Monday, November 19, 2012

Dr. Johnson’s Ready Arguments

It's not the best thing for someone who talks for a living to have to admit. But somewhere in the last twenty years or so, I lost my confidence in speaking. Not that I'm afraid of getting in front of a crowd. On the contrary, I do better the more people I have listening. When I say I've lost my confidence, I mean that I've developed a habit of overanalyzing and second-guessing everything I say, even while I say it. The most obvious . . . result of my . . . diffidence is an annoying . . . pause before every . . . noun. (That joke works better when it's spoken. You may just have to trust me on it.)

I've written several times in this blog about my admiration for Dr. Samuel Johnson, the eighteenth-century scholar who single-handedly wrote a dictionary of the English language. (See for instance "Re: My Hackles.") In spite of his many faults (he was human, after all), he had a strong Christian faith, was seen by his culture as a teacher of morality both in word and deed, read widely, and amazed people consistently with his intelligence and eloquence. More succinctly, James Boswell said his attraction to Johnson was based on "Genius, Learning, and Piety."

The issue of eloquence has come up several times in the passage of Boswell's Life of Johnson I've been reading this fall, and I can't help comparing the lexicographer’s verbal fluidity against my halting cadence. Boswell applies these lines from Douglas by John Home to his great friend's ready wit:
    On each glance of thought
Decision followed, as the thunderbolt
Pursues the flash!
Johnson's rapid flow of polished prose makes his biographer's accomplishment all the more mind-boggling. In fact, Boswell admits in this section to not having always done justice to Johnson in the quotations he provides. How could he possibly get all the details down during a conversation (a conversation he contributed to, in fact) or remember the words accurately after the fact? Superman can catch a speeding bullet, but could Boswell capture Johnson’s speeding thunderbolts? The task was so difficult, he even humbly includes the following observation from a fellow dinner guest, words that must have stung a bit when he heard them and again when he inserted them into the monumental biography: "O that his words were written in a book!"

Of course speech following thought as thunder does lightning can cause its share of problems. Boswell says that Johnson was "sometimes too desirous of triumph in colloquial contest." But part of Johnson's secret for quickness of speech was his taste for disputation in the interest of exercising his mind: he enjoyed arguing either side of any question, so long as it involved neither morals not core Christian tenets. His friends knew this and forgave him for his occasional combativeness. And why shouldn't they when, assured of his friendship, they could view these incidents simply as instructive displays of logic from an astonishing mind. Friend Edward Dilly wrote to Boswell, "Few men, nay I may say, scarcely any man, has got that fund of knowledge and entertainment as Dr. Johnson in conversation. When he opens freely, every one is attentive to what he says, and cannot fail of improvement as well as pleasure."

Sometimes I look at my own blog in amazement. The stream of words runs so much more smoothly than it does when I’m speaking – or, more to the point, thinking and hesitating in between trying to speak. It appears that I do have strongly held ideas and can express them boldly. I'm sure I'm wrong about many of the things I write here and that I'm simply ignorant of the fact or argument that would quickly change my mind on some issues you can find on exlibrismagnis. But my friends, like Dr. Johnson’s, will forgive me, as I'm sure they would forgive me if I spat out my thoughts more quickly in conversation, even if less than fully formed. Who knows? They may prefer hasty conclusions to all those . . . pauses.

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