Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Dining with Dr. Johnson Again

It is half past twelve o'clock as I enter the Literary Club. The sign above the door of the establishment says "Wendy's," but that is only the outward and visible sign. I carry a special book in my hand, and today the place takes the form of the Literary Club. It has been about a year since last I dined with Dr. Samuel Johnson, and I am happy to renew his pleasant and inspiring company. After I order a repast at the bar, I look around and find the table I want. There sit many of the illustrious members of the Club: Mr. Beauclerk, Mr. Langton, Mr. Charles Fox, Mr. Boswell, and of course the honorable man of letters, London's most illustrious citizen, Dr. Johnson.

As I seat myself at the table, several of the interlocutors turn to me somewhat taken aback. "You are dressed strangely, sir," says Beauclerk. "I come from the twenty-first century," I reply, "where these clothes are normal." I fail to mention the fact that academic-shabby with a Cardinals t-shirt might be considered eccentric even for my century. "Well, you are welcome, sir," rejoins Beauclerk. "We are just now discussing the recent turmoil in America."

As Dr. Johnson begins to speak, I am immediately reminded of his peculiar mannerisms. With a squint and a jerk of his torso, he informs the group of his opinion: "They are a race of convicts. The Colonists can with no solidity argue from their not having been taxed while in their infancy, that they should not now be taxed. We do not put a calf into the plow; we wait till he is an ox." Mr. Boswell expresses his surprise at a view he characterizes as "unsuitable to the mildness of a Christian philosopher." "I was sorry to see you appear," he says, "in so unfavourable a light in your recent pamphlet on the subject. I could not perceive in it that ability of argument, or that felicity of expression, for which you are, upon other occasions, so eminent." Dr. Johnson responds with a Latin quotation:
Fallitur egregio quisquis sub Principe credit
Servitium; nunquam libertas gratior extat
Quam sub Rege pio.
After asking him to repeat the aphorism more slowly, I surprise and delight myself at believing I have understood it: Anyone who thinks himself in servitude because subject to a prince errs egregiously; liberty nowhere extends itself more graciously than under a pious king. I venture to point out that Mr. John Wesley has written a letter to the American Colonists pleading with them to understand that they enjoy more freedom than citizens of any other country, and more so even than he. Dr. Johnson replies to me, but since I have neither his "felicity of expression" nor a facile memory for quotations verbatim, I can only report the sense of his remark, which is that he finds Methodists misguided but not hypocritical, such as are the nonjurors.

I observe that I have just read a passage in a book by Mr. Anthony Trollope . . . . "Who?" asks Mr. Langton. "He is an author, sir, of novels and lived . . . or will live . . . or lives in the nineteenth century." "He bears an unfortunate surname, does he not?" asks Dr. Johnson. "Yes, sir, but the connotation of the word that I believe you have in mind has fallen almost completely out of usage so that those who hear his name -- a group that is sadly far too small, I'm afraid -- no longer think of it in that tainted light." "Be that as it may," says Dr. Johnson, "you were about to tell us of the future. What does this Mr. Trollope say?" "I had in mind a passage in which a young woman, who has spent several months conversing regularly after services with an unmarried Anglican clergyman, finds that the clergyman has not implied any thoughts of marriage in his attentions to her, as she has previously believed, and that as a consequence she decides to become a Methodist." "Why should a man imply anything?" Dr. Johnson asks with a rather frightening roar. (Again, I cannot attest to the exact accuracy of the wording.) "A man should scrutinize and clarify his thoughts with sound moral judgment and careful reasoning, and then speak what he believes without apology. It is my consistent practice, and I have never been sorry for it." "The nineteenth-century English believe discretion in language necessary for the maintenance of social relationships." "Nonsense! By 'discretion' you mean 'hypocrisy.' Social ties were never strengthened by hypocrisy. I speak what I believe, and I find that these good gentlemen continue to dine with me. Boswell there does not agree with me on the age of Ossian, and he and I have never been more fond of each other." Mr. Boswell blushes.

The conversation turns to the recent journey of Dr. Johnson and Mr. Boswell to Scotland and the former's celebrated published account of that excursion. Mr. Langton points out that Dr. Johnson's statement in the book that he has come away from the North willing to believe in second sight has excited some ridicule among his readership. Mr. Boswell responds: "He is only willing to believe. I do believe. The evidence is enough for me, though not for his great mind. What will not fill a quart bottle will fill a pint bottle. I am filled with belief." I am reminded of my (and Charles Schulz's) favorite Peanuts strip. Then, debating the literary merits of Jonathan Swift, various members of the club name titles that I should add to my plan, perhaps instead of rereading Gulliver's Travels.

Dr. Johnson tells the constellated luminaries (and me) that Sheridan was wrong in granting a medal to the author of Douglas. "If Sheridan was magnificent enough to bestow a gold medal as an honorary reward of dramatick excellence, he should have requested one of the Universities to choose the person on whom it should be conferred." I tell him that in my time, universities confer awards only in the hopes that the honoree might return the honor in the form of money. "What?" he exclaims. "Do not the institutions of learning in the twenty-first century continue to guide the publick in the studied, rational judgment of the arts?" "That practice continued into the twentieth century," I reply. "An exemplary case is Prof. C. S. Lewis, who was, like yourself, a Christian philosopher and who, like yourself, enjoyed an ability of argument and felicity of expression. But it is very difficult for anyone in my time and in my country to judge either artistic works, actions, or human character. Expanding freedoms have made the pronouncement of judgment politically dangerous." "Ah," he says with a jerk, "everyone does what is right in his own eyes. Is that it? Humph!" His face disappears in a storm of spasms. "Race of convicts!"

At half past one o'clock, I must leave the Club and wend my way back to my office, which is located in another building. As I walk across the campus, a conversation I overhear between two undergraduates playing catch with a football returns me with a jolt to my own era:
She: When is your birthday?
He: What?
She: Your birthday. Is it in July?
He: No. August.
She: That's what I said. August.
He: You said July.
She: No, I said August.
I must return to the Literary Club tomorrow.

1 comment:

  1. This one is a tiny work of literature in its own right. What fun! I'm glad a bit of the collective know-how of the internet was able to break through the noise and show you how to recover it once it had disappeared. A peculiarly 21st-century problem and solution, to be sure...