The wit and wisdom of Dr Johnson is still of benefit to us all

16 June 2018

9:00 AM

16 June 2018

9:00 AM

The most irritating of recent publishing trends must be the literary self-help guide, and Henry Hitchings’s contribution to the genre will join a shelf now groaning with accounts of how Proust can change your life, how Adam Smith can change your life, what W.H. Auden can do for you, what Montaigne can tell us about how to live, what Tolstoy can teach us in troubled times, and a whole heap of nonsense about what Jane Austen has to say on the subjects of friendships, dating and getting married. The formula is simple: the workings of a vast and complex mind (the mind of Dr Johnson, said Boswell, resembled ‘the Coliseum at Rome’) are boiled down and served up, in bite-sized chunks, for a public assumed to no longer understand the purpose of literature, or how to read.

That said, Dr Johnson lends himself well to the business of moral instruction because moral instruction was his business. He was, as Samuel Beckett put it, a ‘wit and wisdom machine’, whose ‘death’, wrote Thomas Hobhouse in his elegy on the Great Cham, ‘shall teach the world to live’. Johnson’s teachings were once collected in books of aphorisms and Table Talk, and can now be found on fridge magnets: my own Hotpoint reminds me that ‘The man who is tired of London is tired of life’; ‘A man is in general better pleased when he has a good dinner upon his table, than when his wife talks Greek’; and wine ‘makes a man mistake thoughts for words’. Johnsonian erudition even extends to cucumbers, which ‘should be well sliced, and dressed with pepper and vinegar, and then thrown out’.

What makes Johnson’s righteousness bearable is the fact that nothing he read himself — and he devoured more or less every word ever written — was able to guide him through the problems of his own life. Half-blind and wracked with self-disgust, Johnson was consumed by horrors: of annihilation, of madness, of destitution — what Beckett described as ‘the whole mental monster-ridden swamp’.

Hitchings is aware of the pitfalls in suggesting that ‘Sam’, as he calls him, might prove a contemporary role model. Were Johnson around today, Hitchings suggests, his ‘Instagram feed would be wack….Although his Twitter might deliver a bit more sizzle, he’d be an infrequent tweeter, what with his lethargy and dejection.’ Added to which social embarrassments, he apparently laughed like a rhinoceros, collected orange peel in his coat pocket, suffered from Tourette’s and had appalling table manners. Johnson ate his dinner, as Boswell recorded, in total silence, with his eyes riveted to the plate, the veins of his forehead pulsating and sweat pouring from his brow. Plus he suffered from a form of OCD which required him, when entering or leaving a room full of people, to swing his feet and stretch his arms ‘as if’, an observer noted, ‘trying to form a triangle or some geometrical figure’. And yet, insists Hitchings, Johnson still has ‘a lot to say to us’, even if simply to demonstrate how not to act or think — a fresh interpretation of the role of an instructional leader.

Sir Joshua Reynolds described Johnson as ‘brushing’ away from the minds of others ‘a great deal of rubbish’, and if we similarly brush away Hitchings’s self-help framework and the references to Sam’s imagined responses to Facebook (‘he would have seen it as a space for vanity and self-deception’), and the new meaning of the word ‘network’, we will find here a celebration and elucidation of Dr Johnson by a scholar who is Johnsonian to his bone marrow.

Each of these 38 chapters contains a leisurely, free-wheeling essay conforming to Johnson’s definition of the essay form as ‘a loose sally of the mind’. In sentences which go on, as Johnson said of Oliver Goldsmith’s conversation, without knowing where they are going to get off, Hitchings sallies through Johnson’s thoughts on clubs, charity, love, loss, life’s brevity and literature’s bluestockings.

On one page, for example, Hitchings wanders from our need to talk about the weather (a habit Johnson described as the ‘haste to tell each other what each must already know’), to the way in which certain men now talk about their cars, to Johnson’s definition of ‘rapport’, to what Freud meant by ‘rapport’, to thoughts about Jonathan Swift who, Johnson believed, ‘wasted his life in discontent’, and into a comparison ‘between Sam’s ideas and those of Confucius’.

Hitchings similarly sallies around Sam’s relationships with the poet-murderer Richard Savage and the long-suffering hostess Hester Thrale, his understanding of ‘genius’, and the art of biography. ‘The biographer’s subject,’ Hitchings says, ‘is not just some symptom of the past; the texture of his or her existence must be palpable’, and the texture of Johnson’s wracked existence is felt here on every page.

What would Sam himself have made of this mixed bag? One of his aphorisms comes to mind: ‘We see little, and form an opinion; we see more, and change it’.

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