For he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.
There’s a famous story about the first time William Hogarth met Samuel Johnson. It happened when Hogarth was visiting Samuel Richardson:
“While he [Hogarth] was talking, he perceived a person standing at a window in the room, shaking his head and rolling himself about in a strange ridiculous manner. He concluded that he was an idiot whom his relations had put under the care of Mr Richardson, as a very good man. To his great surprise, however, this figure stalked forwards to where he and Mr Richardson were sitting, and … displayed such a power of eloquence, that Hogarth looked at him with astonishment, and actually imagined that this idiot had been at the moment inspired."
Hogarth’s testimony to the strangeness of Johnson’s presence, even to the extreme of thinking, at first impression, that he was a congenital idiot, is not idiosyncratic. Famously, Johnson ate behind a screen at his friend Mrs. Thrale’s house, due to the fact that he was a notoriously sloppy eater. This was not due to some viciousness of his upbringing, but to some deep malfunction of his physiology. Johnson seems to have been afflicted with something ‘daemonic”, which has been variously diagnosed as Tourette’s syndrome, or epilepsy, or whatever it is that scrofula was – since scrofula was the diagnosis of his age. He was a man of tics, a man who could never totally trust his own gestures. For this reason I like to thinki of him in terms of the daemon: and this is all the more appropriate in that he could only have lived in the eighteenth century, with its interpenetration of Enlightenment sensualism and Mesmeric mystery. It was an age has features that only come out when looked at through the daemon. It was in a rented room in a house in Johnson’s London that Swedenburg, a man Johnson never met, I think, also met his daemon, or his angels, who threw him bodily around the place – and a working class artist, William Blake, met his there too. Curious how Johnson certainly seems on the other end of the spectrum from Blake, and yet it is easy to imagine Johnson having the kind of tolerance for Blake that he had for Christopher Smart.
Johnson’s prose is famously mannered – like Gibbon, Johnson never met a contrast that he didn’t want to set in prose marble. However, his conversation, as recoreded by Boswell and others, was a more darting affair. And yet, his acquaintances recognized his voice in the Rambler. Those wonderfully balanced sets, which seem so attached to pen and paper rather than tongue and gesture, were , apparently, rooted in the latter – it is as though the “Sir” which Boswell’s Johnson so copiously initials his responses and speeches, that term of address in which respect and attack are mingled , seems to dance, unsounded, over those paragraphs that Hazlitt, later, would find all too balanced, and all too indiscriminating as between occasions for high style and occasions for low notice:
“We can no more distinguish the most familiar objects in his descriptions of them, than we can a well known face under a huge painted mask. The structure of sentences, which was his own invention, and which has been generally imitated since his time, is a species of rhyming in prose, where one clause answers to another in measure and quantity, like the tagging of syllables at the end of a verse. The close of a period follows as mechanically as the oscillation of a pendulum, the sense is balanced with the sound; eacch sentence, revolving round its centre of gravity, is contained with itself like a couplet, and each paragraph forms itself into a stanza.”
Yet Hazlitt is, like everybody else, enchanted by Boswell’s Johnson, and makes a distinction between the writer and the speaker. The latter spoke as though he had cast off fear, while the former wrote as if any errant sound would plunge him into the abyss.
Yet we have the testimony of his friends that The Rambler did sound like Johnson. His voice was in it. Perhaps Hazlitt was showing his own dread of the grotesque when he compared the writing to a huge painted mask – exaggeration, the wild growth of some familiar thing, is one of the tropes of the gothic, and of horror. And though Hazlitt is trying to show that the famously juggled style is, in the end, as boring as a metronome, his comparisons betray perhaps another more sweeping and painful anxiety, in which the problem is not that the prose is forgetable, but that it sets up an irritating vibration in the head, which is catching – one’s own voice can be infected by this sound.
Authority is the sign of the daemonic in traditional society. In Matthew, Jesus is said to speak with exousia – authority – while Paul uses the word in a curious way when he writes that the headcovering of women in the temple is there exousia – their authority to preach. Authority is evidently power, but not any kind of power. To know that of which one speaks is a kind of power, the kind granted to any classroom lecturer whose prepared his or her notes. That is the power of the scribe. Cultic authority is something of which one can be sensible – it can prickle the hair on the back of your neck – without one knowing entirely what is in back of it. Socrates’ daemon was wholly negative – it closed down avenues of thought and discourse.This is not necessarily because they were unethical or illogical. In Plutarch’s dialogue about the daemon, the participants arrive at no clear notion of what it was – whether it was a sense for omens or whether it was a voice. Surely, however, Socrates felt it was an authority.
This, to my mind, binds together the talk in Boswell’s Johnson with the great essays. Contra Hazlitt, the Tatler and Spectator of Addison and Steele, which he admired so much, have become merely dim references to fill out a tale about the coming of public opinion in early modern Europe – a terrible fate, that, to be a dog’s dinner for Habermas. But Johnson’s essays grow more enigmatic. He does have a bulldog’s way of shakng a bone – and the bones he preferred were the standard tropes of the moraliste – self love, hypocrisy, vanity, folly, etc. But he had a strong sense that the drama that the moraliste made out of sentiments and vices was a puppet show, and that the real broke down the puppets sooner or later, as one sounded the depths about what one knew to be true of oneself and others, which means sounding the depths of what one doesn’t know about oneself and others. Where does this irrepresible ignorance, this internal illusion, come from? It is Johnson’s constant theme; and a theme, if obsessed over with enough genius, becomes a form of authority, though it resolves itself in the indeterminacy of an enigma. God is a problem whose resolution is another problem, Novalis once wrote: and such problems all are lit with something divine, or daemonic.
This is the kind of thing that Johnson knows best. It is why he is the master of procrastination, that moment when knowledge confronts its essential helplessness before the fact that it transforms nothing, that it dissolves into a ghost if it isn’t the pawn of desire. He turns these moments into existential acts – acts of the highest futility.
“To act is far easier than to suffer; yet we everyday see the progress of life retarded by the vis inertia, the mere repugnance to motion, and find multitudes repining at the want of that which nothing but idleness hinders them from enjoying. The case of Tantalus, in the region of poetick punishment, was fomewhat to be pitied, because the fruits that hung about him retired from his hand ; but what tenderness can be claimed by those who, though perhaps they suffer the pains of Tantalus, will never lift their hands for their own relief ?”