samuel johnson, marcel mauss, and an old crone

Circumstances alter
definitions. Of course, not only circumstances impinge on the career of a definition; nor is it always clear where a circumstance ends and another begins. But – for instance –to argue about Samuel Johnson’s political beliefs in the idiom of our own era’s political terms is surely to risk obscuring what Johnson thought,  even if it does satisfy some desire to create a totemic line of thinkers neatly coming down to us. Which, talk about your enormous condescension!
Thus, though Johnson was obviously on the “right” during his time, and was even suspected of being a crypto Stuart supporter, his conservativism is obviously not ours. This comes out in his defense of hierarchy, or the “enormous pyramid of subordination”, as he darkly put it, in Rambler 145, clearly written in a spirit to counter the gathering ideology of utilitarianism that has since made every man his own alienator and reduces any person who thinks to quiet moments of despair. Johnson strikes a note that is surprisingly similar to a theme sounded in Marcel Mauss’s  Essai sur le don about exchange in “archaic” societies, where the gift and the spirit of power define the highest level of existence, while utility – and all questions pertaining to the useful – are put on a second, lower level.
“It is allowed that vocations and employmnets of least dignty are of the most apparent use; that the meanest artisan or manufacturer contributes more to the accommodation of life, than the profound scholar and argumentative theorist; and that the publick would suffer less present inconvenience from the banishment of philosophers than from the extinction of any common trade.” The terms with with Johnson begins clearly turn on an opposition between dignity and use, philosophy and trade, and the social hierarchy that backs this placing of upper and lower.
The Johnson that we know from Boswell is an established figure – but we know that the Johnson who, in his younger days, sometimes rambled at night for want of a place to sleep, was far from established. It takes a while for the reader to see that the sometimes elephantine prose of Johnson, his massiveness, is shot through with an undeniable whiff of the street. This essay, which could have taken off in a sort of rococo defense of the best and the brightest, instead encounters the street in the form of complaint against a society that doesn’t honor those who do the most to make it work – those who, as Adam Smith put it later (even as he was shifting the terms by which this society explained itself), did ‘productive labor.’ A complex phrase that haunted the political economy of the nineteenth century and was submerged in the twentieth, where it now exists as a kind of economic populism, a railing ghost. On the streets of London in the eghteenth century – as, indeed, on the streets of Santa Monica in 2015 – one finds both archaic forms of thinking and utopian criticism of the monsters of rationalisation that keep the majority down.
“Some have been so forcibly struck with this observation, that they have, in the first warmth of their discovery, thought it reasonable to alter the common distribution of dignity, and venturedd to condemn  mankind of universal ingratitude. For justice exacts, that those by whom we are most benefited should be most honored. And what labour can be more useful than that which procures to families and communties those necessaries which supply the wants of nature, or those conveniencies by which ease, security, and elegance are conferred?”
This idea is as alive today, on the street, as it was then. Who has not, when young at least, had conversations in which dream societies were proposed that would pay the garbageman more than the CEO? Indeed, I am not so far from that opinion myself. However, Johnson’s putting of the case already gives us a vision of what makes it unconfortable: the notion of elegance and the conveniences of life – of consumption. For the notion that the producer rates a higher dignity than the consumer – which, at its root, displaces the honor of the creator to its human prototypes – isn’t an a priori or universal truth. It does contain enough prejudicial force, however, that even in the vastly changed circumstances of capitalsm, the manager, the symbol pusher, still grasp for the role of producer, and throw the rest into the status of parasites – of, to use the immortal words of the private equity mogul, Romney himself, taker. Circumstances adjust definitions, but definitions store, like an archve, earlier circumstances.
Last week, I was drinking coffee at a Coffee Bean on Santa Monica Boulevard when I was approached by a beggar. This woman would have delighted Yeats. Her fingers were no longer filthy – they were lacquered with old filth, they had a sort of patina. She asked for a dollar, offered me a cig, sat down and began to sigh that she was bored. I’m sixty two, she said, and if I ever get rich, I’ll never be bored again. If you are poor, what do you got? Last night she didn’t have television,nor anybody to talk to, and she was bored. Which, she said, was a not unusual condition. I asked her whether she really thought that the rich were not ever bored, and she said that of course they weren’t. They could go out to movies every night! They could put a tv in every room, which she would do, if she was rich.
Now, this image of the rich is different, and yet not different, from the image of the rich as “producers”. After all, to go too far down the road that the rich produce is to embed the rich in a social function, having social benefits. It is hard to sidestep this, even if one presses the key of freedom over and over again – the current way of blocking the path to a discussion of ultimate social ends.
Johnson, more than me, would have recognized in the old woman’s talk something of what he thought, pragmatically, about dignity and ease. He has a wonderful way of moving from granting the workers – in his time, the agricultural worker – their place to putting that place in terms of the universe of higher values, the values of the sage and hero: [the workers] who, after all the consessions which truth may extort in favour of their occupation, must be content to fill up the lowest class of the commonwealth, to form the base of the pyramid of subordination, and lie buried in obscurity themselves, while they support all that is splendid, conspicuous, or exalted.”  
This is burial indeed. There is something gothic about thes phrases, as if Johnson were speaking of a zombie proletariat, an undead, a host of shadows busy supporting all that is splendid by doing all that is obscure.  Another whiff of the street: clearly, this distribution of places is profane. What is spendid, conspicuous or exalted is still of this world.
So far the street reaches. But Johnson’s Toryism has a reply prepared, contrasting intellectual labour to manual labour, to the disadvantage, both socially, in terms of remuneration, and morally, in terms of dignity, of the latter.
There is a twist, though. If dignity has any meaning, it can’t decay into mere contempt for the manual labor that supports us – us, the intellectual laborers:
Yet the refusal of statues and panegyricks to those who only employ their hands and feet in the service of mankind may be easily justified, I am far from intending to incite the petulance of pride, to justify the superciliousness of grandeur, or to intercept any part o that tenderness and benevolence which by the privilege of their common nature one man may claim from another.”
Ah, but now the café where I am writing this is getting crowded, and I want to go on for a few pages more. Maybe I will for tomorrow.