Review: Jean McGarry on Dr. Johnson

John Ruskin famously disdained those who would waste time socializing, when staying home and reading great literature is so much the wiser use of our time. Ruskin doesn’t reference Samuel Johnson in this sally, but Johnson, like Marcel Proust and a few others whom we also remember for the written word, reveled in talk and conviviality, and were such ready wits that notes were taken—especially in the case of Johnson, whose adoring shadow, James Boswell, has allowed those of us stuck in posterity to savor those tea-fueled sessions at the club. When I set about writing about Johnson for Book Post I had no idea that the viral pandemic was on its way, affording all too much solitude and isolation for reading, but lethal to socializing. One can only feel a certain longing—if not envy—for those long afternoons of conversation and wonder if a windy gent like Johnson could have managed on Zoom alone. 

Locked as we readers are in our caves, however, Johnson on the page is surely a comfort. I heard that Oxford don David Womersley, who’d delivered Edward Gibbon’s majestic history of imperial Rome, as well as a condensed variant, complete with spiky footnotes, had turned his sights on Dr. Johnson for Oxford’s 21st-Century Authors series. I knew it was time to submerge again. Previous forays had included one with a friend who wanted to spend her last months on earth following Johnson and Boswell through the rocky wastes of the Highlands and Western Islands of Scotland. I read aloud, and she listened, and sometimes snoozed. This was the second occasion for reading to a mortally ill friend; in both cases they wanted to travel.

Exposed to tuberculosis himself as a nursing infant, the baby Johnson suffered scrofula, partial blindness, and was “treated” with the bizarre cure of having an “issue,” or cut, dug into his arm and kept open for six years. He never let ill health, poor eyesight, or a kind of palsy keep him from an astonishing productivity—once he got going. In the 1750s, for example, he wrote 449 substantial essays, twice weekly on deadline for newspapers, under the byline of “The Rambler,” then “The Adventurer,” and “The Idler,” all the while compiling one of earliest English dictionaries, among sundry other jottings, including diaries, prayers, poems. His wife’s death in 1752, coupled with a battery of physical ailments and financial setbacks, seemed to stir his less industrious sympathies to side with the luckless rascal Richard Savage, a poet and friend whose picaresque life Johnson recounted with candor and pity.

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The impact of his writings is just what Chekhov demanded from the art of fiction—that it offer not answers but present a clear view of the problem, making the reader think. “In all Johnson’s disquisitions,” observed a contemporary, “whether argumentative or critical, there is a certain even-handedness that leaves the mind in a strange perplexity.” Womersley locates the source of the reader’s “strange perplexity” in the texture of Johnson’s prose, “that sense of being moved at a level beyond or beneath the level of language.” For Johnson, master of the long, clause-ridden sentence that locks itself tight as a deadbolt, the notion that his sense was communicated “beyond or beneath” the words might not have been much appreciated. His writing is “like ethical sandpaper,” his editor says.

Though Johnson’s essays may not be as soulful as Montaigne’s, nor as artful as Valery’s or Proust’s, his critical swordplay is second to none. Reading his work in the hundreds of pages is like eating candy. Despite this charm of being able to say anything better, though, Johnson—Tory, loyalist, supreme oddball—feels out of step with a day like our own, when prescriptive writing, whether in fiction or nonfiction, presented without some cooling intellectual distance seems to have disappeared from the realms of all but houses of worship and opinion pages. The kind of clarity, confidence (righteousness?) to be found in eighteenth-century writing—Gibbon, Johnson, Jane Austen, et al.—seems alien to us, lacking as it does the benefit, perverse and thrilling, of different ways of assessing human potential like those brought by Freud, Nietzsche, and yes, Proust. “From the perpetual necessity of consulting the animal faculties, in our provision for the present life,” he writes, “arises the difficulty of withstanding their impulses … for the motions of sense are instantaneous, its objects strike unsought, we are accustomed to follow its directions, and therefore often submit to the sentence without examining the authority of the judge.” It comes as no surprise that Johnson frowns upon impulse and sensuality, and has his little joke in the process. Of memory: “It would add much to human happiness, if an art could be taught of forgetting all of which the remembrance is at once useless and afflictive. If that pain which never can end in pleasure could be driven totally away, that the mind might perform its functions without incumbrance, and the past might no longer encroach upon the present.” Of the folly of committee work, “which vanishes at once into air and emptiness, at the first attempt to put it into action. The different apprehensions, the discordant passions, the jarring interests of men, will scarcely permit that many should unite in one undertaking.” And on sleep, the “tax of life”: “The wit or the sage can expect no greater happiness, than that after having harrassed his reason in deep researches, and fatigued his fancy in boundless excursions, he shall sink at night in the tranquility of sleep.”

And yet, reading Johnson, even just these 1,151 pages extracted from the voluminous whole, is to encounter nothing that seems quaint or backward. His brand of sandpaper is still very rough on the soul. He was indeed a pious Christian, but he is wonderfully free of pieties and sentimentalities, perhaps partly because he was so hard on himself.


Jean McGarry is the author of nine books of fiction, most recently the short-story collection No Harm Done and the novel Ocean State.


Book notes
In the wake of China’s new national security law for Hong Kong, which poses penalties as severe as life imprisonment for promoting unspecified acts of subversion, books by activists Joshua Wong and Tanya Chan are disappearing from Hong Kong library bookshelves. The law marks a strong coda to the freedoms guaranteed when the colony was returned to Chinese rule by the British in 1997. Education officials have been told to review their libraries for potentially seditious material. The Guardian observed that academic freedom in the no-longer-so-semi-autonomous zone appears threatened: “Hong Kong has some of Asia’s best universities and a campus culture where topics that would be taboo on the mainland are still discussed and written about.” A Hong Kong bookseller told The Washington Post’s Ron Charles that that publishing on politically sensitive subjects was moving to Taiwan in anticipation of the law and “more and more local books that focus on tackling underlying political and socioeconomic issues are being denied [access] to chain bookstores and libraries.” In July it was announced that a planned new book compiling statements by members of the so-called Umbrella Movement, spontaneous uprisings that begin in 2019 against a proposed law that would extradite those accused of certain crimes to the mainland, was being moved to Taiwan.

Booksellers were already on edge because of the case of Lam Wing Kee, a Hong Kong publisher of politically sensitive books who disappeared in 2015 and was subsequently detained on the mainland for selling books banned there. Last April he reopened his bookstore in Taipei. It was immediately vandalized but readers rallied and he persevered. A high-school student who travelled an hour from Taoyuan to visit the store told the Straights Times, “I think he’s really brave. He knew the risks, and yet here he is doing it.” 

Albert Wan of Hong Kong’s Bleak House Books, an English-language bookstore described by the Hong Kong Free Press as being “at the heart of a tight-knit reading community” told the newspaper that he is committed to continuing to stock “sensitive” political titles like those “that relate specifically to Hong Kong and the law, the Umbrella Movement, or protests from last summer.” He wonders if the law will threaten books addressing political oppression more broadly: “Based on what we know happens in mainland China, would it be a problem to stock 1984Animal Farm, or On Tyranny? General theory-based books, academic texts about revolutionary movements that have taken place in China in the past? Who knows?” One international bookseller told the Hong Kong Free Press that they “set up our regional office in Hong Kong as it was a free city and one of Asia’s capitals with the freedom of publication.” “We are still selling books by Ai Wei Wei,” they said, but “for higher-profile events, we now have to be less bold.” May Fung of ACO Book, which specializes in arts and culture, said “I don’t want to go to prison but I will not self-censor until I absolutely have no other choice.” Said Wan: “The fate of bookstores is sort of tied to a society that’s rooted in law and free expression and transparency.” Diplomatic stand-offs between the US and China over trade sanctions and North Korea have made it difficult for American officials to exert pressure in support of Hong Kong’s autonomy.

Meanwhile in Belarus, where mass protests broke out over charges that the reelection of their twenty-six-year dictator Alexander Lukashenko was rigged, the internet has been shut down and access to international news sites blocked according to an Human Rights Watch report. Messaging apps that help protesters coordinate and publicize official violence and search for arrested and injured friends and relatives have also apparently been blocked, as well as access through the Apple Store and Google Play to censorship circumvention tools. Lukashenko has long been one of Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s most reliable allies. The PEN American Center has published an essay by Belorussian journalist Tatsiana Zamirovskaya about Belorussia’s relationship with its dictator, and Belarussian-American poet Valzhyna Mort has made a call for American teachers and universities to teach Belorussian history and literature and culture. Mort’s new book of poems, Music for the Dead and Resurrected, will be published here in November.

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