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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Friday, October 22, 2010

Never had the wit of Dr. Johnson been directed in a manner so little agreeable to Jane Austen

Earlier today, Christy Somer quoted the following epigrams spoken or written by Samuel Johnson in Austen L and Janeites:

"Men know that women are an over-match for them, and therefore they choose the weakest or most ignorant. If they did not think so, they never could be afraid of women knowing as much as themselves."

From the Boswell/Johnson: Tour of the Hebrides] "Nature has given women so much power that the law has very wisely given them little."

From Johnson: Letter to Dr. Taylor Footnoted in the Life of Johnson, Including Boswell's journal of a Tour to the Hebrides (1773) and Johnson's Diary of a Journey into North Wales. By James Boswell and Samuel Johnson "...nature has given them so much that they never find it necessary to use more than half." [Ch.14 NA]

Then Christy commented: "I cannot help thinking that Jane Austen was having some charming fun and repartee...with her Dr. J...when writing Northanger Abbey!"

To which I at first responded as follows:

Christy, as I will be demonstrating in Portland, it was only charming fun and repartee on the extreme surface--that's the (false) satire of the overt story of Northanger Abbey. But barely concealed beneath that surface, poking out in this and a hundred other ways, is the ANTI-parody, in which JA registers her genuine righteous outrage-- PARTICULARLY at the joke about the law, because the law of England was so cruelly unfair to women in SO many ways.

"NOT FUNNY, you foolish old man!" is what I am certain she was thinking about Johnson's "bon mots", but did not dare write overtly, for fear of being labeled an "unsex'd female", with attendant recriminations and consequences.

I was aware of Johnson's first quote and its connection to the famous ironic epigram in Northanger Abbey: "Where people wish to attach, they should always be ignorant. To come with a well–informed mind is to come with an inability of administering to the vanity of others, which a sensible person would always wish to avoid. A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can. " However, I did not know of the last two, thanks for bringing them forward.

Alas, you and I couldn't have a more different view of JA in regard to these matters than we do, Christy. What you brought forward today was exactly the sort of casual presumption of male privilege that triggered outrage in the heart of JA the feminist.

Cheers, ARNIE

Then, a few hours later, I came back to add the following further thoughts:


I've been thinking some more about the "wit" of Samuel Johnson which you think JA engaged with in a fond, accepting way, and I reread the wonderful article from decades ago by the prescient Allison Sulloway, which led me to the following additional bit of macho bile masquerading as wit spoken by Dr. Johnson, as reported by Boswell:

"I told him I had been that morning at a meeting of the people called Quakers, where I had heard a woman preach. Johnson: "Sir, a woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all." [Boswell: Life]

If anyone is going to try to tell me that JA enjoyed, or even willingly tolerated, such examples of "wit", I say "Nonsense!"

I am reminded of that great scene from What Women Want, a film JA would have LOVED, when Mel Gibson's ad man, having newly acquired the power to hear women's thoughts, tells what he thinks is a particularly clever joke to a roomful of women, a joke which just happens to have the same sort of subconscious misogynistic aggression as we find in Johnson's "joke", above. And Gibson's character is shocked and unnerved to hear the actual thoughts of the women smiling icily at him around the table, "spoken" from the safe privacy of their minds, where they were under no compunction to "make nice": suffice to say that "What a pig!" is the MILDEST of the reactions.

And I think that JA would have particularly found galling the above swipe at women, because Johnson inadvertently revealed what had triggered his aggression-it was a QUAKER female preacher, and Johnson knew very well that the Quakers were one of the few groups in all of England where full equality of the sexes was an explicit and constant goal to be striven for. Like a bull, Johnson saw red, because he obviously found genuine female equality a terrifying prospect.

Which is why he WASN"T kidding when he made the three comments you quoted, Christy. The common theme of ALL of them is that Johnson, speaking for many of his fellow men, FEARED a world with a level playing field between men and women, because he feared that he and the other men would lose more than they won. Why? Because he was not a sociopath, he had some sort of conscience he was suppressing about the way women were treated in his world, and he was also an intelligent man, intelligent enough to realize that women, as a group, WERE superior to men, as a group, in terms of emotional intelligence. And therefore he did fear a world where his own inadequacies would make him and men like him less powerful, partly because he knew what HE would do if he had been oppressed all his life and suddenly found himself with power over his former oppressors. He knew it would not be pretty. .

We see exactly the same dynamic afoot in the United States right now, with all the unacknowledged thinly veiled white racism being cleverly manipulated by right wing politicians.

But back to JA's time: none of this makes any of his "jokes" less despicable, because there is also an element of rubbing it in, where it's not enough that he gets to have the deck stacked in his favor, he has to make sure that women are forced to find humor in their own subjugation.

To which I think Lizzy Bennet is the best source for an appropriate comment on the misogynistic, gymnophobic "wit" of the likes of Dr (of Misogyny) Johnson:, after her father, a mini-Samuel Johnson, quipped:

"Mr. Darcy, who never looks at any woman but to see a blemish, and who probably never looked at you in his life! It is admirable!"

"Never had his wit been directed in a manner so little agreeable to her."

Amen, Lizzy Bennet,

Cheers, ARNIE

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