What in the world do movies and Elton John have to do with James Boswell and Samuel Johnson going out for steak in eighteenth-century London? Well, when you read a book about people who converse on everything imaginable, you’re bound to come across commentary on situations relevant to your current circumstances. The coincidences are bound to happen even if they’re unpredictable in their detail. I might never have foreseen when I picked the book up this year that Dr. Johnson would tell me about living through a pandemic in the twenty-first century, but he did.
After that long tale, here finally is the diminutive dog. Or rather pair of miniature dogs. First is a note from 1772.
When one of his friends [says Boswell of his illustrious mentor] endeavoured to maintain that a country gentleman might contrive to pass his life very agreeably, “Sir (said he [i.e. Dr. Johnson],) you cannot give me an instance of any man who is permitted to lay out his own time, contriving not to have tedious hours.” This observation, however, is equally applicable to gentlemen who live in cities, and are of no profession.Now I am a man permitted to lay out my own time. Between retirement and quarantine and a wife with many of her own interests, I have almost complete charge of my daily schedule. And I have many interests and hobbies and projects to occupy the spaces on that schedule. And yet . . . . And yet I cannot arrange away the tedious hours. I fiddle with things to put off the activity I’m most excited about. I read five pages and then get up to get a drink before I read another half dozen. I’ve had trouble finding the energy to write this post (which goes a long way to explaining the circuitous exordium). Oh, yes. Dr. Johnson knew the days of coronavirus.
And now the second little wagged dog, from 1774. The Scotsman Boswell writes: “I mentioned [to Dr. Johnson] a peculiar satisfaction which I experienced in celebrating the festival of Easter in St. Paul's cathedral; that to my fancy it appeared like going up to Jerusalem at the feast of the Passover.” Dr. Johnson responds in a letter:
You must remember, that your image of worshipping once a year in a certain place, in imitation of the Jews, is but a comparison; and simile non est idem; if the annual resort to Jerusalem was a duty to the Jews, it was a duty because it was commanded; and you have no such command, therefore no such duty. It may be dangerous to receive too readily, and indulge too fondly, opinions, from which, perhaps, no pious mind is wholly disengaged, of local sanctity and local devotion. . . . I am now writing, and you, when you read this, are reading under the Eye of Omnipresence.Do I know that God readily accepts the worship I offer him from my home? Yes. Do I know that the CDC, the rector of my church, and my own sense of safe behavior tell me to worship at home? Again, yes. And yet I would have liked to celebrate Easter at my church with my friends and would have felt that worship to be more genuine. We are beings of soul and body offering spiritual worship in phsyical places and with material means. Like Spider-man with one web on a standing building and another web on a runaway train, we strain to stay connected to both worlds and can’t help but make mistakes and then make more mistakes in wondering about the first mistakes. (Don’t ask me whether the runaway train represents spirit or body!)
OK, here’s my much better theory of a piece of recent art being inspired by The Wizard of Oz. In First Man, as Armstrong and Aldrin open the door of the LEM to reveal the surface of the new world they’ve just landed on, the grainy handheld cinematography gives way to steady, crystalline high-def images. You can’t tell me the filmmakers weren’t thinking of the changing film technique as Dorothy opens the door of Auntie Em’s cabin. If you’re having trouble scheduling away the tedious hours, may I recommend watching both movies?