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111: REVISITING THE DOCTOR

#111: REVISITING THE DOCTOR. To the modern and liberal sensibility, it must sometimes seem as if Samuel Johnson could hardly open his mouth without having a toad fall out of it. The doctor on seeing a woman preach: “Sir, a woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on his hinder legs. It is not done well; but you are surprized to find it done at all.” The doctor on Scotsmen: “The noblest prospect which a Scotchman ever sees is the high-road that leads him to England.” And so on. Poetry was only poetry if it rhymed, preferably in couplets. He adored the monarchy and the idea of monarchy with an absolute loyalty, and I am happy to say that in all my reading of Johnson I have no memory of his ever having remarked on the Indian system of caste: he would probably have loved it. He disowned a lifelong female friend for having married an Italian. An old joke suggested that it was always possible to tell when Nixon was lying: his lips were moving. When I see a quote from Johnson I always fear the self-satisfied clatter of the unforgivable.

So why bother? Some suggest that Johnson’s immortality is entirely the work of Boswell, who recorded obsessively the best of his conversation as well as the facts of his life; some insist Johnson really remains to us as a figure of historical importance rather than as a writer; others defend his writings. I think there’s truth in all three stances, and that the most rewarding approach to the Doctor now is a leisurely one. He might almost single-handedly have been responsible for the eventual reaction against the long and latinate word in English prose; his measures are stately, which can mean a few inches short of the high and mighty. Those essays, poured out into the Rambler and the Spectator with the fecundity of a man on a publishing deadline, oftentimes are a little too dense with dignified language to be read continuously for pleasure. Boswell, in my dilapidated old Oxford reprint, runs to 1400 pages. But the other day I ran across Selections from Samuel Johnson, edited by R. W. Chapman, number 586 in the old series of the Oxford World Classics, a copy of which I bought in the eighties in one of my first forays into book-hunting in what used to be bookseller’s row in London, around Charing Cross Road and Cecil Court. (I loved the World’s Classic series—fine navy-bound volumes, and true pocket-size, if your pockets weren’t too small. The series continues, but only in paperback, alas.) Johnson in pieces—bits not only of his own writings but from Boswell—is probably the easiest door into his mind and his times, and I was surprised by how moved and impressed rereading this selection has left me, and how evocative the pieces were. There can still be an amount of aggravation: Johnson refusing to back down from his notion that one particular stretch of Congreve (from The Mourning Bride) is better than anything in Shakespeare is the man at the party who will argue to the bitter end but never recant. But the whole of eighteenth-century London looms before us in Johnson, and it was a fascinating time.

That may be how to read Johnson, but again, why? Because, in part, the latinate gravity of Johnson’s prose has largely left our popular language; and without it, our knowledge of and pleasure in what the English language can do has a sad gap. In the eighteenth century people wrote letters, and Johnson’s letter to his mother on her death bed captures all we might find it hard to say so well in person or in a phone call. Johnson is serious (though certainly not without wit) and again, as Larkin wrote of “surprising / A hunger in himself to be more serious,” we need some place to feed that hunger. These are hurried times, and it’s a pleasure to read in Johnson that willingness to roll out a slower measure. He could be high in the sense of noble-spirited, and when the blow fell from Johnson—as in the famous snowball-with-a-rock-in-it letter to Lord Chesterfield—it could be a mighty one indeed. And finally, in Johnson we do find that granitic integrity that was part of his reputation during his life, and which enlivens him to us much more so than his reputation for vast knowledge. Johnson sought the truth—only a phrase that blunt, that simple, helps to define him. Those long, unfurling phrases, the elegance, the wit, the hammer-stroke irony, all have behind them a man looking hard and long at the world. He fought with depression and with madness all his life, and this is not something that leads a man to make light of things: “Dispel my terrours,” he wrote once in a New Year’s prayer. “How small, of all that human hearts endure, / The part which laws or Kings can cause or cure.” So we find in Johnson the elegance of the best of his day, integrity, and that other virtue, never in excessive supply in any century, perceived and praised in his most famous quote: “Courage is reckoned the greatest of all the virtues; because, unless a man has that virtue, he has no security for preserving any other.” The doctor is in.

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