Beast and Frog

John Bayley

  • Dr Johnson & Mr Savage by Richard Holmes
    Hodder, 260 pp, £19.99, October 1993, ISBN 0 340 52974 1
  • Samuel Johnson by Pat Rogers
    Oxford, 116 pp, £4.99, April 1993, ISBN 0 19 287593 0

Death is something that happens to other people: and hence, it might be inferred, the popularity of biography. Those whose lives are recorded die in the last chapter: the rest of us live for ever. The point was made by Lucretius in his long poem On the Nature of Things, which was intended to cheer us all up. We have no choice but to live for ever, since death is something we can see but not experience: living is necessarily independent of it. In his study of Samuel Beckett, Christopher Ricks says that we desire both oblivion and eternity; but except in the insidiously artificial world of writers like Beckett, who make death a cliché within the life of language, neither of these wishes makes much sense. Dr Johnson would have pooh-poohed them. Life, for him, hoped to be preparation for a future life: a living for ever by other means. In the meantime we could do it most satisfactorily by travelling briskly in a post-chaise with a pretty woman.

But if we are to live for ever someone else must die. We understand the sequence of life and death by reference to an alter ego, whose biography in a sense we are writing, and to whom we thus come as close as we can. The idea may sound fanciful, but it is pursued with remarkable force and fascination in Richard Holmes’s study. Richard Savage, the young Johnson’s alter ego, was a poor and talented writer whom Johnson had met in Grub Street. Each took a fancy to the other, and they became companions in want in London’s lower depths, where they often walked all night, deploring the hypocrisy of high society and the crimes of the government: much as a couple of useful friends might be doing today. His later account of Savage’s life and death showed Johnson inventing, however involuntarily, a new species of biography: the search for and objectification of one’s life outside oneself, as death is outside life. The creation of such a biography, and the intensity with which it can be transmitted in perusal, is – also one could say – a new method of imagining that one does not live for ever. For it presents to the self its own death and life.

Holmes’s ending has a good deal of the quiet intensity of Johnson’s own life of Savage. ‘Finally I should say that if my book strikes some curious chord in the reader’s mind, it came to me on such a night ... in the city, when a light winter rain was falling like a mist around the lamps. The echo you hear, of course, is of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.’ A biographer, Holmes has told us, is always kin, too, to those two 18th-century presences, talking and arguing all night in the labyrinth of dark streets, ‘trying to find a recognisable human truth together’. The original conclusion of Johnson’s life of Savage, now the penultimate paragraph, ‘challenges the reader to accept the conditions of Savage’s existence’, and urges ‘empathy before judgment’. ‘Nor will a wise man easily presume to say,’ Johnson concludes, ‘“Had I been in Savage’s condition, I should have lived, or written, better than Savage.”’ Lived, or written? Should have lived? His passionate interest in Mr Hyde confirms the perpetuity of Dr Jekyll; but also, more important, it removes all excuse for and grounds of judgment. Life can have no way of judging death, the completed life. ‘Those are no proper Judges of his conduct who have slumber’d away their Time on the Down of Plenty.’ The life and death in a biography, transferred to its maker and so to the reader, is the secret of its true intimacy, the biographer’s final goal. Johnson discovered how to become Savage.

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