Pay me for it

Helen Deutsch

  • Samuel Johnson: A Life by David Nokes
    Faber, 415 pp, £9.99, August 2010, ISBN 978 0 571 22636 8
  • Selected Writings by Samuel Johnson, edited by Peter Martin
    Harvard, 503 pp, £16.95, May 2011, ISBN 978 0 674 06034 0
  • The Brothers Boswell: A Novel by Philip Baruth
    Corvus, 336 pp, £7.99, January 2011, ISBN 978 1 84887 446 6
  • The Life of Samuel Johnson LL.D. by John Hawkins, edited by O.M. Brack
    Georgia, 554 pp, £53.50, August 2010, ISBN 978 0 8203 2995 6

On Saturday, July 30, Dr Johnson and I took a sculler at the Temple-stairs, and set out for Greenwich. I asked him if he really thought a knowledge of the Greek and Latin languages an essential requisite to a good education. JOHNSON. ‘Most certainly, sir; for those who know them have a very great advantage over those who do not. Nay, sir, it is wonderful what a difference learning makes upon people even in the common intercourse of life, which does not appear to be much connected with it.’ ‘And yet (said I) people go through the world very well, and carry on the business of life to good advantage, without learning.’ JOHNSON. ‘Why, sir, that may be true in cases where learning cannot possibly be of any use; for instance, this boy rows us as well without learning, as if he could sing the song of Orpheus to the Argonauts, who were the first sailors.’ He then called to the boy, ‘What would you give, my lad, to know about the Argonauts?’ ‘Sir (said the boy), I would give what I have.’ Johnson was much pleased with his answer, and we gave him a double fare. Dr Johnson then turning to me, ‘Sir (said he), a desire of knowledge is the natural feeling of mankind; and every human being, whose mind is not debauched, will be willing to give all that he has to get knowledge.’

How can we know Samuel Johnson without summoning him through the reanimating power of James Boswell’s Life? For the many scholars, writers, readers and collectors who call themselves Johnsonians, this is the near impossible task. Boswell first met Johnson in 1763, in the back parlour of a bookshop. It belonged to a friend of Johnson, Thomas Davies, who described ‘his aweful approach … somewhat in the manner of an actor in the part of Horatio, when he addresses Hamlet on the appearance of his father’s ghost, “Look, my Lord, it comes.”’ ‘Remember me’ was Boswell’s mandate from the start and the ghost’s injunction took on poignancy when the Life was published in 1791, seven years after Johnson’s death. Within its confines, the great man still lives.

Floating down the Thames on a pleasure trip, Boswell and Johnson are not idle, but engaged in the creative work of conversation. Typically, Boswell prompts Johnson with a seemingly spontaneous question: is classical learning merely useless erudition? Insisting on the practical advantages of learning, Johnson turns the matter into a mini mock-epic. The young rower is identified with Orpheus, who accompanied the Argonauts on their voyage in pursuit of the Golden Fleece. Boswell’s Johnson, the great hero of letters, enlists the boy in an endorsement of the poet’s power and a pagan search for a prize which has biblical (or Miltonic) resonance: the natural human desire for knowledge, so powerful that anyone would give what he had to obtain it.

The aftermath of the Greenwich trip exemplifies some of Johnson’s favourite themes: the fleeting nature of human pleasures, the vanity of human wishes and the inevitability of moral failure. On the trip back to London, Johnson scolded Boswell, tired after sitting up all night transcribing their conversation, for his effeminate shivering in the cold night air. They ended the evening at the Turk’s Head coffee house, talking of the Boswell estate in Scotland; Johnson, taken with the idea of staying in the family’s ‘romantick seat’, promised a visit. Nobody knew the rift between life and art better than Boswell (a melancholic who when he was not conversing with Johnson during that year, the first he spent in London, could often be found enjoying the women of the town); while Johnson declared writing’s sole end ‘to enable the readers better to enjoy life, or better to endure it’. The divide between the strict morality demanded of art and the sublunary chaos evinced by human behaviour was Johnson’s great subject, the way into the ‘infinite vacuity’ at the heart of things which Hester Thrale, Boswell’s rival both for Johnson’s affections and for biographical authority, identified as Johnson’s ‘favourite hypothesis and the general tenor of his reasonings’.

This vacuity was what divided the learned writer from the figure Johnson would come to champion in his literary criticism as the common reader. ‘Be not too hasty to trust or to admire the teachers of morality: they discourse like angels, but they live like men,’ the poet Imlac tells his pupil Rasselas. In what he chooses to see as the young boatman’s desire for learning, Johnson’s fantasy of the value of scholarly knowledge to common life is given momentary substance. This largely self-educated bookseller’s son, scarred by scrofula, partially blind and deaf, afflicted by obsessive thoughts as well as a constitutional melancholy which he claimed made him ‘mad all his life, at least not sober’, prone to compulsive movements, rituals and vocalisations (some have recently diagnosed him with Tourette’s syndrome), embodied singularity (that quintessential trait of Englishness) while attempting to write for a mass audience.

Boswell brackets Johnson’s physical particularities off from his narrative, but for David Nokes they become a central feature of his ability to create a ‘shock effect’. Thus William Hogarth’s first encounter with Johnson at the home of Samuel Richardson:

While he was talking, he perceived a person standing at a window in the room, shaking his head and rolling himself about in a strange ridiculous manner. He concluded that he was an idiot whom his relations had put under the care of Mr Richardson, as a very good man. To his great surprise, however, this figure stalked forwards to where he and Mr Richardson were sitting, and … displayed such a power of eloquence, that Hogarth looked at him with astonishment, and actually imagined that this idiot had been at the moment inspired.

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