May 20th 2017

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Morrison's budget jive lacks inherent harmony

CANBERRA OBSERVED Does budget do heavy lifting or is it "Labor lite"?

NEW ZEALAND Porn poll shows strong majority supports default opt-out policy to protect kids online

FRANCE Emmanuel Macron: a president without a political base

YOUNG POLITICAL ACTIVIST TRAINING (YPAT) Seven-day intensive course without equal in Australia

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Taiwan to go full steam ahead with submarines

RURAL AFFAIRS Murray Goulburn closures an omen of an industry in crisis

CLIMATE SCIENCE Temperature hasn't risen in 20 years: latest data

QUEENSLAND ENERGY 50 per cent renewables target: Is it credible?

LITERATURE Inexplicable: the ongoing appeal of H.P. Lovecraft

LITERATURE The gentle giant: Samuel Johnson

MUSIC Promissory notes: the public funding siphon

CINEMA Going in Style: Old dogs turned rookie robbers


BOOK REVIEW An abstemious revolutionary

BOOK REVIEW Soviet-era thriller revels in details

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The gentle giant: Samuel Johnson

by Brian Coman

News Weekly, May 20, 2017

Imagine, if you can, a seamier part of London of the mid-18th century with its bustling streets, cries of the beggars, the stench of raw sewage and the rumbling of horse-drawn carriages over cobblestones. Down the street comes a huge dishevelled figure, old slippers and a moth-eaten wig, walking with a strange gait and gesticulating wildly from time to time. Sometimes he will stop and retrace his steps, just to make sure his feet land squarely on every alternate flagstone. An escapee from Bedlam perhaps? Not so! It is Dr Samuel Johnson, one of the greatest literary figures of his age.

Portrait of Samuel Johnson by Sir Joshua Reynolds.

Johnson was born in Lichfield, England, in 1709. His parents were booksellers, reasonably prosperous and well thought of by the local community. As a tiny infant, he was a weakling and a wet nurse was hired to look after the child. Unfortunately, this poor woman had tuberculosis and the young Johnson contracted the disease, which left tubercular lesions on the face and neck. These left Johnson’s face disfigured for life.

There are some who also supposed that this disease affected part of his brain because, throughout his life, he was given to all sorts of tics of the face, violent movements in his body and other strange behaviours that made him appear, on first sight, as a madman.

The prodigality of his mind soon became evident at school and perhaps, even before. There is a story (admittedly of doubtful veracity) that as a very young child he was scolded by his mother for being in her words “an impudent little puppy”. He is reported to have replied to his mother: “Do you know what they call a puppy’s mother?”

Whatever the truth of this, there is no doubt about the early brilliance of his mind. At school, this soon became evident although it must be said that, from a very early age, he displayed an indolence which was to trouble him for the rest of his life. He was, to put it bluntly, naturally lazy.

Samuel Johnson stands today as one of the most commonly quoted of all literary figures in the English-speaking world. Just as there are Shakespeare societies all over the world, so too are there Samuel Johnson societies. Books, essays and postgraduate theses on Johnson or his works must number in the hundreds if not thousands.

This brings us to an enigma concerning Johnson – the fact that many of the works of commentary involved concentrate on the personality of Johnson himself and not on the content or literary merit of his writings. This is so obvious that it tends to be overlooked. For most great writers or poets, our admiration is directed towards their work, not towards the actual person. Shakespeare, of course, is the most obvious example – we know very little about Shakespeare the man. With Johnson, the opposite is true. His literary works, aside from selected quotations, are not commonly read. Who but the Johnson specialist has read Rasselas or his Lives of the Poets? On the other hand, almost anyone can tell you a story about Johnson the man – his strange habits and idiosyncrasies, his powers in argument and his speed in writing. It is the man we love, not so much the work he produced. Strike up a conversation with any Johnson fan and you will be regaled with stories about the man, not about his literary output.

Why should this be so? Clearly, it was necessary for him to gain a reputation as a great scholar, else he would have attracted little attention. We may be sure, for instance, that James Boswell, his biographer, would not otherwise have bothered recording his life and spending so much time in following him around. Nor would his other famous contemporaries, people like Joshua Reynolds, Edmund Burke and Edward Gibbon, bothered to associate themselves with him. Nonetheless, the fact of the matter is that Johnson’s reputation has survived down through the last two centuries very largely on the basis of his personality, not his writings. This is not to say that his works are of inferior value but simply that they have been overshadowed by the personality of the man himself.

No doubt, part of the explanation for this lies in the ability of Boswell to portray the life of Johnson so accurately. His biography is perhaps the most famous in the whole genre. We must credit Boswell as being perhaps the first member of the paparazzi, whose particular delight it is to record the faults of the great and to feed off their personal habits. Even so, a biographer must have sufficient raw materials with which to work and Johnson certainly supplied this. Indeed, it might be said that he sometimes played to his audience! But it was Boswell’s genius (or, perhaps, simply his unwillingness to leave out any small detail from his notes) to supply a “warts and all” account.

In 1735, Johnson married Elizabeth Porter, the widow of a Birmingham draper. He was 25, she was 43 and, understandably, relatives on both sides thought it to be an unwise match. With part of her marriage dowry (some £600 in total), they set up a private school at Edial, near Lichfield. The school was a financial disaster and Johnson was forced to leave for London and seek work as a hack journalist. His wife stayed behind – better that he make some money first before committing her to such an uncertain future. She did come to join him later but her own life was rather tragic towards the end – she took to drinking large quantities of laudanum and withdrew from the world. Johnson, I think, has to bear some of the blame for this and he evidently did feel some remorse later in life.

Now Johnson began his literary career in earnest, operating as a hack journalist in what was then known as “Grub Street” – the world of poverty-stricken journalists living in garrets and subsisting from day to day on their wits. Some of his best-known work originates from this period. He wrote short pieces for a periodical called the Gentleman’s Magazine, and one of his best known poems, London. He also wrote The Parliamentary Debates, Life of Savage and many other pieces.

When he was 36 years old, Johnson decided to write a dictionary of the English language and planned to do it in three years. This was a huge undertaking and his friends tried to point this out to him. They reminded him that the French Academy, of 40 eminent scholars, had taken 40 years to produce a French Dictionary. Johnson’s reply was typical: “let me see, 40 times 40 is 1600. As three to sixteen hundred, so is the proportion of an Englishman to a Frenchman.”

In the event, it took Johnson seven years but it was hailed as a great masterpiece. It was unrivalled for the next hundred years or so; even Webster’s early dictionaries were little more than a modification of Johnson’s. Johnson is often criticised for using long and complicated explanations, but I find his definition of “net/network” a beautiful example of a careful definition: “Anything reticulated or decussated at equal intervals with interstices between the intersections”.

Many of his other famous definitions concern his almost gleeful put-down of Scotland and the Scots. Thus, part of his definition of oats reads: “A grain used in England to feed horses: In Scotland, it provides sustenance for the people.” Some of his definitions were heavily influenced by other of his own particular views, but this serves only to endear him all the more to his readers, who can at last find some traces of humanity in a dry work such as a dictionary. When he comes to defining “Lich” in his Dictionary, he includes reference to Lichfield, his birthplace, and adds, at the end, a quote from Virgil: “Salve, magna parens” (Hail, great parent]. One can almost see the great man poring over the page, with tears rolling down his cheeks.

After the publication of the Dictionary came several other famous publications, most notably Johnson’s notes to an edition of Shakespeare’s plays which included a very famous preface. It is in Johnson’s Preface to the plays that we see the great power of his mind and his championship of Shakespeare against certain neoclassical critics who condemned Shakespeare for neglecting the traditional rules for dramatic composition.

Yet, we should not suppose that Johnson himself was without some criticism of the great bard. In his Preface, and again in some of his notes accompanying individual plays, Johnson points out what he believes to be faults in Shakespeare. Perhaps the most important was a lack of any moral purpose. Johnson says, inter alia: “He sacrifices virtue to convenience and is so much more careful to please than to instruct that he seems to write without any moral purpose … his precepts and axioms drop casually from him; he makes no just distribution of good or evil.”

Perhaps the popularity of Johnson the man, as opposed to Johnson the author, lies in the extraordinary extent to which his own mind is laid bare, so to speak, by his everyday actions and comments. Johnson is one of the few great authors with whom all of us can relate. Other authors rely on their literary characters, whether fictitious or real, but in Johnson we get a brutally honest and real-life account of that same struggle between human aspiration and human achievement which all of us experience. And, no doubt, there is a certain satisfaction to be gained from the knowledge that a man as great as Johnson is beset by the same anguish and the same sense of inadequacy that all of us feel from time to time. In Johnson’s weaknesses, but more particularly in his eventual triumph over them, we gain some hope for our own condition, collectively or individually.

The fact is that for no other English author known to me do we have such a detailed account of his every movement, his every habit and his every utterance. Boswell followed him everywhere, noting down every sneeze, every strange gesticulation, and every grunt. Once he became famous, and he did so within his own lifetime, scores of other people began to add to Boswell’s stock. These included Mrs Thrale, and other of Johnson’s friends and acquaintances. Added to this, we have Johnson’s own diaries, letters and prayers, published after his death. It is in these, particularly that we get a real insight into Johnson’s mind.

It is also curious, I think, that a man of Johnson’s intellect seems to have almost completely shunned any discussion of philosophy and theology. No doubt the new philosophies of Locke, Leibniz and Berkeley were popular discussion topics for Johnson’s circle of friends and, of course, he lived at the same time as Hume. He seemed disinclined, however, to discuss any of the new philosophical ideas in any detail. His famous dismissal of Berkeley’s theory of the non-existence of matter was a one-liner. He simply walked to a large stone, kicked it hard with his foot and exclaimed: “I refute it thus”. He held Hume in the utmost contempt and we are told that if Hume entered the room, Johnson would leave immediately.

What are we to make of all this? Part of the answer, I think, lies in the particular religious convictions held by Johnson. When he was a young man at Oxford, Johnson had read William Law’s A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life. This was a famous book in its time and it had a deep and lasting influence on Johnson. One of the main themes taken up by Law (using Ecclesiastes as his model) was the futility of temporal ambitions and desires. This was the great theme suffusing nearly all of Johnson’s work. We see it in his best known poem, The Vanity of Human Wishes, and it is the main theme in Rasselas. Johnson was pre-eminently a stoic moralist.

Yet it would be a mistake to suppose that Johnson thought all human endeavour to be in vain. One type of endeavour alone was worthy of pursuit. This was the model Christian life that Law had expounded and that Johnson struggled to achieve nearly all his adult life. Abundant evidence of that struggle can be seen in what we have of Johnson’s private notes and prayers from his diary. Here was a man acutely aware of his failings and who tried, however unsuccessfully, to overcome what he saw as his terrible weaknesses – laziness in particular.

I have my own theory about the enigma of Johnson. He was, I think, a man ill fitted for his time. Most of his friends and colleagues could wholeheartedly embrace the new spirit of the Enlightenment – the sense that man had at last risen above superstition and savagery. The new Enlightenment man was, for them, the master of all things and fully in control of his own destiny. There were no limits to human achievement. Johnson could not accept this and suffered a severe mental breakdown as a result.

His sense of personal isolation remained with him until his death and he could not bear to be left alone with his thoughts. And yet, in the end, he did face death bravely enough. When, on his deathbed, he asked his doctor whether recovery was possible and received a negative answer, he refused all further medicines lest, as he said, he might “meet God in a state of idiocy, or with opium in my head”.

Johnson died on December 13, 1784. We are told that his last words, spoken in delirium, were “Iam moriturus” – “I who am about to die”. It was an echo of the famous salute given to Caesar by the gladiators. And indeed, he was a gladiator, but of a very different sort. He had conquered his own infirmities and fears and proclaimed the triumph of the spirit.

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