Dr Johnson was a British man of letters, a writer of an important Dictionary of the English Language; an accomplished poet and critic; and a biographer of the Lives of the English Poets. He is perhaps most famous as the subject of James Boswell’s ‘The Life of Samuel Johnson’.
He was a mixture of a man. Brusque and sharp-witted in conversation; his opinions were quite fixed and in some ways limited; but he was also a very sensitive person; surprisingly so; who had a negro manservant to whom he left on his death enough money for his manservant to live independently; who married a woman 20 years his senior, and showed her large devotion; and upon her death was terribly grief-stricken. He was a depressive; and he called himself ‘indolent’; yet he stood by his friends, even in their misfortunes; and he was charitable and kind to strangers whom he met who were in need.
Two stories stand out for me especially about his character; from among hundreds of gems that Boswell records in his biography.
Johnson was a theatre-goer and would go ‘behind the scenes’ before and after performances (he had in his youth walked to London with David Garrick from Lichfield in the British Midlands – Garrick was destined to become a famous and accomplished actor). Johnson went behind the scenes to talk with Garrick in the dressing rooms, which were shared by all of a show’s cast, men and women alike, and there Johnson was in the midst groups of women in the course of changing their clothes and so on.
Johnson is said to have said to Garrick that he would not come behind the scenes any more because the sights of the women changing distracted him and so much perturbed his thoughts. And Johnson kept his word; he could be that iron-willed with himself.
The second story is that Johnson, who could be a heavy sort of chap, was such a dominant personality that he would ‘hold court’ in the London Coffee Houses; just as his namesake and brother poet Ben had done before him at the Mermaid Tavern a century and a half before (‘The Tribe of Ben’ this group was known as).
But this same man who was bluff and bold and sometimes violent when angered, was unable to read the final scenes of Shakespeare’s King Lear because their sadness cut to his core so deeply. These scenes were just too painful for him.
There are plenty of reasons for this pain chewing him up. King Lear is a drama set before the time of Christ; and the only references to gods and religions in the play are to Classical gods; of whom Shakespeare wrote famously in the play:
‘Men are to gods like flies to wanton boys; they use them for their sport’
And this line of verse expounds pretty well the whole tenor of the drama of King Lear. It is an Elizabethan ‘Waiting for Godot’; except without the dramatis personae’s expectations of anyone turning up. The drama of King Lear sets out a nihilistic vision of the world. It is thus a tragedy which provides for an audience no recourse to a final resolution of its emotions; and without any expected purging of feelings through pity and terror, as Aristotle observed tragedy offering us.
Its ending is a disaster and without amelioration or consolation. A depressive like Dr Johnson would be likely to find its ending unendurable – and he did. Johnson was a religious man; one who despite his depressive lethargies willed himself to observe the due observances of Christian life. I have no doubt his faith was genuine and deep; and I would also say that he would have agreed that at times arose moods for him in which ‘the spirit was willing but the flesh was weak’. But as with backstage, he had the willpower of a giant among men and he drove through what he considered his duty notwithstanding whatever was pressing him away from doing so.
The ending of Shakespeare’s drama King Lear then for Johnson I suppose was something which acted upon him to sap this iron will of his; especially during his depressive periods; so that like his solution to the women changing in front of him; he just closed the door of his mind to it; and would not read it anymore. ‘Get thee behind me Satan!’ might be a good rallying call for Johnson in this regard?
Well, I am now going to write a little about my experiences lately which have struck chords in me with Johnson’s. (It was Johnson who replied belligerently to a man who had rebuked him rhetorically with; ‘But surely a cat can criticise a king?’ and he had retorted; ‘A fly can irritate a horse; but a fly is still a fly and a horse is still a horse!’)
And so it is similar perhaps with my modest experiences, when they are set beside those of so generous and so large a character as Johnson?
I am an oldie. I am – as Luke describes Zachariah and Elisabeth, John the Baptist’s parents’ – ‘well-stricken in years’; old enough to have been at The Isle of Wight in 1968 when Bob Dylan played at the festival; and old enough to have powerful Cold War memories of Barry McGuire’s sung protest lyric ‘Eve of Destruction’; old enough to remember the day Kennedy was shot and the tremor of terror that went through the world on that fatal day in Dallas.
Only months previously had been The Bay of Pigs affair at which I remember ordinary people within my ken and hearing were making their goodbyes to one another – and even the poorest and least aware of us in Britain were conscious of the gravity of what seemed about to happen, and to be inevitable.
The times were volatile, fragile, and truly several times we were ‘on the cusp’ peering over the abyss and counting down to oblivion. It was very frightening and very real. It stays with me.
This volatility was reflected in the social turmoils of the times; the unrest of foreign wars and carpet bombing, Agent Orange and purple hearts. Our new colour television bloomed nightly with a whole nine hundred yards of plumes of fire like gas balloons rising as fast as speeded motion flowers opening on camera. The attrition of the newsreels was incessant and nightly. Like a dysfunctional Fantasia movie.
Young people felt great anger about a seeming-unimaginative rigidity in an older generation of adults in-charge who were leading us into what we feared were like end-times. Songs like The Kinks’ ‘Well-Respected Man About Town’ and Manfred Mann’s ‘Semi-detached Suburban Mr Jones’ and a little later even The Beatles’ ‘She’s Leaving Home’; all portrayed the governing generation of managers, politicians, officers, teachers, parents and such, as a staid bland bloc of stiffs and lacking utterly in vision for life.
This is how young persons when I was young saw society and the people who ran that society. I know and remember a deep dread I had of ending up at forty years old in such a pit of drear despond as my elders seem to be in. It smacked to me to be a sort of ‘living death’.
There is truth in the fact that as young persons living at the dawn of consumerist plenty we were not quite so wholly absorbed into the socio-economic milieu as young people are today. This may have been through no virtue of ours; and simply an accident of history; but it did allow us a view and a window on the world and also the temerity and idealism to be disturbed and so to object to that view we were being offered.
However that may be; and whether or not there were more young persons outside the fold of conformity then than now; and whether or not young people then were working upon and within the socio-economic milieu as a radical force for renewal; whereas radical forces these days of any kind appear to me to be being ostracised deliberately and labelled a noxious threat outside the ambit of orthodox consciousness; whatever might be the case, it is the case that in those days a living and identifiable self-contained radical culture for young persons had arisen and it was being driven to some extent by the members of that culture.
Long ago I worked for some weeks teaching in a Secondary school in a poor part of London. I misguidedly had brought in for the children some music tracks to use as history and sociology materials. The response was a deafening raspberry. My attempt to bring to life in those kid’s imaginations what it had been like to be part of a culture which had had its sparse moral victories and some few good outcomes – failed altogether. A weariness of cynicism laced with a lack of understanding of the issues at stake in even the most facile sense was very evident. My music was not au fait, and without credibility. The age I was referring back to was gone and out of fashion, time out of mind.
So this has been some of my history. Earlier this week I loaded on my PC two songs from that history of mine to hear what they meant to me now. The songs were: ‘The Times they are A’ changing’ and ‘Mr Tambourine Man’. One of these songs is used these days on British TV to advertise soapflakes or something pretty naff; and this fact pains me and tries to turn my life into travesty.
The song ‘The Times they are A’ changing’ is famous to film buffs for the stunning power it lends to those powerful-in-themselves newsreels laced with fiction which serve as an overture to ‘Watchmen’. There today, if anywhere, is captured in that space of five or ten minutes a snapshot of an era; the flavour of the oceans; the light of the furthest stars. ‘Watchmen’ is a remarkable movie, made more remarkable for the raw edge of actuality its makers bring alive onscreen in that initial ten minutes when the frames begin to roll.
I hooked up Dylan on my PC; singing I think at Newport or Greenwich or something Folk Festival. It was 1964. The video was black and white; very low key, open air and a modest crowd of enthusiasts. I guess it came close to breaking my heart. As I said to a friend of mine; ‘Like a lost Eden’. Not quite the final scenes of ‘King Lear’ – and further; I have not quite got to grips as to why I was so strongly affected by the song and the video.
Then I put on ‘Mr Tambourine Man’. The cynicism and pessimism of its lyric struck me deeply – and the wishful desire Dylan expresses as the essence of his song to flee and to fly away into a world of make-believe. It’s a beautiful song. Lyrical and very sensitive; meditative and heart-achingly expressive of his pain at the world
Nowadays Dylan is releasing cover-versions from The Great American Songbook, standards like those Sinatra and Nat King Cole sang before The Flood. This is another source of acute pain for me. As the cartoon has it in the satirical magazine my wife takes: ‘Even the dogs have gone to the dogs’.
In the course of my life, and for myself, things have only got better. In the wider world, as Yeats the Irish poet said:
‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold’
I sense a great gulf between the world as it is going on right now and my personal views on what I have come to believe life is about; and on why life is given; and on what imperatively we are demanded to make of it; of ourselves. Yeats again:
‘And I will make my soul’
I read the following passage today; and I leave it here for you to consider:
Lear: O, ho! are you there with me? No eyes in your head, nor no money in your purse? Your eyes are in a heavy case, your purse in a light: yet you see how this world goes.
Gloucester: I see it feelingly.
Lear: What! art mad? A man may see how this world goes with no eyes. Look with thine ears: see how yond justice rails upon yon simple thief. Hark, in thine ear: change places; and, handy-dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief? Thou hast seen a farmer’s dog bark at a beggar?
Gloucester: Ay, sir.
Lear: And the creature run from the cur? There thou mightst behold the great image of authority; a dog’s obey’d in office.
Thou rascal beadle, hold thy bloody hand!
Why dost thou lash that whore? Strip thine own back;
Thou hotly lust’st to use her in that kind
For which thou whipp’st her. The usurer hangs the cozener.
Through tatter’d clothes small vices do appear;
Robes and furr’d gowns hide all. Plate sin with gold,
And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks;
Arm it in rags, a pigmy’s straw doth pierce it.
None does offend, none, I say none; I’ll able ’em:
Take that of me, my friend, who have the power
To seal the accuser’s lips. Get thee glass eyes;
And, like a scurvy politician, seem
To see the things thou dost not
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