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June 24, 2001:
"It is natural to hope that a comprehensive is likewise an elevated soul, and that whoever is wise is also honest."
Johnson: Dryden (Lives of the Poets)
Johnson was giving John Dryden the benefit of the doubt in his conversion to Roman Catholicism, a conversion which did provide personal gain. "Enquiries into the heart are not for man; we must now leave him to his Judge."
Among those we have to be honest with, of course we have rank ourselves high: we need to be open to the realities, and understand why we do what we do. If on a path of error, we have to be honest enough to see it and make the correction. Johnson did similarly when writing his Dictionary, abandoning years' efforts when he saw his method would not work, and starting over.
Of course, it's difficult to see all that's wrong unless we think critically about the evidence. That's one of the fascinating behaviors in Alan M. Dershowitz' new book Supreme Injustice, an examination of the U.S. Supreme Court decision to hear the Bush campaign's appeal to stop the hand recounts in Florida. Dershowitz not only brings out examples of the majority justices ignoring law, inconsistencies between their decision and prior decisions they made (in both deciding to hear the appeal as well as in deciding in favor of Bush), but he also discusses the potential gains some of the justices could reap as they vie for the position of Chief Justice. An interesting, if strident, discussion of intellectual integrity. One would hope, of course, that the Supreme Court justices would be comprehensive and wise, of course. Perhaps a decision that they are elevated and honest will require a higher Judge to determine.
June 17, 2001:
"In romances, when the wild field of possibility lies open to invention, the incidents may easily be made more numerous, the vicissitudes more sudden, and the events more wonderful; but from the time of life when fancy begins to be over-ruled by reason and corrected by experience, the most artful tale raises little curiosity when it is known to be false."
Samuel Johnson - Idler #84
Can you say "J R R Tolkien"? "Diana Gabaldon"? I think we're fortunate that every once in a while Johnson's pronouncements about universal behavior sometimes do not ring true. Even though he allows for exceptions to this rule, he doesn't allow for the continued popularity of writers such as these. Maybe in time the Tolkiens and Gabaldons will not be popular, but I'd say there's a pretty good chance that when that's so they'll have been replaced by others.
The reason I think we're sometimes fortunate is that it reminds me of his fallibility, which in turn makes his achievements seem greater, yet more possible. Sure, we'll be wrong. But the possibility of failure shouldn't discourage us, and we should keep at it.
June 10, 2001:
"Time, which puts an end to all human pleasures and sorrows, has likewise concluded the labours of the Rambler. Having supported, for two years, the anxious employment of a periodical writer, and multiplied my essays to four volumes, I have now determined to desist."
Samuel Johnson - Rambler #208
This was a difficult week for the "Internet culture." Two pioneering Internet magazines ceased publication, laying off 21. In a further shake to the content provider concept, Lawrence Lee announced on Saturday June 2 that he would no longer update Tomalak's Realm after Friday June 8. Tomalak's Realm was a daily set of links to strategically-focused articles about the Internet, and was cited by many people as one of the best spots on the Internet. Jakob Nielsen ("Designing Web Simplicity") and Steve Krug ("Don't Make Me Think") both included screenshots in their books. Lee had been doing all the reading and putting the links in all by himself since 1998. The reason for the end, he stated, was that he needed to pursue other interests, the updates were too time- consuming, and there was no monetary reward. "No man but a blockhead," and all that. (There was an update on Saturday June 9, after the site was supposed to close.)
There is this thought that information wants to be free, but without someone's effort, information is inert and doesn't go anywhere. It really does entail effort, and because I appreciated Tomalak's Realm (I was a daily visitor), I bought as many of my Amazon books as I could through a link on his site.
There has been considerable discussion about whether sites like The New York Times should be giving away there most valuable news for free, and whether Consumer Reports has been correct all along by charging for access.
Britannica started off with a subscriber-based model, then relented to pressure and tried going free. The day it went free it was hit with so much traffic that they had to temporarily close and get additional servers. Their reward for their investment? It wasn't economically viable, and they've had to revert to a subscription model.
So I'm going to go over to Tomalak's Realm and buy some books, because his work helped me out so many times in the past. Care to join me?
June 3, 2001:
"Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford."
Samuel Johnson (Boswell: Life of Johnson)
The social Johnson, who needed to be with others, thrived in a London where he could be with Reynolds, Burke, and yes, even the unclubbable Sir John Hawkins. We know that he needed society, and would keep his household up in conversation. It's difficult to say how he would have fared in quieter surroundings in his later years, but he certainly came to London after years in other parts of England. So he was probably speaking accurately about his own feelings. It's not that he believed one's brain would atrophy in the country: to the contrary, he acknowledged that a life in the country might be helpful for the contemplative time required to study science; but it was not "the school for studying life." And so, to London we all must go. This summer I won't be, though. If you do, please be aware that Dr. Johnson's House in Gough Square is closed for renovations until some time in August. But there should be enough of life in London for you still.
May 27, 2001:
"There will always be a part, and always a very large part of every community, that have no care but for themselves, and whose care for themselves reaches little further than impatience of immediate pain, and eagerness for the nearest good."
Samuel Johnson: Taxation No Tyranny
Taxation just will not go away as an issue. Back in the 1770's, the American colonists argued against taxation without representation; Johnson fired back in his pamphlet Taxation No Tyranny that taxation was just, in light of the fact that England had done so much to protect the colonies... And as for the representation part, well, the colonists were represented in their home boroughs in England and could vote there if they wanted to. But if it's difficult for them to do so, well, the colonists made that choice when they emigrated.
In this paragraph, Johnson is chastising the selfishness which he sees as part of the push for no taxation. Later, he chastises the economically-motivated merchant class as having a too limited, too selfish view to be consulted on important issues of national consequence in all but rare occasions. (On the face of it that sounds like an elitist view, but the republic form of American government is along those lines: consult the people during elections, otherwise let the representatives make the decisions.) But Johnson's point that we consider the motivations of those who clamor for a change is certainly valid.
May 20, 2001:
"Sir, I make a distinction between what a man may experience by the mere strength of his imagination, and what imagination cannot possibly produce. Thus, suppose I should think I saw a form, and heard a voice cry, "Johnson, you are a very wicked fellow, and unless you repent you will certainly be punished;" my own unworthiness is so deeply impressed upon my mind, that I might imagine I thus saw and heard, and therefore I should not believe that an external communication had been made to me. But if a form should appear, and a voice tell me that a particular man had died at a particular place, and a particular hour, a fact which I had no apprehension of, nor any means of knowing, and this fact, with all its circumstances, should afterwards be unquestionably proved, I should, in that case, be persuaded that I had supernatural intelligence imparted to me."
- Samuel Johnson (Boswell - Life of Johnson)
This quote occurred to me shortly after watching The West Wing last Wednesday night. In the season's closing episode, President Bartlett is at a point of personal crisis.
Just before going off to a press conference where he will announce his decision to run or not, alone in the oval office and in a fit of frustration, and from force of habit, he yells out to Mrs. Landingham for assistance with a door that has swung open. She appears and gives him a good dressing down for not coping better with his problems. Ghost? Imagination? The television show was not clear about what they wanted us to think.
This in turn reminded me of other moments in the arts where the writer's choice of words seemed deliberately ambiguous, and so this week I'm tipping my hat to the writers on The West Wing, and to Ray Davies of The Kinks. In "Lola", Ray Davies left us with that wonderful line, "I know what I am and I'm glad I'm a man, and so's Lola." We will never know for certain whether Lola was also glad or also a man. And we will definitely never know if Mrs. Landingham's final appearance was as a ghost or as a product the President's stress; for one thing, the actor who played Mrs. Landingham has another job for the fall.
My memory could be misleading me, but I also have a vague recollection of Thomas Pynchon pulling a similar trick in Gravity's Rainbow, specifically over ghosts. But I haven't been able to verify it yet. 20-year old memories suggest a point where he used a word like "phantom," which could be either a ghost or a figment of the imagination, in such a way that your choice of the definition had an impact on your interpretation of the novel's events. Ghosts, fantasies, and imaginations run rampant through the novel. The word itself isn't such a big deal, the ambiguities are there even without words which are themselves ambiguous. (Special thanks to Tim Ware for his pointers in helping me sniff this out. Tim has an Online Guide to Gravity's Rainbow which is well worth a visit.)
May 13, 2001:
"I know not any thing more pleasant, or more instructive, than to compare experience with expectation, or to register from time to time the difference between idea and reality. It is by this kind of observation that we grow daily less liable to be disappointed."
- Samuel Johnson (letter to Bennet Langton)
Well, disappointments may not always be pleasant but they certainly are instructive. I've always presumed that the pleasure which Johnson referred to here is not the disappointment itself, but the feeling of progress, the sense of achievement or confidence arising from the comparison, that "well, I won't snooker myself so badly next time."
As for hope itself, we have to remember that Johnson's opinions would shift according to the emphasis of the occasion (to say nothing of his habit of debate for debate's sake). Johnson was far from saying abandon all hope (in spite of the opening paragraph of Rasselas). Rambler #67 is all about hope. As "fallacious" as hope may sometimes be, Johnson recognized its value in prodding us further, and for that it is very valuable. Life must not stop; it must proceed, and some allowance must be made for hope. Johnson so believed in maintaining the momentum of life, that even though he thought it wise to be conscious of our mortality, "If one was to think constantly of death, the business of life would stand still."
May 6, 2001:
"There are few minds to which tyranny is not delightful; Power is nothing but as it is felt, and the delight of superiority is proportionate to the resistance overcome."
- Samuel Johnson (Letter to Hester Thrale, October 21 1779)
A great thought expressed here; how often we see this in the politicians who can barely contain their glee after their occasional triumph.
In this case, however, Johnson was discussing a more common tyranny within households of the day: the tyranny of the household nurse. (Johnson's definitions of nurse lead with one who merely "has care of a child.") The specifics behind this instance were that a nurse continued to treat a child who had already recovered from Scarlet Fever. "That the nurse fretted will supply me during life with an additional motive to keep every child, as far as is possible, out of a Nurse's power. A Nurse made of common mould will have a pride in overpowering a child's reluctance."
Ongoing tyranny on the household level was an issue Johnson discussed in other ways, too. In one Rambler essay on anger he discussed the tyranny of man in business and at home. In another essay he discussed the overbearing mother who strove hard to eclipse her young daughter, fighting to overcome the natural cycles of youth and age. In other essays, he discussed abusive fathers and husbands.
All this is consistent, of course, with his recognition that our close circumstances affect us far more than the machinations of governments and war. As he wrote in his Life of Pope, "The misery of man proceeds not from any single crush of overwhelming evil, but from small vexations continually repeated."
April 29, 2001:
"When any calamity has been suffered, the first thing to be remembered is how much has been escaped."
- Samuel Johnson (Letter to Hester Thrale)
While Mrs. Salusbury was visiting Hester Thrale at Streatham, Salusbury's house in London was being burgled. The sense of violation was naturally strong, but Johnson wanted Hester to remember that it could have been much worse: had Mrs. Salusbury been present during the burglary, who knows what the ruffians might have done.
Events like this, however, have a way of altering the context in which other events are viewed; kind of "If I could get through that, I could get through anything." This week I was fortunate to find a used volume of Mahler's letters. I had lost my prior copy in a fire in 1984, and it was the last unreplaced item (among those I wanted to replace). Like Mrs. Salusbury, I wasn't there during the fire, I was in Manhattan playing chess. But years later (trust me, there is a point to this little ramble) as I left work late one evening, I popped my head in the doorway of a co-worker, who like me had had a long series of late nights. I said to her, "Maureen, I have a statement to make. I, who have had my context altered by having lost everything in a fire, would like to acknowledge that this job sucks." Calmly, Maureen raised her head from her work, looked up at me, and in her stony dry wit, said, "I don't know what took you so long. I mean, it's not like you were in the fire."
April 22, 2001:
"This was a good dinner enough, to be sure: but it was not a dinner to ask a man to."
- Samuel Johnson (Boswell: Life of Johnson)
Ah, a famous chestnut from Boswell. We are left to ask ourselves something Boswell doesn't help us with: what did Johnson want from a dinner? The easy conclusion might be that the food needed to be special (Johnson was known as a voracious eater, and prided himself in having a discriminating palate). I'm inclined to think there was far more to it than merely the food. Johnson was a social animal, of course, and loved conversation. In another discussion with Boswell on the lack of brilliant dialog at a dinner, Johnson noted that people might dine together purely as a social function, "to eat and drink together, and to promote kindness."
April 15, 2001:
"Dictionaries are like watches: the worst is better than none, and the best cannot be expected to go quite true."
Samuel Johnson (Piozzi: Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson)
April 15 is the 246th anniversary of the publication of Johnson's Dictionary, in 1755. As incredible as the achievement was, it fell short of perfection, and Johnson knew it. So did others. Boswell writes of being challenged by Hume to find more pages without than absurdity than Hume can find with. And the humble admission Johnson had to make over his mis-definition of 'pastern' ("Ignorance, Madam, pure ignorance.") Personally, I find it interesting that while Johnson sometimes talks about the impossibility of humans achieving any ideal, in this instance, Johnson simply asked to be given the same tolerance as afforded to mechanical watches. To me it harkens back to his definition of the lexicographer as a "harmless drudge." How very like the incessant ticking of a watch!
April 8, 2001:
"Human experience, which is constantly contradicting theory, is the great test of truth. A system, built upon the discoveries of a great many minds, is always of more strength, than what is produced by the mere workings of any one mind, which, of itself, can do very little. There is not so poor a book in the world that would not be a prodigious effort were it wrought out entirely by a single mind, without the aid of prior investigators."
-- Johnson (Boswell: Life of Johnson)
While Johnson was a firm believer in the power of individuals in achieving progress, he recognized that all achievement comes from building on the past accomplishments of others. Even when prior principles do not bear the scrutiny of daylight, the conclusions of the past have to be dealt with, and not merely discarded. But slavishly hewing to the strictures of the past did not make sense. As he wrote in Rambler #23, "Consultation and compliance can conduce little to the perfection of any literary performance; for whoever is so doubtful of his own abilities as to encourage the remarks of others, will find himself every day embarrassed with new difficulties, and will harass his mind, in vain, with the hopeless labour of uniting heterogeneous ideas, digesting independent hints, and collecting into one point the several rays of borrowed light, emitted often with contrary directions." The additions we make do not need to be revolutionary in order to represent an advancement. In Rambler #137, Johnson wrote, "The widest excursions of the mind are made by short flights frequently repeated; the most lofty fabrics of science are formed by the continued accumulation of single propositions."
April 1, 2001:
I told him I had been that morning at a meeting of the people called Quakers, where I had heard a woman preach. Johnson: "Sir, a woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on his hinder legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all."
If this isn't one of the most popular of Samuel Johnson's quotes, it sure is the one that's most likely to cause snickers. At least with half the population. And yet, it can be taken a variety of ways. For instance, in the Harvard Business Review book Creating Value in the Network Economy two contributors discuss information sharing in sectors within the automotive industry; they admit (directly alluding to Dr. Johnson) that the wonder is that they do it at all, yet that it holds promise for the future. Their point is that as pioneers of a sort we should cut them some slack initially. Did Johnson mean something similar, and Boswell was blind to it? Or, was it another case of Johnson just talking for the moment?
On the other hand, Alan Cooper has a recurring motif in his book on technological design, The Inmates Are Running The Asylum where he discusses dancing bears in the town square, and our failure to recognize that they don't really dance, as a metaphor for our lowered standards in what we accept in software and electronics. But anyone who has read more of Johnson than what Boswell gives us is well familiar with the Rambler essays where Johnson argues for better conditions for women, better education, or where he deplores the situations that drive some to prostitution. Or where, in "Rasselas" the Princess Nekayah argues as a full equal with her brother Rasselas. Even in Boswell's Life, we see Johnson discussing issues of salvation and damnation with Mrs. Knowles, treating her points with as much consideration as he does Boswell's in other areas. A book by Kathleen Nulton Kemmerer on just this subject has made its way to my mailbox this week, and is starting to squeeze out other reading. I'm glad to see Johnson's views of women consolidated in this book...