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Showing posts from March 29, 2015

Johnson again, or getting near what I set out to say, but not saying it

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 Mr

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