written Wednesday 31 December 2003
|Boswell's Life of Johnson||Logolatry|
We'll get to the Paris trip next, but first, I find I want to write about a book that I had intended to read for many years and finally did, on the Thalys fast train from Amsterdam to Paris. Boswell's The Life of Samuel Johnson. You'll know Samuel Johnson as the eighteenth-century Englishman's Englishman, renowned these days mostly for his "quotations", justly famous, ones that you very probably have heard, such as:
Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.
The greatest part of a writer's time is spent in reading, in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book.
Treating your adversary with respect is giving him an advantage to which he is not entitled.
Hell is paved with good intentions.
...and the next two being my mottos, if ever I had them:
What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.
What we hope ever to do with ease, we must learn first to do with diligence.
What I never knew is that these quotations practially all just sentences from this one book of Boswell's. Over the years, they have taken on a life of their own, dissociated from the book and even from Samuel Johnson, misquoted, even employed to mislead.
Taken as a body, these surviving quotations paint the picture of a man with his act seriously together. Unfortunately...this picture is false.
I pray you consider these quotes and conversations from Boswell's very same book, as counterpoint to those surviving quotes that paint Johnson as so intelligent, even ahead of his time:
Johnson: One set of Savages is like another.
Boswell: I do not think the people of Otaheite can be reckoned Savages.
Johnson: Don't cant in defence of Savages.
Boswell: They have the art of navigation.
Johnson: A dog or cat can swim.
Boswell: They carve very ingeniously.
Johnson: A cat can scratch, and a child with a nail can scratch.
...and try this one on:
Johnson: Madam, it is our duty to maintain the subordination of civilized society; and when there is a gross and shameful deviation from [social] rank, it should be punished so as to deter others from the same perversion.
...In other words, it's OK for Mr. Johnson to climb socially, but you are shameful if you try it.
Boswell tagged along with Johnson like a fawning puppy, and spent most of his famous book praising Johnson and explaining away his faults. But any diligent reader must wonder at a biographer who can rhapsodize over a man like Johnson who, brilliant as he must have been, was a bigot, acted the spoiled child when things didn't go his way, dressed like a boor and hardly cleaned himself, and often took his only pleasure in humiliating people. When the English government denied a winter travel pension to Italy, he threw his manuscripts in the fireplace without even sorting through them first, stabbed himself in the leg with scissors, and cut off relations with a friend of decades over her choice of husband (essentially over his being Catholic). He then declared loudly that he hoped not to become mad. Too late.
Johnson made a point of not repaying debts to friends, then was wounded when England wouldn't double his comfortable pension. He unreasonably hated Scotland but liked being made a guest there. He would abandon friends for slight religious deviations, but spent his youth in wall-to-wall whoring and drinking to unconsciousness. In all, rather than coming across as a world-class intellectual with a few idiosyncrasies, Johnson seems more to have had one lucky talent, or two, but otherwise simply to have been a world-class jerk. A few quotations--often directly cancelled by others, anyway--cannot redeem him.
Boswell obviously meant to favorably memorialize his friend Samuel Johnson. He seems, though, to have painted a fuller portrait than he wanted us to have.
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