Demons and Dictionaries

A new book dissects Dr. Johnson’s pathologies and despair.

By Christopher Hitchens

How often our usage manages to accomplish, for a name or an expression, the precise negation of its originally intended meaning. To satirize the sycophants among his courtiers, King Canute sarcastically commanded the waves to keep their distance and allowed his own majesty to be wetted by the tides: now we give the name Canute to anyone in authority who foolishly attempts to ward off the inevitable. For the young scion of the Veronese house of Montague, only one girl in the whole world could possibly possess meaning, or be worth possessing: accordingly, we use the word Romeo to designate a tireless philanderer. In 18th-century England, John Wilkes was the leader of a radical political faction known as the Patriots. In Dr. Samuel Johnson’s Tory view, affiliation with that subversive party was “the last refuge of a scoundrel”: this now is construed as an attack on all those—most often Tories themselves—who take shelter in a too-effusive love of country.

The life and sayings of Johnson were so replete with ironies that perhaps it is no surprise to find literalness exacting its effect over the course of time. Peter Martin’s outstanding new biography gives the best account I have yet read of another of its subject’s celebrated observations—“Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” In 1777, a popular and fashionable clergyman named William Dodd was sentenced to death for forgery. Having read Johnson’s Rambler essays on the vagaries of the criminal-justice system, he bethought himself of the good doctor as a man who might be persuaded to intercede for him. Johnson took up the case for clemency and wrote not only a petition to the monarch, as if penned by Dodd, but also a sermon, “The Convict’s Address to His Unhappy Brethren,” which the hapless reverend delivered to his fellow inmates of Newgate Prison. So affecting was this address that it helped complete the swing of public opinion in favor of a pardon for Dodd. But authority was unflinching, and the wretched cleric was duly and publicly executed. There were those who doubted that he had possessed “the force of mind” required to have written such a fine sermon himself, and those who even suspected that Johnson might have been the “ghost” writer in the case. It was to quell such speculation that Johnson made the remark, which we can therefore understand not as a cynical and clever one but as a very elegant and modest disclaimer. Having been disappointed by the failure of Walter Jackson Bate to tell this important tale aright in his immense 1978 biographical study, I was full of admiration for Peter Martin for managing to summarize it so deftly.

Not that Johnson was by any means incapable of cynicism. He made quite a little income by writing anonymous sermons for a two-guinea fee, and he assured a friend’s newly ordained son:

“The composition of sermons is not very difficult. Invent first and then embellish … Set down diligently your thoughts as they rise in the first words that occur … I have begun a sermon after dinner and sent it off by the post that night.”

He was quite as able to be terse and memorable when in conversation and, like Oscar Wilde (who was, like him, disconcertingly vast when seen at close quarters), seems seldom to have been off duty when it came to the epigrammatic and aphoristic. The urge felt by so many of Johnson’s contemporaries—not James Boswell alone—to keep a record of his doings and utterances has placed him among the first figures in history whom we feel we “know” as a person. Indeed, so well are even his tics and mannerisms and symptoms conveyed that Martin can confidently say that Johnson more probably suffered from emphysema than asthma, and Oliver Sacks was able some years ago to make a fairly definite retrospective diagnosis of Tourette’s syndrome.

And yet for all this, we know barely enough to know what we don’t know. In the last days of his life, in the mean little court off Fleet Street where he made his dwelling, Johnson staged a mockery of the disclosure industry that is associated with that address, and heaped up a huge pyre of his papers, diaries, manuscripts, and letters. With his loyal black servant, Frank Barber, serving as counter-amanuensis, he spent a week at the task of self-immolation. Had it not been for Boswell’s retention of some of their mutual correspondence, and Johnson’s own (and presumably significant) inability to burn the letters of Mrs. Hester Thrale, we might have lost the whole trove.

But if it comes to that, we might very nearly never have heard of Samuel Johnson of Lichfield in the first place. Having almost expired in childbirth (and having thus been hastily baptized to save his immortal soul), the little boy fell victim to scrofula and was stricken partially blind and deaf. In those days the remedy for scrofula—also known as “the King’s Evil”—was to be magically “touched” by the hereditary monarch. Young Samuel was taken to be touched by Queen Anne, and if the charm did not “take” in his case, well, then, it could be because there had been a disturbance in the legitimacy of the line after the Jacobite convulsions. Johnson thus operates in that extended period of English (and American) history when the divine right of kings is not yet quite exhausted or discredited but when the concept of “the rights of man” has yet to be fully born. Considering how nearly he was extinguished before he could play any part in this great argument, it is perhaps surprising how little he esteemed Thomas Gray, author of the greatest elegy for the unsung.

Martin pursues the argument, about the relationship of health to personality, beyond the physical and well into the psychological. In his view, Johnson felt permanently hag-ridden by guilt, by fear of divine punishment, by self-loathing at his own laziness and greed and inadequacy, and also (this being my own interpretation of the case as presented) by his very failure to feel that guilt and fear strongly enough. His conscious mind, in other words, was at war with his superstitious instincts. His main mental weapon in this combat was his own industry. Sometimes even this industry took its contradictory forms—the only time Johnson ever got up early to read a book, it was Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy—but we owe his triumphs of spoof-parliamentary reportage, his Rasselas, and above all his immortal dictionary to the struggle against anomie, and against the hell of despair to which anomie can be the antechamber.

This in turn means that we are very much indebted to Mrs. Thrale, who in 1766 rescued him from that pit, nursed him back from a near-complete breakdown, and for the next 16 years gave him a refuge in south London from the quotidian melancholies of his working life. The other members of his ever-famous “Club”—Sir Joshua Reynolds, Edmund Burke, Oliver Goldsmith, Edward Gibbon, and David Garrick—also had an alternative place of resort from their customary Soho haunt. Johnson’s dependence on Mrs. Thrale was in some ways so utter and complete that it has given rise to speculations about literal masochism and its sadistic counterpart. In an essay published 60 years ago, Katharine Balderston claimed to have identified a recurrent motif of manacling and beating, begged for by Johnson and duly administered by his mother substitute. Walter Jackson Bate later argued—successfully, I think—that the same letters between them could have contained their private code for the understanding and treatment of incipient madness. More recently, Jeffrey Meyers has revived the Balderston speculation (because, after all, Johnson did give Mrs. Thrale a padlock, which she preserved), while Peter Martin follows Bate in identifying Johnson’s obsessions about enchainment with the fear of that epoch’s cruel treatment of the insane. For myself, I think that the evidence most often adduced in favor of the hypothesis is the most persuasive testimony for the other side of the case. In her Thraliana, Mrs. Thrale recounts:

Says Johnson a Woman has such power between the Ages of twenty five and forty five, that She may tye a Man to a post and whip him if She will.

It’s not at all hard to imagine Johnson saying this, but when Mrs. Thrale adds her own footnote to tell us, “This he knew of him self was literally and strictly true I am sure,” why, then, sir and ma’am, I think we may take it as obvious that whoever was plying the lash, if indeed a lash was ever “literally” applied, it was certainly not the respectable lady who wrote those disarmingly ingenuous words.

It was, though, some harsh breed of the “black dog” that helped condition the two constants in Johnson’s life and writing: his Toryism and his religion. Martin makes some pleas in mitigation as regards the Toryism, reminding us of Johnson’s sympathy for the poor and the failed and the deformed, but he cannot keep the jury out for very long. Johnson’s pitiless and violent hatred of the American Revolution, and his contemptuous cruelty toward those who apostatized from the established church (even if it was to join another Christian sect) was strong and consistent. The word established may well be the key one here, religion for Johnson being more a matter of security and stability (public as well as private) than a matter of faith, and the episcopal system a further insurance against the fearful “sedition,” which he regarded as the twin of John Wilkes’s “impiety.”

Just as it was a primitive fear of hell that caused his parents to baptize him at birth lest his infant soul be consigned to the fire, so it was increasingly a holy terror that came to dominate his last years. As Macaulay was later to write, about the great man’s ghastly tendency to superstition: “He began to be credulous precisely at the point where the most credulous people begin to be sceptical.” Again, I see no reason to attribute this fixation upon eternal torture to any masochistic tendency. Johnson felt, as many fine writers have done, that he had wasted most of his time and squandered the greater part of his gift. (Exorbitant praise from others, such as Boswell in this instance, may often have the effect only of reinforcing such a morbid conviction of failure.) Yet it is owing to Boswell’s generosity and curiosity that we have, and from the very same witness, an account of the deathbeds of both David Hume and Samuel Johnson. Hume—who lay dying in the days of 1776 that launched the American Revolution so much hated by Johnson—famously told Boswell that he was no more afraid of his own extinction after death than he was of the nonexistence that had preceded his birth. Johnson, when informed of this calm attitude, declined to credit it—I am going here by Hesketh Pearson’s account—and would not listen even when Boswell reminded him that many Greek and Roman heroes had faced death stoically without the benefits of Christianity. At a subsequent meeting with Adam Smith, who vouched for the truth of Boswell’s story, Johnson loudly called Smith a liar, to which Smith coldly responded that Johnson was “a son of a bitch.” This collision with the author of The Theory of Moral Sentiments seems to prepare one for Macaulay’s later observation that Johnson “could discern clearly enough the folly and meanness of all bigotry but his own.”

It occurs to me that both Hume and Smith were Scots (or “Scotchmen,” as Johnson preferred to say) and that dislike for the North British was perhaps the one thing that Johnson had in common with his unscrupulous enemy Wilkes. Should you choose to look up any of Johnson’s celebrated jokes at the expense of Scotland, whether in his dictionary or his reported speech, you will, I believe, notice that they fall short of the Wildean in being too long-winded and contrived, and too reliant for their leaden effect on mere prejudice. Teasing is very often a sign of inner misery: Johnson’s grandeur is diminished the more we come to know of the well-earned honor and eminence of some of those with whom he did battle, as well as the sheer paltriness of some of the imaginary demons with which he merely fancied himself doing so.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2009/03/demons-and-dictionaries/307272/