(& scroll down to read my literary sleuthing posts)
Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Samuel Johnson MCP and atrocious literary critic

"Over the past several months, we have read quite a bit about crusty, brilliant, influential Samuel Johnson, a wonderful figure of our literary history. However, a simple spot reading of Boswell's Life of Johnson will reveal what is blatant and cannot possibly be denied - Johnson himself was really - and I am most unhappy to have to say this Christy - a rather virulent misogynist. His views about women in general - women from all parts of society - are both harsh and quite easily documented because he, well, "mouthed off" so frequently on this topic and Boswell scrupulously wrote it all down. From social grande dames and patronesses to common streetwalkers (whose services he engaged on an almost daily basis and whom he treated with both brutality and scorn), actually quite frightening."

I have not read Johnson in anywhere close to the depth that you have, Elissa, but from what I have read, it is CLEAR to me that you are correct, and so that makes Henry Austen's claim in the Biographical Notice that JA emulated Johnson all the more suspicious. As I will show in my book, JA reserved some of her sharpest covert satires for Johnson, and at the center of her satire is Johnson's blithe, oblivious cocksureness. He is the LAST man in the world that JA would have looked up to, precisely because he was SO influential in English culture during her lifetime, and there were no public voices (at least that I am aware of) who called him out on his misogyny. His influence was therefore particularly destructive of women's lives, because he was widely (and erroneously) considered to be a friend of womankind.

And just as Johnson was all wrong about women, he was even more wrong about Shakespeare! I quote the following incredible B.S. that Johnson wrote about Shakespeare. What comes through even more clearly than his wrongness was how blithely self assured Johnson was in it! I.e. if he did not "get" Shakespeare, then of course it was Shakespeare's fault, not Johnson's! If you think I am exaggerating, read on, you will be dumbfounded at what Johnson says about Shakespeare, and even the casual Janeite would realize that JA's opinion of Shakespeare was precisely the opposite of Johnson's:

"Shakespeare with his excellencies has likewise faults, and faults sufficient to obscure and overwhelm any other merit. I shall shew them in the proportion in which they appear to me, without envious malignity or superstitious veneration. No question can be more innocently discussed than a dead poet’s pretensions to renown; and little regard is due to that bigotry which sets candour higher than truth....His first defect is that to which may be imputed most of the evil in books or in men. He sacrifices virtue to convenience, and is so much more careful to please than to instruct, that he seems to write without any moral purpose.....This fault the barbarity of his age cannot extenuate; for it is always a writer’s duty to make the world better, and justice is a virtue independant on time or place.

The plots are often so loosely formed, that a very slight consideration may improve them, and so carelessly pursued, that he seems not always fully to comprehend his own design. He omits opportunities of instructing or delighting which the train of his story seems to force upon him, and apparently rejects those exhibitions which would be more affecting, for the sake of those which are more easy....It may be observed, that in many of his plays the latter part is evidently neglected. When he found himself near the end of his work, and, in view of his reward, he shortened the labour, to snatch the profit. He therefore remits his efforts where he should most vigorously exert them, and his catastrophe is improbably produced or imperfectly represented. He had no regard to distinction of time or place, but gives to one age or nation, without scruple, the customs, institutions, and opinions of another, at the expence not only of likelihood, but of possibility. .....

In his comick scenes he is seldom very successful, when he engages his characters in reciprocations of smartness and contest of sarcasm; their jests are commonly gross, and their pleasantry licentious; neither his gentlemen nor his ladies have much delicacy, nor are sufficiently distinguished from his clowns by any appearance of refined manners. ...In tragedy his performance seems constantly to be worse, as his labour is more. The effusions of passion which exigence forces out are for the most part striking and energetick; but whenever he solicits his invention, or strains his faculties, the offspring of his throes is tumour, meanness, tediousness, and obscurity. In narration he affects a disproportionate pomp of diction and a wearisome train of circumlocution, and tells the incident imperfectly in many words, which might have been more plainly delivered in few. ...His declamations or set speeches are commonly cold and weak, for his power was the power of nature; when he endeavoured, like other tragick writers, to catch opportunities of amplification, and instead of inquiring what the occasion demanded, to show how much his stores of knowledge could supply, he seldom escapes without the pity or resentment of his reader....Not that always where the language is intricate the thought is subtle, or the image always great where the line is bulky; the equality of words to things is very often neglected, and trivial sentiments and vulgar ideas disappoint the attention, to which they are recommended by sonorous epithets and swelling figures.

A quibble [pun] is to Shakespeare, what luminous vapours are to the traveller; he follows it at all adventures, it is sure to lead him out of his way, and sure to engulf him in the mire. It has some malignant power over his mind, and its fascinations are irresistible. Whatever be the dignity or profundity of his disquisition, whether he be enlarging knowledge or exalting affection, whether he be amusing attention with incidents, or enchaining it in suspense, let but a quibble spring up before him, and he leaves his work unfinished. ...It will be thought strange, that, in enumerating the defects of this writer, I have not yet mentioned his neglect of the unities; his violation of those laws which have been instituted and established by the joint authority of poets and of criticks." END OF JOHNSON QUOTE

As I said, wow....and so we are supposed to believe that JA would devote a laudatory footnote in one of her "darling children" to the arrogant fool who wrote such drivel, including in particular his trashing of puns, about her true inspirational role model, Shakespeare?

Cheers, ARNIE

No comments: