»  National Review

November 17, 2008

  The Emperor of Common Sense

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[Published as a review of the two books Samuel Johnson: The Struggle, by Jeffrey Meyers, and Samuel Johnson: A Biography, by Peter Martin.]

English writer, opera producer, and all-round high-culture panjandrum Jonathan Miller once scoffed at his fellow countrymen for their refusal to take deep thinking seriously. An Englishman's idea of an intellectual, Miller sniggered, was Samuel Johnson. (Asked to name someone he considered an intellectual, Miller offered Boileau.)

This low opinion of Johnson is widely shared amongst the cerebral portion of humanity. I was once slapped down across a dinner table by Roger Scruton when I ventured a Johnsonism. "Johnson had his opinion, no doubt," murmured the philosopher as he turned away, his manner suggesting that I might as well have quoted Paris Hilton at him.

The scoffers have a point. Johnson was no intellectual in the modern sense. (Which was not current in his time, and does not appear in his great Dictionary.) He established no theory, built no system, started no movement. The fascination of Johnson is not in his ideas about society, politics, or even literature, but in his singular character, in his deep understanding of human nature, and in the peculiar vigor and clarity with which he expressed himself.

With the tercentenary of Johnson's birth looming (September 2009), we may expect more books about him. Here are two fine ones by seasoned and capable scholars. Much of the material in them is of course the same, but their methods of approach have a few interesting differences.

Our two authors part company most decisively on the much-argued matter of Johnson's masochism. In his later life Johnson was very close to the family of Henry Thrale, a wealthy brewer. From 1766 to 1781 he lived part-time at the Thrales' large country house south of London. After Johnson's death, Mrs. Thrale published her Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson, with some cryptic notes hinting at a "strange connection" between herself and her house guest. After her own death in 1821, one of the items in the sale of her personal effects was "Johnson's Padlock, committed to my care in the year 1768." One of Johnson's own diary entries for 1771 records (in Latin) "mad thoughts of fetters and handcuffs." Then, in June 1773, Johnson and Mrs. Thrale exchanged two in-house letters (in French, so that the servants could not read them) hinting at a deeply, perhaps physically, submissive attitude on Johnson's part towards his hostess.

Katherine Balderston, editor of Mrs. Thrale's diaries back in the 1940s, interpreted all these ambiguities as clear evidence that Johnson was a masochist, and that Mrs. Thrale used to beat him — reluctantly, at his insistent request. Jeffrey Meyers swallows all this. Peter Martin does not.

Since there is little prospect of new evidence showing up, this whole topic will likely remain a plaything for scholars, eternally unresolved. For what it's worth, I found Martin's case more persuasive, though I don't know what grounds he has for saying Balderston's theory has been "discredited." The theory is nowadays out of fashion ("flogging a dead lexicographer" is the inevitable joke around Eng. Lit. departments), but that is not the same thing.

Both authors do their best with Johnson's religious faith. That he had any at all is surprising. His intellect was skeptical and reductive to the furthest degree. "Mr. Johnson's Incredulity amounts almost to Disease. … He is a sad Mortal to carry a Wonder to," remarked Mrs. Thrale, who knew him better than (I think) anybody. It took Johnson's friends six months to convince him that the 1755 Lisbon earthquake had actually happened, and even then he thought the reports much exaggerated.

However, Johnson understood that skepticism on that scale needs a backstop if it is not to drag one clear through to nihilistic despair. His father had been a depressive, and his brother (very likely) a suicide. Johnson found his backstop at age 20 in William Law's 1728 book A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life. Law followed the method of Ecclesiastes and Juvenal's Tenth Satire, the futility of worldly desires and pleasures leading by process of elimination to trust in God (or for Juvenal, the gods) as man's only hope.

This bleak, almost Islamic, doctrine of resignation and submission, close kin of the "stoic fatalism" that historian David Hackett Fischer noted among the Anglican colonists of the Tidewater South, perfectly suited Johnson's own gloomy disposition. It formed the foundation of all his moral writings, most especially the Rambler essays, which show Johnson at his most serious. It also supplied the framework for his majestic long poem "The Vanity of Human Wishes," which he modeled on Juvenal's Tenth.

What we want a biographer to tell us is, how much consolation did it really provide to Johnson, who was so much in need of consolation? Not much, says Jeffrey Meyers:

Like a shipwrecked man, he clung desperately to the stability of religious belief. Any expression of heterodox opinions or religious skepticism by writers like Hobbes and Voltaire, Hume and Gibbon, enraged him, undermined his perilous balance and even threatened his sanity … Religion gave him more anguish than comfort.

Elsewhere Meyers calls Johnson's Prayers and Meditations "one of the saddest books of the century."

Peter Martin has less to say about Johnson's inner spiritual struggles, but more on Johnson's strong commitment to the established church as a matter of political principle. The 1773 revised edition of the Dictionary was, Martin shows us, larded up with quotations aimed against demands for reform of Anglican doctrine. Johnson was a Tory to his bitten-down fingernails.

Jeffrey Meyers's book includes a curious 20-page Epilogue describing Johnson's influence on six later writers: Jane Austen, Nathaniel Hawthorne, A.E. Housman, Virginia Woolf, Samuel Beckett, and Vladimir Nabokov. The last two of these are the ones it is most surprising to learn were, as Boswell used to say, "impregnated with the Johnsonian aether."

Meyers explains the connections very well. So far as Beckett is concerned, one need only recall Mrs. Thrale's observation that "the vacuity of Life had at some early period … so struck upon the Mind of Mr. Johnson, that it became … his favorite hypothesis," leading him to those numerous recorded remarks about how "life must be filled up," or how idle rich people strive to "rid themselves of the day." Meyers also reminds us of the exquisitely Beckettian title Johnson gave to the last chapter of Rasselas: "The conclusion, in which nothing is concluded." Beckett actually started to write a play about Johnson, but abandoned the project for psychological reasons.

Nabokov coped better, though more subtly, with Johnson's huge shadow. His strange 1962 novel Pale Fire is, Meyers tells us, shot through with Johnsonian and Boswellian allusions. We get over seven pages on this. I should like to read Pale Fire again before passing judgment on Meyers's interpretation. It is Nabokov's most playful, most convoluted novel (which is saying a lot) — the kind of thing an ingenious theorist might read almost anything into.

Of these two authors, Martin has the edge on sense, I think; Meyers, on sensibility. The subtitle of Meyers's book, "The Struggle," directs our attention to a core feature of Johnson's personality: his intensely combative refusal ever to yield to anyone, or to any misfortune, or to his own inner torments. Struggle became so habitual, he could hardly bear its absence. Around age 65, disappointed at the cancellation of a fireworks display, Johnson incited a riot. What a fighter! What a spirit! What a man!