The Samuel Johnson
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September 30, 2001:
Johnson having argued for some time with a pertinacious gentleman; his opponent, who had talked in a very puzzling manner, happened to say, "I don't understand you, Sir;" upon which Johnson observed, "Sir, I have found you an argument; but I am not obliged to find you an understanding."
James Boswell: Life of Johnson
Ah, the wonderful reaction to an opponent who cannot form an argument. Too often we remember what Johnson said, and in our hearts say "wow, if I could be comfortable saying that some time!" True, it would be nice to be in a position where every once in a while we could slam an argument shut with an offensive line like that. Now, let's see, when did this happen in Johnson's life? Was Johnson in these days living a hand-to- mouth existence, or was he the established literary lion with the annual pension? I honestly can't say. I can tell you where to find this in Boswell, but it's one of those passages where Boswell slips in a bunch of stray notes which he "collected at various times." (It's in volume IV page 313 of the Hill-Powell ediiton, if you must know).
But I myself have been guilty of excising what Johnson said from Boswell's introduction. (After all, this entire web site is about snipping out the 'good parts', if you will.) Boswell has provided us context here which does suggest the frustration Johnson must have felt, after laying out his argument at length, only to be responded to in "a very puzzling manner." So, it's not that Johnson preferred being rude: in this case at least it took some provocation.
September 23, 2001:
"If one party resolves to demand what the other resolves to refuse, the dispute can be determined only by arbitration; and between powers who have no common superiour, there is no other arbitrator than the sword."
Samuel Johnson: Thoughts on the Late Transactions Respecting Falkland's Islands
I probably don't need to go into the week's events here. But if our U.S. government is basing its defense policy on Samuel Johnson, it doesn't look like we're in for peaceful times. (Not to say that it is the U.S. government's fault.) I have the sneaking suspicion that whoever it was that hit the WTC and the Pentagon, well, they don't care a whit about world opinion. This of course is not without precedent. Extremist movements within countries have sometimes put themselves above the feelings of their countrymen (the IRA felt a higher calling in the early 20th century, in spite of the vote counts). Even among others less extreme... In the 1980's, President Reagan rejected the opinion of the World Court on occasion. It just doesn't look good.
September 16, 2001:
"But there are some who lament the state of the poor
Bostonians, because they cannot all be supposed to have committed
acts of rebellion, yet all are involved in the penalty imposed.
[...] That the innocent should be confounded with the guilty, is,
undoubtedly, an evil; but it is an evil which no care or caution
can prevent. National crimes require national punishments, of
which many must necessarily have their part, who have not
incurred them by personal guilt. If rebels should fortify a
town, the cannon of lawful authority will endanger, equally, the
harmless burghers and the criminal garrison. [...] This
infliction of promiscuous evil may, therefore, be lamented, but
cannot be blamed. The power of lawful government must be
maintained; and the miseries which rebellion produces, can be
charged only on the rebels."
What a week we have had. As I write this (Monday, September 17), talk here in the US is getting more and more bellicose. Last week our President said that those who harbor terrorists will be considered among the enemy, the same as the terrorists themselves. This is fairly consistent with Johnson's reasoning above. However, it's my view that we need to be careful in pursuing this line (and I bet I'm not alone here). For all I know, that could be same line which the terrorists themselves pursued, and decided that all those who have died are acceptable casualties. I favor a strong reaction, but a very, very targeted one, and I hope it can be achieved.
September 9, 2001:
I happened to ask where John Knox was buried. Dr. Johnson burst out, "I hope in the high-way. I have been looking at his reformations."
Boswell: Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides
A number of people have asked the same question: Just where is John Knox buried? Johnson, of course, was responding to the violence of the reformation in Scotland. Religious tolerance was not one of John Knox's long suits. But we don't think Johnson really had any inkling of times to come. Why, it turns out that Knox's grave was in the churchyard of St. Gile's Cathedral in Edinburgh. Ironically, the church yard is no longer a yard, but a parking lot. So unless he was moved at some point, he's under asphalt, but not the highway, per se.
September 2, 2001:
"It has been a common saying of physicians in England, that a cucumber should be well sliced, and dressed with pepper and vinegar, and then thrown out, as good for nothing."
-- Samuel Johnson (in James Boswell: Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides)
Has the cucumber been unfairly maligned in this very funny, very famous Samuel Johnson quote?
Well, we have a dogged interest in the truth, as witnessed by our page of apocryphal quotes. So, what is the evidence for and against the lowly cucumber? Well, let's take a quick look at their nutritional value, according to Corrine Netzer. One trimmed cucumber weighing 10.9 ounces provides the following nutritional value:
Okay, numbers are never clear in isolation, so let's compare the cucumber to kale. Any kale fans out there?
I could go on, but I don't really have all night to type code. Suffice to say, it appears as if our friend the cucumber was underrated by Dr. Johnson. But he was only human, after all.
August 26, 2001:
"If one was to think constantly of death, the business of life would stand still."
-- Samuel Johnson (in James Boswell: Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides)
We were in Pennsylvania this weekend, to celebrate the 40th birthday of a very good friend. One guest discussed her upcoming knee surgery, which she correctly described as a relatively minor issue in comparison to the cancers that others she knows are being treated for. She described a very understandable emotion, that a cancer diagnosis has given them an appreciation for all the wonders in the world, and that those friends now let the trivial go by.
Many of us have heard the same comments, and we understand the sentiment behind a renewed sense of what the worthwhile is. We usually don't think twice about such expressions. However, I had the misfortune to have lost everything I owned in a fire in 1984, and while I experienced a similar change in my perspective, these changes have to be taken with a grain of salt. In retrospect, I can see that because my sense of what constitutes "important" was altered, I let some issues slip by that probably deserved more attention than they received. So, yet again, that wonderful Johnson admonition to look for the middle way, and live with moderation.
On another note, my friend's birthday actually falls on Monday, August 27, which happens to be Lester Young's birthday. Here in New York, we will be blessed with the annual three day marathon broadcast of music by Lester Young and Charlie Parker (whose birthday is the 29th) on WKCR. The broadcasts are led by jazz authority Phil Schaap. (Radio stations in your area may take note in some similar way; if not, well, then, bug 'em.) Yes, Parker died at an early age, but if we spend the whole time thinking about how prematurely he died, the business of the turntables would stand still.
I can give you a link to WKCR, but it will break your back button (which is a bad thing, boo hiss). You can right click to open it in a new window, or, once there you can right click your back button to see a list of your recent pages that you can use to navigate back. (That applies to Netscape & IE users. Opera users should press the letter 'h' to see this list.) Here is the link to WKCR.
August 19, 2001:
On advice that books, once started, should be read all the way through: "This is surely a strange advice; you may as well resolve that whatever men you happen to get acquainted with, you are to keep them for life. A book may be good for nothing; or there may be only one thing in it worth knowing; are we to read it all through?"
Samuel Johnson (in James Boswell's "Life of Johnson")
Should I be proud to point to all the books on my shelf which I have yet to finish? Maybe yes, maybe no. Yes, in the sense that realized I wasn't getting as much out of them as I expected, and then didn't weigh the cost of the book so heavily against my time. On the other hand, no, because they are there, and space in New York City isn't cheap. Some internal voice should have stopped me in the book store, and said, "yes, this may well be the definitive book on the Spanish Inquisition. But it is for someone else." My bookshelf screams at me that I should be making greater use of the local library. If you think about it, libraries may be the best example we have of recycling at its finest. If they can't use the book on their shelves, they may well sell it in a fund raiser. Yesterday I had to buy a book that was out at our local library (Larry Fine's The Piano Book) because we had an immediate need and even at its cost it made sense to buy it rather than to look for pianos without it. But it's not a book we'll need after we buy a piano, so we will surely donate it eventually: it's popular enough that it wasn't on their shelf when we needed it. Please review your shelves, and consider donating to your library; others may get more use out of those books than you will.
August 12, 2001:
"Friendship is often destroyed by opposition of interest, not only by the ponderous and visible interest which the desire of wealth and greatness forms and maintains, but by a thousand secret and slight competitions, scarcely known to the mind upon which they operate. There is scarcely any man without some favourite trifle which he values above greater attainments, some desire of petty praise which he cannot patiently suffer to be frustrated. This minute ambition is sometimes crossed before it is known, and sometimes defeated by wanton petulance; but such attacks are seldom made without the loss of friendship; for, whoever has once found the vulnerable part will always be feared, and the resentment will burn on in secret, of which shame hinders the discovery."
-- Samuel Johnson: Idler #23
No man is a hypocrite in his pleasures, Johnson once said to his friend Joshua Reynolds. And those pleasures which we often hold most dear, we are sometimes most reluctant to share. Past efforts to share may have been rebuffed, and we've learned to keep our hobby horses private. Ten or fifteen years ago I was behind the mirror watching a focus group of stamp collectors. A couple of the participants had emigrated to the US from Europe, and said that stamp collecting was more popular in Europe. Here, they felt as if their hobby was trivial, and their neighbors couldn't relate to it. After sharing their collections, they felt little. Passion in a hobby should be celebrated. Do you have a hobby your passionate about? Do any of your friends? There are times I feel that hobbies (collecting stamps, coins, butterflies, buttons... Civil War re-enactments, bird watching, water colors) get too short shrift these days. If you feel a gap, and are of a mind, you might look for a book by Martin Kimeldorf called Serious Play. It's basically about helping you find appropriate ways to spend your hours off. If Amazon doesn't have it, you might look for it at www.bookfinder.com.
August 5, 2001:
He attacked Gray, calling him "a dull fellow." Boswell: I understand he was reserved, and might appear dull in company; but surely he was not dull in poetry." Johnson: "Sir, he was dull in company, dull in his closet, dull everywhere. He was dull in a new way, and that made many people think him GREAT. He was a mechanical poet."
Boswell: Life of Johnson
What exactly did Johnson mean by this bon mot? Well, in his biography of Gray for The Lives of the Poets, Johnson wrote of Gray's The Progress of Poetry and The Bard, "the readers of poetry were at first content to gaze in mute amazement. Some that tried them confessed their inability to understand them... In a short time many were content to be shewn beauties which they could not see." Moving to criticism of his poetry, Johnson wrote, "I hope not to be looked on as an enemy to his name if I confess that I contemplate it with less pleasure than his life." Still, for all the reservations which Johnson expresses when discussing most of Gray's poetry, the Elegy strikes Johnson differently: "I rejoice to concur with the common reader... The Church-yard abounds with images which find a mirrour in every mind, and with sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo."
July 29, 2001:
"Poverty has, in large cities, very different appearances: it is often concealed in splendor, and often in extravagance. It is the care of a very great part of mankind to conceal their indigence from the rest; they support themselves by temporary expedients, and every day is lost in contriving for the morrow."
Samuel Johnson (Rasselas [the princess Nekayah])
A penny saved is a penny earned. (Benjamin Franklin?) And as the Gardner brothers at The Motley Fool and others have pointed out for years, continually revolving on your credit cards makes no economic sense. And yet, while it might be justifiable to not pay off the full amount occasionally, too many people make this a regular habit. Do you remember the days when consumers, regularly flooded with low-rate offers, would "rate surf"? (That is, ride the low introductory rate for its introductory period, and then transfer the balance to another card with a low introductory rate.) It actually takes a lot of effort to do that, if you're going to time it just right. To me, that sounds like a pretty concrete example of temporary expedients and contriving for the morrow.
July 15, 2001:
"Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier, or not having been at sea."
Samuel Johnson (Boswell: Life of Johnson)
It's interesting how sometimes our accomplishments don't always seem like they are enough to us.
A variety of thoughts have occurred to me which have reminded me of the case of historian Joseph Ellis. Ellis wrote a book on John Adams called The Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams, a book credited with restoring the reputation of Adams. The book is also part of the reason David McCullough wrote HIS book on John Adams. Anyway, Ellis has a number of award winning historical biographies in print, and he's pretty respected. Yet curiously this wasn't enough, and the professor has been in the habit of fabricating a Vietnam military record when lecturing students. The laurels for the fine books were apparently not enough. Sad, that. Those who have read Johnson's Rambler 14 may remember his admonition that...
"A transition from an author's book to his conversation is too often like an entrance into a large city, after a distant prospect. Remotely, we see nothing but spires of temples and turrets of palaces, and imagine it the residence of splendour, grandeur, and magnificence; but when we have passed the gates, we find it perplexed with narrow passages, disgraced with despicable cottages, embarrassed with obstructions, and clouded with smoke."
Perhaps this is all it is, and nothing more. How much of our lives are spent pretending to be what we are not.
On a related note: In The New Republic, Sean Wilentz reviewed McCullough's Adams biography from the context of a visible decline in the quality of historical writing. Wilentz' article not only put me in mind of Ellis, but there are times where Wilentz' criticism of McCullough's writing reminded me of some Boswell critics. For instance, Wilentz points out that you can't know Adams without being very familiar with what he wrote; Wilentz complains that McCullough seems to have read little from Adams' writings, and when McCullough writes about them he provides very little analysis. This, of course, is a complaint against Boswell, that there is very little lit crit in his Life of Johnson. Another criticism Wilentz levels is McCullough's references to Adams as a "good man." I have not read the McCullough book, but from the way Wilentz has written his review it sounds as if "good" is an adjective McCullough uses a lot. This is a complaint Richard Schwartz levelled against Boswell, that Boswell's characterizations of Johnson seldom got deeper than "good" and "great." Sorry to have rambled; just an interesting convergence of John Adams and Samuel Johnson this week, I guess.
July 1, 2001:
"As it is necessary not to invite robbery by supineness, so it is our duty not to suppress tenderness by suspicion; it is better to suffer wrong than to do it, and happier to be sometimes cheated than not to trust."
Johnson: Rambler #79
Another "strike a balance" quotation from Johnson. The business of life would stop not just from constantly thinking about death, but also if we are on constant alert not to believe others. Johnson recognizes that when deceit is practiced community is degraded, but believing others is all part of being human.
Recently there has been considerable discussion about a web log supposedly authored by a teenager with a terminal condition; the page had extensive readership, but it was ultimately revealed to be a fiction concocted by a very healthy adult. People who were regular readers felt emotionally cheated. It's a tough ethical question: yes, they were deceived; no, they didn't send money; yes, advice column writers have been inventing correspondents for years. (Umm, even Johnson invented his Rambler correspondents.) I suspect the regular readers felt some emotional catharsis from the sympathy they felt on reading the web log; still, if one is reading fiction it's nice to know that.