Tuesday, September 18, 2007

A Listener for Readers

Tonight I shall have a nice drop of wine on the 299th anniversary of Samuel Johnson's birth.

And I do feel glad having a "treasure" to share with connoisseurs of the English language. The following article was published in the BBC's Weekly,

The Listener, September 24, 1959, Vol. LXII. No. 1591

Enjoy reading.

Dr. Samuel Johnson after 250 Years

Ian Watt on the literature of experience

We can hardly talk about literature without using the standard oppositions between art and life, form and meaning, imagination and experience. But these antitheses are obviously misleading in many ways; one way is to make us think so highly of ‘art’, ‘form’ and ‘imagination’ that we undervalue the many kinds of writing whose main qualities are not peculiar to literature, writing whose matter is so close to common experience that we do not think of it as imaginative, and whose manner is so much that of ordinary human discourse that it hardly occurs to us to discuss its literary form. The distinction between the world of art and of life becomes irrelevant in extreme cases of this kind of writing, because both their subject-matter and their mode of communication are common to both: such, for example, are the diary, the letter, the memoir, the prayer; and sometimes these modes of expression attain a measure of performance, and thus enter the vast category of writing to which one can give the name of experience. The greatest English writer whose work belongs mainly to this category is Samuel Johnson.

When, fifty years ago, Walter Raleigh celebrated the two hundredth anniversary of Johnson’s birth, the terms of his eulogy illustrated one way in which the antithesis between life and arttends to be unfair to the literature of experience: ‘Johnson’, he asserted ‘was an author almost by accident; it is the man who is dear to us’.

The question is whether the man is not dear to us mainly through the greatness of the author; and it cannot be said that the question, though much debated, has yet been resolved. Raleigh certainly did much to end the relative decline in Johnson's reputation which set in soon after his death, and to suggest the main directions which subsequent interest in Johnson was to take; but whereas the general tendency of thought in the last fifty years has confirmed and amplified Raleigh's admiration of the man, it seems to have made it even more difficult to come to terms with the greatness of the author.

Modern trends in the Interpretation of Johnson the man are not easy to summarize. Johnson's contemporary, George III, allegedly never discovered how the apple got inside the apple-dumpling; perhaps one can say that new knowledge and new insights have enabled us to uncover in Johnson, beneath the portentous crust of the intimidating portraits, the polysyllabic prose, and the oracular clubman presented by Boswell, a human being who belongs to the world of our own ordinary pleasures and interests and perplexities more completely than any other writer.

Both the difficulties of Johnson's life and the magnitude of his triumph over them were of exceptional proportions. From childhood on he suffered from the King’s Evil, a tuberculous infection that scarred his face and left him with one eye almost blind; he grew up in an unhappy home which offered little prospect for the future beyond his father’s declining bookshop; he was afflicted with an uncontrollable constitutional nervousness which made him mutter to himself and twitch convulsively; and by the age of nineteen he knew that at any moment what he called, his ‘vile melancholy’ was likely to develop into complete and per­manent madness. Then came the brief days at Oxford of the angry young man from the provinces: his contemporaries remembered him as gay, but he knew well enough that ‘it was bitterness which they mistook for frolic’.

All this side of the biography, hardly touched on by Boswell, has now been painstakingly filled out by many scholars, and its psychological implications interpreted. Their work makes clear the considerable role which the modern climate of thought, and especially Freud, has played in increasing our understanding of the courage and re-source with which Johnson warded off the menace of insanity. In Johnson Agonistes, as Bertrand Bronson has called him in a now classic study, we recognize and salute one of the great heroes of the wars of the mind.

Other changes in outlook have increased our sympathetic under­standing of Johnson’s attitude to life. The Whig view of history, for example, has been sufficiently challenged for us to recognize that there was considerable basis for Johnson’s Tory anathemas on the social and political tendencies of his time; while the main events of the twentieth Century have vindicated Johnson's pronouncement that ‘the history of mankind is little else than a narration of designs that have failed and hopes that have been disappointed’.

Johnson’s political pessimism was based on his acute under­standing of the darker elements in human nature. He could hardly assent to the doctrine of progress when he was convinced that ‘there may be community of material possessions, but there can never be community of love and esteem’; and the whole liberal conception of the democratic pursuit of happiness inevitably seemed unreal to someone who, when asked if he really believed that ‘a man was not sometimes happy in the moment that was present’, answered: ‘ Never, but when he is drunk’.

Johnson's psychological pessimism - or realism, if you like - enabled him to achieve a posthumous topicality in many other ways. He was, for example, the supreme exponent of One-Upman-ship; and Boswell's Life is, among other things, a record of the vigour and variety of his tactics: witness, for example, Johnson's rejection of Boswell's offer to tell him all about Allan Ramsay’s pastoral drama The Gentle Shepherd. ‘No, Sir, I won't learn it. You shall retain your superiority by my not knowing it’.

Johnson, then, had as keen an awareness of the corruptions of pride and envy as La Rochefoucauld. But he was also, fortunately, aware of much else. His great capacity for cheerfulness kept breaking in on his conviction of human inadequacy; and this, combined with his naturally impetuous and insubordinate nature, did much to qualify the toryism which is the usual result of a pressing sense of man's weakness, greed, and irrationality. Johnson strongly opposed the ‘prevailing spirit’ of his time, which he defined as ‘a dislike of all established forms, merely because they are established’; but if his view that ' the cure for the greatest part of human miseries is not radical but palliative' made him oppose anything in the nature of radical reform, it did not turn him into a complacent sup­porter of the status quo. He never forgot the need for ‘palliatives’ and his belief that ‘a decent pro-vision for the poor is the true test of a civilization’ might well have led him to welcome the Welfare State.

Johnson’s philosophical, psy­chological, and political views, then, have become much more congenial to us than they were to the nineteenth Century; our general mistrust of theory makes us welcome Johnson’s famous attacks on “the cant of those who judge by principles rather than perception’, while our residual liberalism is satisfied by Johnson’s eloquent departure from his own precept when he enunciated one sovereign principle of judgment: ‘I am always afraid of determining on the side of envy or cruelty’.

But it may be felt that all this is beside the point; that we can, no doubt - following our personal tastes - applaud Johnson the High Churchman or Johnson the gormandizer, John­son the patriot or Johnson the punster; but that the only important question is not whether the Great Cham was a great chap, or even the brightest Ornament in the casebooks of self-psychotherapy, but, simply, whether he was a great writer. The answer, simply, is yes. But the case is difficult to argue, especially in the present critical climate.

For one thing, Raleigh was in a sense right when he said Johnson ‘was an author almost by accident’. In the days of his fame, when someone complimented Johnson on his legal knowledge and remarked that he might have become Lord Chancellor if he had chosen the law as a career, Johnson was much distressed, and answered: ‘Why will you vex me by suggesting this when it is too late?’ Most of his published works were commissioned - from the first of them, a translation for a provincial bookseller, to his greatest literary achievements, the Dictionary and the Lives of the Poets. Johnson is perhaps the supreme example of a great writer with very little sense of a specifically literary vocation. This, however, may not be as disabling as it sounds. For two reasons: first, the notion of the literary vocation as something special and set apart is not necessarily the best one, and is certainly relatively new historically; and, secondly, Johnson had his own conception of his role which, though contrary to some more recent ones, was perfectly adapted to his own particular literary powers. Soon after Johnson's death the Romantics established their image of the writer as a lonely genius exploring strange seas of thought and feeling; and today this conception retains much of its power. With this stereotype goes a conception of literature as an equally special and separate kind of expression; and this idea, which is strongly supported by symbolist and formalist doctrines, has only recently been widely challenged in favour of a more literal an rational outlook.

Johnson’s idea of literature, and of the role of the writer, was certainly not in the role of tradition begun by the Romantics. If he thought of himself as an 'artist', it was in its eighteenth-century sense of a skilled craftsman; and his conception of how he should use his craft laid primary emphasis on his kinship with his fellow human beings: ‘The only end of writing’ was 'to enable the reader better to enjoy life, or better to endure it’. So Johnson’s best early works in verse - London and The Vanity of Human Wishes, and in prose the Rambler papers - were moral essays, discursive modes of writing which were, as he put it, eminently adapted to ‘the propagation of truth’ and ‘the dignity of virtue’. Their manner was primarily rational and expository; Johnson insisted on the virtues of what he called ‘dogged veracity’. His psychological need to control ‘the hunger of the imagination which preys upon itself’ made him rather uneasy in the presence of fanciful and the fictional; and it is typical of him that the best parts of his quasi-novel Rasselas could easily be essay from the Rambler.

Potential and Achievement

This literal and didactic tendency, so out of keeping with recent literary fashion, was undoubtedly an important cause of what has been widely felt as a discrepancy between Johnson’s potential and his actual literary achievement. The Vanity of Human Wishes is one of the supreme poems of the Century, but Johnson obviously fell short of the bulk which is necessary to major poetic status; partly because his sense of moral and religious responsibility was so intense that it did not lend itself easily to poetry - he considered religion ‘the great, the necessary, the inevitable business of human life’, but he also held that ‘contemplative piety, or the intercourse between God and the human soul cannot be poetical’. On the other hand., unlike Boswell, he had little interest in the commonest outlet for the literal and realist habit of mind - self-expression; so it is not surprising that the bulk of Johnson’s writings are of a miscellaneous and occasional kind.

Few of us would deny Sir James Murrav’s estimate that in Johnson’s hands the dictionary ‘became a department of literature’; nor would we dissent from Logan Pearsall Smith’s expert appraisal of Johnson as our supreme aphorist: but we hardly know how to rank these two genres in th e literary hierarchy. We like wit and brevity and analytic power, but the definition and the aphorism seem much too short-winded and discontinuous to rank as major literary creations; and both are essentially occa­sional - supremely so in the Dictionary, where every word was a new and unavoidable challenge.

To no one else, surely, can we better apply Johnson’s own definition: ‘True genius is a mind of large general powers, accidentally determined in some particular direction’; his union of formidable analytic power with immediate command of memorable verbal expression needed only aa appropriate eliciting occasion, whether in a literary task or in the occasions of daily life. This poses further critical problems. First, we must learn how to deal with writing which was not intended as literature at all. The famous private Letter to Lord Chesterfield is not surpassed by any of his public writings, and the great gifts found in The Vanity of Human Wishes are as fully manifested in some of Johnson’s private prayers and in his letters.

Seriousness in Conversation

Secondly, it is even more difficult to come to critical terms with Johnson’s conversation. When Boswell remarked ‘But I wonder, Sir, you have not more pleasure in writing than in not writing’, Johnson refused to be drawn: ‘Sir. you may wonder’. It seems clear that conversation was Johnson’s most natural means of expression - perhaps because there the stimulus was varied and

immediate. In any case, just as Johnson's moral sense made the distinction between public and private writing unimportant, so it meant that he put as much seriousness and energy into his conversation as into his writing. He ' laid it down as a fixed rule to do his best on every occasion and in every Company '; and to impart whatever he knew in the most forcible language he could put in'. Consequently, Fanny Burney ' could not help remarking how . . . much the same thing it was to hear h i m or to read him'; while Johnson's conversation offers as impressive evidence as bis writings of the variety of his powers, from what Boswell described as ' the majestic teacher of moral and religious wisdom ', to the greatest of the English humorists».

Humour it another literary quality which has not yet received justice. In general it can be regarded as a supremely inclusive response to the complexities of experience; and a response
whose success requires great gifts of sensitiveness and imagination. Mrs. Thrale tells of a Lincolnshire lady who was ill-advised enough to show Johnson the underground grotto in her garden, and then enquire complacently ‘if he did not think it would be a pretty convenient habitation?’
‘I think it would, Madam’, he replied — ‘for a toad’. The retort was rude; but not
gratuitously so, because at soon as Johnson was summoned to endorse a grotto as a convenient human habitation he felt himself bound to remind the Lincolnshire lady that civilization has progressed from living in caves to living in houses only through long and patient efforts, and that it can continue only on such terms.

To do justice to Johnson's literary achievement, then, we must include the totality of his recorded utterances: the conversations and the various marginal kinds of writing, as well as the poems, the essays and the Lives of the Poets. This means that we must usually judge Johnson’s content on the basis of literal as opposed to imaginative truth.

This is what the literature of experience usually demands, but it is contrary to most modern critical theory, with its insistence on the literary artefact as an autonomous verbal structure best considered as separate both from its author and from any relation to real life. Obviously the correspondence of an author’s statements to reality or truth is even more difficult to establish than intrinsic literary excellence where we can at least find all - or most - of the evidence on the page before us. We must also remember that there is a real danger in confusing art and life; for one thing, it tends to authorize the common 'let's have no nonsense' sort of Philistinism, and Johnson had many admirers in this camp: Raleigh himself as Virginia Woolf noted, in his later years 'ceased to profess literature, and became instead a Professor of Life'.

Truthful Vision of Human Experience

But the other extreme position is even more impossible; we may not want to go as far as Johnson did in disregarding the distinctions between literature and life, but we obviously cannot disregard the whole tradition of wisdom literature, from the Book of Ecclesiastes to Montaigne and Pascal, or all the other writings in which man has faced and recorded his actual thoughts and feelings. Johnson’s own works and reported utterances no doubt constitute a dispersed, untidy, and awkward body of material for the critic to see as a whole, but that whole constitutes an impressively eloquent, consistent, and truthful vision of human experience.

I have said little about Johnson’s writings as such, but I will close by letting him speak for himself, all too briefly, in one of the supreme examples of the literature of experience. Perhaps the most famous example of Johnson’s literalism is his attack Milton’s Lycidas: 'Where there is leisure for fiction’, he said, ‘there is little grief'. Johnson’s elegy ‘On the Death of Dr. Level’ is an absolutelv direct treatment of the death of a member of his household, described by Boswell as ‘an obscure practiser in phvsic, of a strange, grotesque appearance’. The poem was written hardly a year before Johnson’s own death, and in it all his friendship and humanity was framed by a steady of mankind's limitations:

Condemn’d to hope’s delusive mine,
As on we toil from day to day,
By suddenblasts, or slow decline,
Our social comforts drop away.

Well tried through many a varying year
See Levet to the grave descent;
Officious, innocent, sincere,
Of ev'ry friendless name the friend.

Yet still he fills affection’s eye,
Obscurely wise, and coarsely kind,
Nor letter’d arrogance deny
The praise to merit unrefin’d.

When fainting nature called for aid,
And hov’ring death prepar’d the blow,
His vig’rous remedy display’d
The poewer of art without the show.

In misery’s darkest caverns known,
His useful care was ever nigh,
When hopeless anguish pour’d his groan,
And lonely want retir’d to die.

No summon mock’d by chill delay,
No petty gain disdain’d by pride,
The modest wants of ev’ry day,
The toil of ev’ry day supplied.

His virtues walk’d their narrow round,
Nor made a pause, nor left a void;
And sure th’ Eternal Master found
The single talent well employ’d.

The busy day, the peaceful night,
Unfelt, uncounted, glided by:
His frame was firm, his powers were bright,
Tho’ now his eightieth year was nigh.

Then with no throbbing fiery pain,
No cold graduations of decay
Death broke at once the vital chain,
And forc’d his soul the nearest way.


  1. A tribute to a wondrous man. I'll post on this tomorrow.

  2. Welcome, James, and thanks.
    I hope the soul of this post's wit is not just its length. :)

  3. Thank you heartily, and quite belatedly, for this treasure.

  4. Ah, Stan,
    glad you enjoy(ed) what you discovered / stumbled upon.
    And thank you very much to letting me know.

  5. Amazing...

    I discovered your fantastic post through Stan's recent comment.

    I had discovered fantastic Ian Watt through The Rise of the Novel which was (happily) prescribed reading in a course of Advanced English Literature I took at 52.

    I discovered his heroic courage in Pierre Boulle's Le Pont de la Rivière Kwai, and David Lean's magnificent film.

    As for Samuel Johnson, I've called him Lord English ever since I discovered his dictionary long ago.

    The more I'm connected with those men, and Sean and Stan, the more interesting my life becomes.

    Many, many thanks.:)

  6. Claudia,
    now, that you even would know Ian Watt!
    Before reading the above article for the first time (some years ago) I had not heard his name.

    Gosh, if I were not so lazy! I have quite a few Listeners, folded and - after 50 years - looking almost like hot of the presses. A real treasure!

    Glad you did not only discover this post but even enjoyed what you discovered.

  7. My comment looked a bit like I was bragging about what I know. I nearly deleted it.

    The fact is that I knew Ian Watt even before I learned to read English. I was in my late 20s when a friend gave me Pierre Boulle's book. I was enthralled by the story. I read an article about the British regiment and the few men who had survived that prison camp. I didn't know at the time that I would become fluent in English.

    It was a surprise to re-discover him when I took an English Literature course at 52. And it was very exciting to see him again as the writer of the great article you posted.

    It explains the word Amazing at the top of my comment. It was such a long-ago connection. Yet, the very special gentleman had never been forgotten.