Tag Archives: Samuel Johnson

Dr Johnson Hates My American Guts

Brunching Johnson by Henry Wallis
“Sir, I perceive that you are a vile Whig.” Dr Johnson seems to be saying this or thinking it of one person or another pretty much all the time. Re-reading Boswell’s hulking tome last month, I eventually came to understand that, in fact, I am among the vile.

Not that I really am a Whig; no one’s a Whig anymore (and I hope I’m not especially vile either). But for Johnson it seems that “vile Whig” and “American” are largely synonymous.

In his pamphlet titled Taxation No Tyranny (1775), quoted by Boswell, Johnson says of those bratty Americans that “their numbers are, at present, not quite sufficient for the greatness which, in some form of government or other, is to rival the ancient monarchies; but by Dr. Franklin’s rule of progression, they will, in a century and a quarter, be more than equal to the inhabitants of Europe.”

“When the Whigs of America are thus multiplied,” he continues, “let the Princes of the earth tremble in their palaces… [T]heir own hemisphere would not contain them. But let our boldest oppugners of authority look forward with delight to this futurity of Whiggism.” Said with a hearty sneer.

Elsewhere Johnson refers to the fractious colonists as “a race of convicts” who “ought to be thankful for any thing we allow them short of hanging.” Curbing an impulse of otherwise catholic philanthropy, he professes himself “willing to love all mankind, except an American.”

It’s hard sometimes to tell when Johnson is speaking in earnest and when he’s simply “talking for victory” (that is, taking a side and arguing it so as to win the question), but Boswell considered him sincere on this particular subject.

In Johnson’s mind, the divine right of kings was necessary to the smooth working of society (even if you did have to cut off their heads occasionally), and social subordination in the style of the British class system no less so. God may be no respecter of persons, but that’s divine prerogative and not a privilege accorded mortals.

Whiggism, on the contrary, suggests that class distinction, being a moral and historical fiction, may be jettisoned (or replaced, say, by an index of wealth or education) – and that the consent of the governed is the validating basis of any government.

As an American of colonial-era ancestry, this is mother’s milk to me. And so I perceive that I am indeed a vile Whig, a half-anarchist in the old Tory’s eyes. But it’s silly, at this distance, to take much offense, especially when you’re on the winning side.

“There is a reciprocal pleasure in governing and being governed,” the old sage says, and “subordination tends greatly to human happiness.” Boswell (child of privilege and heir to a semi-feudal estate) nods his purely disinterested agreement. “Were we all upon an equality,” Johnson suggests, “we should have no other enjoyment than mere animal pleasure.”

Cue the sounds of belching pigs and copulating monkeys. It’s a Whig’s world now, or something like it.

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Marginalia, no.283

That creature was its own tormentor, and I believe its name was Boswell.

~ Samuel Johnson in Boswell’s Life of Johnson

The moth was Boswell, but what was the candle? Wine? Women? Maybe it was Johnson himself. The disciple is sometimes burnt in the flame of the master’s example. He may admire himself right out of existence.

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Sympathetic Imagination

Sympathy, according to Dr Johnson, is “fellowfeeling; mutual sensibility; the quality of being affected by the affection of another.” That’s a lovely, generous definition, broader than we commonly allow the word. Today sympathy is often used as a synonym for pity, which at least in American usage has come to have a negative connotation (“I don’t want your pity!”). Empathy, a word which doesn’t appear in Johnson’s Dictionary, is sometimes employed to do the work that sympathy once covered, but it’s not as musical a word to my ear.

I think a lot about the idea of sympathetic imagination. By sympathetic imagination I simply mean the mental work of putting oneself in another person’s place, imaginatively entering someone else’s perspective. It’s the stuff of cliché (walking in another’s shoes, seeing through another’s eyes, etc.) but without it life and art, I think, become unbearable. Exercising sympathetic imagination means withholding judgment, extending charity, allowing (either by stepping forward or by not retreating) the gap that separates us from others to close at least a little, for a least a little while.

Lack of sympathetic imagination is a prevailing flaw of our civil discourse. It’s a negative temptation for international relations. The partisanship of perspective is total. We’re not only uninterested in the way our intellectual or political opponents view things, we’re doctrinally forbidden from granting their basic premises even for the sake of argument. We don’t dare allow ourselves to believe they can have anything other than hateful, destructive intentions. This is nothing new, I’m sure, but it has consequences.

If only we could learn to be better readers.

It’s strange to reflect that sympathetic imagination can be extended to fictional persons but it can. As readers we’re asked to do it all the time. Of course it helps when the prose is pleasant and the story a good one because characters can disappoint. Not all perspectives deserve sympathy (nor all books reading) but the effort is rarely a total waste. As an exercise of sympathetic imagination the reading of a book, no less than the writing of one, becomes a moral action. How well we read books can affect how well we read people. The library is a school for sympathy.

I recently read The Oregon Trail, Francis Parkman’s autobiographical story of the summer of 1846, which he spent in part with a band of Oglala Sioux in the Black Hills. For all his professed fascination with the “savages,” it’s remarkable how little curiosity he exhibits. He considers them occasionally amusing, physically impressive, but mostly stupid, cruel, stubborn, backward. There are a hundred questions we wish he’d asked or, if he did ask them, that he’d bothered to report the answers.

In his review of the book, Herman Melville gave Parkman some righteous chastisement for his lack of sympathetic imagination. In his own masterpiece, Melville largely avoids the pitfall. His Tashtego and Queequeg, among others, are equal possessors of earth and sea with Ishmael and Ahab. This is not to say that the things people share in common trump their differences. Quite the opposite; difference is always enlightening. But I suppose I believe, as Melville did, that human nature is one and that the accidents of culture and civilization can accrue or melt away in a mere few generations.

As Melville acknowledges after he’s put the stick away, The Oregon Trail is a wonderful book even so. It’s a rich, detailed, companionable travelogue, expertly written. Parkman has blind spots, but he still manages to see an awful lot. And though there’s less sympathy than we might have hoped for, there’s even less sentimentality. To my mind this illustrates the point I’m clumsily trying to make. Parkman’s limitations don’t let us off the hook. In enjoying the book it becomes necessary for us to exercise our sympathetic imagination, as readers, for the benefit of Parkman, who sometimes failed to exercise his own.

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Books and Bombs

Yesterday I finished the third movement of Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time.  The trilogy of novels contained in this penultimate volume deals with the war years.  Nick Jenkins’ war, however, is not a clash of armies in the field but a war of familial dislocations, obscure provincial postings, and byzantine military bureaucracies.  It reminds me, in that respect, of Evelyn Waugh’s masterpiece, the Sword of Honour trilogy.  It’s interesting that so much of the best writing about the war was done by this in-between generation, by persons like Waugh and Powell and Malcolm Muggeridge (in his Chronicles of Wasted Time) who were too young for the trenches in ‘14 but too old for most of the real fighting in WWII.

My own favorite passages from the third movement include the chapter in which Jenkins and Colonel Finn take their liaison charges on a tour of liberated Normandy and Belgium, and the long scene near the end of The Military Philosophers when Jenkins attends the victory service at St Paul’s.  Jules Renard once observed that it is when facing the prospect of death that men become most bookish.  This is perhaps borne out in the case of Jenkins who, faced with the mortal toll and the awful knowledge of what was only scarcely avoided by the survivors, can think of nothing but poetry, bits of Elizabethan Biblical phraseology, and snatches of rhyme from half-forgotten children’s books.

How readily you can relate to Jenkins’ instinctual retreat into words must say something about the sort of reader – and the sort of person – you are.  What exactly it says, I don’t know.  But I have myself felt the painful need, in horrible  moments, for a few favorite books.  When worldly circumstances threaten universal barbarism, words have a power to remind us that there is still some consolation in being human, that civilization and culture can still be personal possessions even when collectively renounced.  The sense of the term has shifted a little over the years, but I can’t help think that Dr Johnson’s definition of ‘Humanist’ holds up nicely: ‘A philologer; a grammarian.’

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Marginalia, no.131

To NEESE, v.n. [nyse, Danish; niessen, Dutch.] To sneeze; to discharge flatulencies by the nose.  Retained in Scotland.

~ Johnson’s Dictionary

Time proves itself a comedian.  ‘Flatulence’ derives from the Latin flatum (the supine form of flare, to blow), with no specific implication of intestinal gas, even in Johnson’s day.  ‘Afflatus’ rises from the same root, and the ‘divine afflatus’ may originally have been conceived as a heavenly sneeze.  When Telemachus neeses from the other room after Penelope pledges faith in her husband’s return, it’s taken as a favorable sign from the gods.  Also, note Johnson’s customary derision of the Scots, accusing them of holding in their flatulencies; they’re still considered generally retentive.

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Marginalia, no.63

Reason by degrees submits to absurdity…

~ Samuel Johnson, Rambler, No.8

There are moments when I think to myself: ‘Thank God for that.’

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