Thursday, January 30, 2014

Break from Fiction with Thomas Disch and multiple Johnsons

After reading Thomas Disch’s On Wings of Song I skimmed through some of Disch’s criticism at The Weekly Standard and read the obituary of Disch published there, written by Joseph Bottum.

I enjoyed Disch’s article about Judy Chicago’s “The Dinner Party” and the exhibition of Victorian nudes, both of which I saw when I lived in New York, and the June 2, 2003 article in which Disch deplores much contemporary art is clever and fun if you are not personally invested in contemporary art. (“It is enough nowadays to declare yourself an artist and then to declare some large artifact in the vast world of found objects to be your work of art.”) I also read Disch’s favorable review of Paul Johnson’s Art: A New History, in which Disch provides an anecdote about Isaac Asimov and mentions Johnson’s 1999 book Intellectuals.


Directed thusly, I read a few chapters of Intellectuals, the merciless hit pieces on Rousseau and Marx being the most memorable and entertaining.


Intellectuals is dedicated to Paul Johnson’s grandson, Samuel Johnson, and I took this as a cue from above to read Volumes IV (covering the years 1782-84) and V (including those few letters for which a date is unknown) of The Letters of Samuel Johnson, edited by Bruce Redford.

Johnson was an old and sick man during the period covered by Volume IV, and many of his friends were in similarly poor condition, so these letters are full of descriptions of symptoms, assessments of the kinds of remedies 18th century people resorted to (including drawing of the blood, taking opium, and “frequent changes of air”), and expressions of sympathy and hope for recovery, as well as lamentations when Johnson's intimate friends Robert Levet and Anna Williams die and leave Johnson alone in his house.  But there are also charming expressions of friendship and fun little anecdotes. Hester Thrale has to sell her silver plate and Johnson consoles her; James Boswell inherits his father’s estate and Johnson recommends frugality to him time and again (“Do not accustom yourself to consider debt only as an inconvenience: you will find it a calamity”); Joseph Cradock borrows a manuscript from Lord Harborough and in turn lends it to Johnson, and then Johnson loses it and actually forgets he ever received it.

We see lots of evidence of Johnson’s generosity, of his reputation as an honest broker, and of his great influence. When Mauritius Lowe’s painting “The Deluge” is rejected by the Royal Academy, Johnson, who has never seen the painting, writes to the Academy president (Johnson’s best friend) Joshua Reynolds as well as to James Barry, a professor at the Academy, and convinces them to have the painting included despite its rejection. Johnson finds a job for one of his young cronies on Captain James Burney’s 50-gun ship H. M. S. Bristol by applying to the Captain’s sister, another of Johnson’s friends, novelist Fanny Burney. When Joshua Reynolds is not getting along with his sister Frances, and William Strahan is not getting along with his son George, Frances Reynolds and George Strahan ask Johnson’s help in patching up their relationships, and Johnson scribbles letter after letter trying to do just that.

There are also interesting tidbits that throw light on literary, political, and economic life in these years. When there is a spike in coal prices Johnson asks to borrow coal from friends, and then complains of the quality of the coal he receives; Johnson sends first editions of books to correspondents in India but learns they “fell by the chance of war into the hands of the French,” and so he sends the books again; Johnson laments Britain’s humbling in the American War (“perhaps no nation not absolutely conquered has declined so much in so short a time”) and the resulting chaos in Parliament; somebody, without Johnson’s collaboration, prints a collection of excerpts from Johnson’s work and Johnson takes to the newspapers to correct an errant interpretation of his thinking that has arisen as a result.  London suffers an influenza epidemic,
and a sudden mania for ballooning, and Johnson gets swept upp in both.


I also read a bunch of Martial’s epigrams from the first volume of the 1993 Loeb edition, translated by D. R. Shackleton Bailey, including grotesque verses about beast fighting in the arena and crude poems in which Martial calls some other guy a cock sucker.  Calling a guy a cock sucker seems to have been the acme of wit back in 86 AD, and who is to say things are much different in 2014 AD?

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