Politics Magazine

Bate's Johnson

Posted on the 23 July 2011 by Erictheblue

I've started W. Jackson Bate's biography of Samuel Johnson and am reminded all over again of why I love Dr. Johnson.  Herewith an abbreviated miscellany gleaned either from Bate or my own prior enjoyable researches.

On his youthful reading: "What I read were not voyages and travels, but all literature, sir, all ancient writers, all manly."

On marriage (from Rasselas): "Such is the common process of marriage.  A youth and maiden meeting by chance, or brought together by artifice, exchange glances, reciprocate civilities, go home, and dream of one another.  Having little to divert attention, or diversify thought, they find themselves unhappy when they are apart, and therefore conclude that they shall be happy together.  They marry, and discover what nothing but voluntary blindness had before concealed.  They wear out life in altercations, and charge nature with cruelty."

On second marriages: "The triumph of hope over experience."

From his Life of Milton, in Lives of the Poets: "Paradise Lost is one of the books which the reader admires and puts down, and forgets to take up again.  No one ever wished it longer than it is."

From his review of a theological work wherein the argument is advanced that God, in his infinite mercy, shields the poor from misery by granting them immunity from life's small annoyances: "The poor indeed are insensible of many little vexations which sometimes embitter the possessions and pollute the enjoyment of the rich.  They are not pained by casual incivility, or mortified by the mutilation of a compliment; but this happiness is like that of the malefactor who ceases to feel the cords that bind him when the pincers are tearing his flesh."

In the same review, regarding the author's fantasy that we might better bear our burdens by considering that, to "superior beings," human misery looks no worse than the plight of animals to us, Dr. Johnson, with unconcealed contempt, suggested that the argument could have been carried further: "He might have shown that the hunters whose game is man have many sports analogous to our own.  As we drown whelps and kittens, they amuse themselves now and then with sinking a ship, and stand around the fields of Blenheim or the walls of Prague, as we encircle a cock-pit.  As we shoot a bird flying, they take a man in the midst of his business or pleasure, and knock him down with an apoplexy.  Some of them, perhaps, are virtuosi, and delight in the operations of an asthma, as a human philosopher in the effects of the air pump.  To swell a man with a tympany is as good a sport as to blow a frog.  Many a merry bout have these frolic beings at the vicissitudes of an ague, and good sport it is to see a man tumble with an epilepsy, and revive and tumble again, and all this he knows not why.  As they are wiser and more powerful than we, they have more exquisite diversions, for we have no way of procuring any sport so brisk and so lasting as the paroxysms of the gout and stone which undoubtedly must make high mirth, especially if the play be a little diversified with the blunders and puzzles of the blind and deaf."

Responding to the complaints of the American colonists in his pamphlet, Taxation No Tyranny: "How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?" 

Offering advice: "My good friend, clear your mind of cant.  You may say to a man, 'Sir, I am your most humble servant.'  You are not his most humble servant.  You tell a man, 'I am sorry you had such bad weather and were so much wet.'  You don't care sixpence whether he is wet or dry.  You talk in this manner; it is a mode of talking in Society: but don't think foolishly."

But such mind droppings are too much the method of Boswell.  Bate, I think, is especially strong on Johnson during his twenties and thirties, two decades during which, out of the eye of biography, he suffered extreme hardships, feared for his sanity, and may have contemplated suicide.  Beckett said that Johnson meant as much to him as any author, which will seem to you very strange if you know Beckett and only Boswell's Johnson.  Bate's Johnson is the one Beckett considered a kindred spirit: "the confident public man," as J.M. Coetzee has written, "who sees no point in living yet cannot face annihilation."


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