sanity. Boswell said his friend “felt himself overwhelmed with an horrible melancholia, with perpetual irritation, fretfulness, and impatience; and with a dejection, gloom, and despair, which made existence misery.” Where’s the Prozac?  


Johnson’s final days mingled grotesquery with nobility. He suffered from general circulatory disease made evident six months earlier by a stroke; chronic bronchitis and emphysema, accompanied by growing breathlessness; congestive heart failure, the cause of Johnson’s fluid retention; and rheumatoid arthritis. Retrospective diagnoses suggest he may have suffered from Tourette’s syndrome. In Samuel Johnson: The Life of an Author (1998), Lawrence Lipking describes the scene shortly before his death:


“Bloated with dropsy [edema], Johnson tries to discharge the water by stabbing his legs with a lancet and scissors until the bedclothes are covered with blood. He even reproaches his surgeon for not daring to delve far enough.”

1 comment:

Thomas Parker said...

My introduction to Johnson was the epigram that Hunter Thompson placed at the beginning of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: "He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man." The words and the name of their author stuck with me until I was ready for them, about a decade later. That's one of the best things about books - their infinite patience.