Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Thursday, January 7, 2010

man of sorrows

My meditation on Samuel Johnson — on the three hundredth anniversary of his birth — is now available online.


  • Having just ordered the recent Martin bio of Johnson, I am interested in your meditation, but the link didn't seem to work. Do you have a problem with it?


  • du Garbandier said...

    There's a duplicated sentence in the (very good) piece: "Johnson's sufferings had the rare effect..."

    For the sake of truth herself, I hope in pointing out this error I have not hindered your progress towards wealth or honour:

    "He that never finds his error till it hinders his progress towards wealth or honour, will not be thought to love truth only for herself." --SJ, Life of Dryden

  • du Garbandier, I have little hope of wealth or honour, but thanks for the correction.

    Also, the link works fine for me.

  • Great essay. Further inspired me to read Boswell's Life of SJ. Thank you.

  • A lovely appreciation, and one that highlights how important for his work and life was his religion, as both a terrible torment and strange comfort for him. It was also, I fear, a source of bias in his critical judgment.

    After recently doing a bit of late-18thC reading, I've started to dabble earlier in the century, where I'm a total newbie. I've been quite taken with Pope's Essay on Man and had been looking at its critical reception -- why Voltaire, Kant etc were so enthusiastic. So of course I eagerly turned to Johnson's Pope, but was severely disappointed.

    Johnson is full of admiration for Pope's linguistic genius -- as one would expect given how frequently he uses Pope in the Dictionary. But his intense hostility toward Pope's rhetoric of paradox and the poem's sceptical dialectic (in which Johnson scents that Lucifer, Bolingbroke's, wicked rationalist deism) produces an extremely tendentious reading of the Essay. To the extent Johnson addresses the Essay directly, he ignores or twists Pope's "arguments". But his primary method is to dismiss the entire Essay as superficial, not true philosophy. However, because the Essay is so glorious as language and Pope so successfully manipulates our emotional senses, it's insidiously dangerous. We think we're getting a nourishing meal, but Pope has produced nothing but delectable, empty, sinful calories. Suitable fare only for the strongest minds who won't be seduced by such emotionally and sensually attractive folly.

    I find it ironic(?) or noteworthy(?) that Johnson, whose own religious uncertainties about his personal salvation were a central part of his intense psychological suffering, and who in other respects was capable of such empathy and compassion, was not just dismissive but roused to fury by the way others tried to come to terms with their own (albeit different) doubt and uncertainties.

    Anyhow. A long-winded way of noting that reading Johnson on Pope has taught me that, when I'm reading Johnson's critical writings, I'd better have a good handle on the text he's discussing, the debates in which Johnson's critical pronouncements form a part, and his own biography.

    Posted in your new comment system (hooray!!!), by "dunnettreader" (aka nadezhda).

  • Good to have you back, nadezhda! One brief comment: I think Johnson's own level of personal religious commitment was variable, and, in general, much higher late in his life than earlier. But he always supported theological orthodoxy as a means of social cohesion. I think he is so hard on Pope because he believed that public figures have the responsibility to keep their doubts and religious idiosyncrasies to themselves. A very traditionally Anglican attitude, really.

Post a Comment

[Basic HTML tags can be used in this comment field.]