Monday, September 14, 2015

"If a man talks of his misfortunes..."

The world’s greatest biography was composed by a depressive, a heavy drinker, an inconstant husband and a neglectful father who suffered at least 17 bouts of gonorrhea. That biography is, of course, James Boswell’s Life of Johnson. Nothing like it came before in form and content, and nothing like it has appeared since. ....

Boswell saw not merely a great subject in Samuel Johnson, but an exemplar, a teacher, a reality instructor, for the two men were vastly different in outlook, stability and, above all, good sense. Johnson came to love Boswell without ever quite treating him as an equal. “You are longer a boy than others,” he told him when Boswell was in his mid-30s. In Johnson’s eyes, he would remain a boy, always in need of straightening out, through their 21-year relationship, which ended with Johnson’s death in 1784 at 75.

A habitual keeper of journals, Boswell wrote down nearly everything he heard Johnson say or that was said about him. ....

At the heart of Boswell’s biography was Johnson’s conversation, both that to which Boswell was privy and that reported by others. .... On nearly every occasion he prodded him into conversation on what he hoped would be propitious topics. Well worth the effort it was, for Johnson’s talk was studded with “genuine vigour and vivacity” and larded with “the exuberant variety of his wit and wisdom.” ....

“Depend upon it,” he tells Boswell, “that if a man talks of his misfortunes, there is something in them that is not disagreeable to him.” ....

Oliver Goldsmith said that “there is no arguing with Johnson; for if his pistol misses fire, he knocks you down with the butt end of it.” Although not said in response to this, Johnson held that “every man has the right to utter what he thinks truth, and every man has a right to knock him down for it. Martyrdom is the test.” ....

Boswell shows us his subject’s gruff table manners, how he walked, his laugh (like that of a rhinoceros), his terror of death, his immense—one can only call it his Christian—generosity to the poor and those defeated by life.

Some have found Boswell slavish in his admiration of Johnson. Macaulay called him “servile and impertinent, shallow and pedantic...always laying himself at the feet of some eminent man, and begging to be spat upon and trampeled.” Boswell’s wife said of the relationship: “I have seen many a bear led by a man; but I never before saw a man led by a bear.” If Johnson put up with Boswell’s sometimes cloying sycophancy—“Sir,” he at one point tells him, “you have but two topicks, yourself and me. I am sick of them both”—his doing so paid off handsomely. .... [more]
ManyBooks.com has made a number of Boswell's works available, free for download for Kindle, etc., including the Life of Johnson. Yale has put the "Works of Samuel Johnson" online.

One of my favorite Boswell stories about Johnson:
After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley's ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it — "I refute it thus." [Boswell: Life of Samuel Johnson]
Johnson on hypocrisy:
"Sir, are you so grossly ignorant of human nature, as not to know that a man may be very sincere in good principles, without having good practice?"
One of the many prayers Johnson composed:
O LORD, my Maker and Protector, who hast graciously sent me into this world, to work out my salvation, enable me to drive from me all such unquiet and perplexing thoughts as may mislead or hinder me in the practice of those duties which Thou hast required.

When I behold the works of Thy hands and consider the course of Thy providence, give me Grace always to remember that Thy thoughts are not my thoughts, nor Thy ways my ways.

And while it shall please Thee to continue me in this world where much is to be done and little to be known, teach me by Thy Holy Spirit to withdraw my mind from unprofitable and dangerous enquiries, from difficulties vainly curious, and doubts impossible to be solved.

Let me rejoice in the light which Thou hast imparted, let me serve Thee with active zeal, and humble confidence, and wait with patient expectation for the time in which the soul which Thou receivest, shall be satisfied with knowledge.

Grant this, O Lord, for Jesus Christ's sake. Amen.
A Biography as Great as Its Subject - WSJ