“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Friday, April 03, 2015

Johnson again, or getting near what I set out to say, but not saying it

For he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.

There’s a famous story about the first time William Hogarth met Samuel Johnson. It happened when Hogarth was visiting Samuel Richardson:

“While he [Hogarth]  was talking, he perceived a person standing at a window in the room, shaking his head and rolling himself about in a strange ridiculous manner. He concluded that he was an idiot whom his relations had put under the care of Mr Richardson, as a very good man. To his great surprise, however, this figure stalked forwards to where he and Mr Richardson were sitting, and … displayed such a power of eloquence, that Hogarth looked at him with astonishment, and actually imagined that this idiot had been at the moment inspired."
Hogarth’s testimony to the strangeness of Johnson’s presence, even to the extreme of thinking, at first impression, that he was a congenital idiot, is not idiosyncratic.  Famously, Johnson ate behind a screen at his friend Mrs. Thrale’s house, due to the fact that he was a notoriously sloppy eater. This was not due to some viciousness of his upbringing, but to some deep malfunction of his physiology. Johnson seems to have been afflicted with something ‘daemonic”, which has been variously diagnosed as Tourette’s syndrome, or epilepsy, or whatever it is that scrofula was – since scrofula was the diagnosis of his age. He was a man of tics, a man who could never totally trust his own gestures. For this reason  I like to thinki of him in terms of the daemon: and this is all the more appropriate in that he could only have lived in the eighteenth century, with its interpenetration of Enlightenment sensualism and Mesmeric mystery. It was an age has  features that only come out when looked at through the daemon. It was in a rented room in a house in Johnson’s London that Swedenburg, a man Johnson never met, I think, also met his daemon, or his angels, who threw him bodily around the place – and a working class artist, William Blake, met his there too. Curious how Johnson certainly seems on the other end of the spectrum from Blake, and yet it is easy to imagine Johnson having the kind of tolerance for Blake that he had for Christopher Smart.
Johnson’s prose is famously mannered – like Gibbon, Johnson never met a contrast that he didn’t want to set in prose marble. However, his conversation, as recoreded by Boswell and others, was a more darting affair. And yet, his acquaintances recognized his voice in the Rambler. Those wonderfully balanced sets, which seem so attached to pen and paper rather than tongue and gesture, were , apparently, rooted in the latter – it is as though the “Sir” which Boswell’s Johnson so copiously initials his responses and speeches, that term of address  in which respect and attack are mingled , seems to dance, unsounded, over those paragraphs that Hazlitt, later, would find all too balanced, and all too indiscriminating as between occasions for high style and occasions for low notice:
“We can no more distinguish the most familiar objects in his descriptions of them, than we can a well known face under a huge  painted mask. The structure of sentences, which was his own invention, and which has been generally imitated since his time, is a species of rhyming in prose, where one clause answers to another in measure and quantity, like the tagging of syllables at the end of a verse. The close of a period follows as mechanically as the oscillation of a pendulum, the sense  is balanced with the sound; eacch sentence, revolving round its centre of gravity, is contained with itself like a couplet, and each paragraph forms itself into a stanza.”
Yet Hazlitt is, like everybody else, enchanted by Boswell’s Johnson, and makes a distinction between the writer and the speaker. The latter spoke as though he had cast off fear, while the former wrote as if any errant sound would plunge him into the abyss.
Yet we have the testimony of his friends that The Rambler did sound like Johnson. His voice was in it. Perhaps Hazlitt was showing his own dread of the grotesque when he compared the writing to a huge painted mask – exaggeration, the wild growth of some  familiar thing, is one of the tropes of the gothic, and of horror. And though Hazlitt is trying to show that the famously juggled style is, in the end, as boring as a metronome, his comparisons betray perhaps another more sweeping and painful anxiety, in which the problem is not that the prose is forgetable, but that it sets up an irritating vibration in the head, which is catching – one’s own voice can be infected by this sound.
Authority is the sign of the daemonic in traditional society. In Matthew, Jesus is said to speak with exousia – authority – while Paul uses the word in a curious way when he writes that the headcovering of women in the temple is there exousia – their authority to preach. Authority is evidently power, but not any kind of power. To know that of which one speaks is a kind of power, the kind granted to any classroom lecturer whose prepared his or her notes. That is the power of the scribe. Cultic authority is something of which one can be sensible – it can prickle the hair on the back of your neck – without one knowing entirely what is in back of it. Socrates’ daemon was wholly negative – it closed down avenues of thought and discourse.This is not necessarily because they were unethical or illogical.  In Plutarch’s dialogue about the daemon, the participants arrive at no clear notion of what it was – whether it was a sense for omens or whether it was a voice. Surely, however, Socrates felt it was an authority.
This, to my mind, binds together the talk in Boswell’s Johnson with the great essays.  Contra Hazlitt, the Tatler and Spectator of Addison and Steele, which he admired so much, have become merely dim references to fill out a tale about the coming of public opinion in early modern Europe – a terrible fate, that, to be a dog’s dinner for Habermas.  But Johnson’s essays grow more enigmatic. He does have a bulldog’s way of shakng a bone – and the bones he preferred were the standard tropes of the moraliste – self love, hypocrisy, vanity, folly, etc. But he had a strong sense that the drama that the moraliste made out of sentiments and vices was a puppet show, and that the real broke down the puppets sooner or later, as one sounded the depths about what one knew to be true of oneself and others, which means sounding the depths of what one doesn’t know about oneself and others. Where does this irrepresible ignorance, this internal illusion, come from?  It is Johnson’s constant theme; and a theme, if obsessed over with enough genius, becomes a form of authority, though it resolves itself in the indeterminacy of an enigma. God is a problem whose resolution is another problem, Novalis once wrote: and such problems all are lit with something divine, or daemonic.
This is the kind of thing that Johnson knows best. It is why he is the master of procrastination, that moment when knowledge confronts its essential helplessness before the fact that it transforms nothing, that it dissolves into a ghost if it isn’t the pawn of desire. He turns these moments into existential acts – acts of the highest futility.
“To act is far easier than to suffer; yet we everyday see the progress of life retarded by the vis inertia, the mere repugnance to motion, and find multitudes repining at the want of that which nothing but idleness hinders them from enjoying. The case of Tantalus, in the region of poetick punishment, was fomewhat to be pitied, because the fruits that hung about him retired from his hand ; but what tenderness can be claimed by those who, though perhaps they suffer the pains of Tantalus, will never lift their hands for their own relief ?”


Monday, March 30, 2015

samuel johnson, marcel mauss, and an old crone

Circumstances alter
definitions. Of course, not only circumstances impinge on the career of a definition; nor is it always clear where a circumstance ends and another begins. But – for instance –to argue about Samuel Johnson’s political beliefs in the idiom of our own era’s political terms is surely to risk obscuring what Johnson thought,  even if it does satisfy some desire to create a totemic line of thinkers neatly coming down to us. Which, talk about your enormous condescension!
Thus, though Johnson was obviously on the “right” during his time, and was even suspected of being a crypto Stuart supporter, his conservativism is obviously not ours. This comes out in his defense of hierarchy, or the “enormous pyramid of subordination”, as he darkly put it, in Rambler 145, clearly written in a spirit to counter the gathering ideology of utilitarianism that has since made every man his own alienator and reduces any person who thinks to quiet moments of despair. Johnson strikes a note that is surprisingly similar to a theme sounded in Marcel Mauss’s  Essai sur le don about exchange in “archaic” societies, where the gift and the spirit of power define the highest level of existence, while utility – and all questions pertaining to the useful – are put on a second, lower level.
“It is allowed that vocations and employmnets of least dignty are of the most apparent use; that the meanest artisan or manufacturer contributes more to the accommodation of life, than the profound scholar and argumentative theorist; and that the publick would suffer less present inconvenience from the banishment of philosophers than from the extinction of any common trade.” The terms with with Johnson begins clearly turn on an opposition between dignity and use, philosophy and trade, and the social hierarchy that backs this placing of upper and lower.
The Johnson that we know from Boswell is an established figure – but we know that the Johnson who, in his younger days, sometimes rambled at night for want of a place to sleep, was far from established. It takes a while for the reader to see that the sometimes elephantine prose of Johnson, his massiveness, is shot through with an undeniable whiff of the street. This essay, which could have taken off in a sort of rococo defense of the best and the brightest, instead encounters the street in the form of complaint against a society that doesn’t honor those who do the most to make it work – those who, as Adam Smith put it later (even as he was shifting the terms by which this society explained itself), did ‘productive labor.’ A complex phrase that haunted the political economy of the nineteenth century and was submerged in the twentieth, where it now exists as a kind of economic populism, a railing ghost. On the streets of London in the eghteenth century – as, indeed, on the streets of Santa Monica in 2015 – one finds both archaic forms of thinking and utopian criticism of the monsters of rationalisation that keep the majority down.
“Some have been so forcibly struck with this observation, that they have, in the first warmth of their discovery, thought it reasonable to alter the common distribution of dignity, and venturedd to condemn  mankind of universal ingratitude. For justice exacts, that those by whom we are most benefited should be most honored. And what labour can be more useful than that which procures to families and communties those necessaries which supply the wants of nature, or those conveniencies by which ease, security, and elegance are conferred?”
This idea is as alive today, on the street, as it was then. Who has not, when young at least, had conversations in which dream societies were proposed that would pay the garbageman more than the CEO? Indeed, I am not so far from that opinion myself. However, Johnson’s putting of the case already gives us a vision of what makes it unconfortable: the notion of elegance and the conveniences of life – of consumption. For the notion that the producer rates a higher dignity than the consumer – which, at its root, displaces the honor of the creator to its human prototypes – isn’t an a priori or universal truth. It does contain enough prejudicial force, however, that even in the vastly changed circumstances of capitalsm, the manager, the symbol pusher, still grasp for the role of producer, and throw the rest into the status of parasites – of, to use the immortal words of the private equity mogul, Romney himself, taker. Circumstances adjust definitions, but definitions store, like an archve, earlier circumstances.
Last week, I was drinking coffee at a Coffee Bean on Santa Monica Boulevard when I was approached by a beggar. This woman would have delighted Yeats. Her fingers were no longer filthy – they were lacquered with old filth, they had a sort of patina. She asked for a dollar, offered me a cig, sat down and began to sigh that she was bored. I’m sixty two, she said, and if I ever get rich, I’ll never be bored again. If you are poor, what do you got? Last night she didn’t have television,nor anybody to talk to, and she was bored. Which, she said, was a not unusual condition. I asked her whether she really thought that the rich were not ever bored, and she said that of course they weren’t. They could go out to movies every night! They could put a tv in every room, which she would do, if she was rich.
Now, this image of the rich is different, and yet not different, from the image of the rich as “producers”. After all, to go too far down the road that the rich produce is to embed the rich in a social function, having social benefits. It is hard to sidestep this, even if one presses the key of freedom over and over again – the current way of blocking the path to a discussion of ultimate social ends.
Johnson, more than me, would have recognized in the old woman’s talk something of what he thought, pragmatically, about dignity and ease. He has a wonderful way of moving from granting the workers – in his time, the agricultural worker – their place to putting that place in terms of the universe of higher values, the values of the sage and hero: [the workers] who, after all the consessions which truth may extort in favour of their occupation, must be content to fill up the lowest class of the commonwealth, to form the base of the pyramid of subordination, and lie buried in obscurity themselves, while they support all that is splendid, conspicuous, or exalted.”  
This is burial indeed. There is something gothic about thes phrases, as if Johnson were speaking of a zombie proletariat, an undead, a host of shadows busy supporting all that is splendid by doing all that is obscure.  Another whiff of the street: clearly, this distribution of places is profane. What is spendid, conspicuous or exalted is still of this world.
So far the street reaches. But Johnson’s Toryism has a reply prepared, contrasting intellectual labour to manual labour, to the disadvantage, both socially, in terms of remuneration, and morally, in terms of dignity, of the latter.
There is a twist, though. If dignity has any meaning, it can’t decay into mere contempt for the manual labor that supports us – us, the intellectual laborers:
Yet the refusal of statues and panegyricks to those who only employ their hands and feet in the service of mankind may be easily justified, I am far from intending to incite the petulance of pride, to justify the superciliousness of grandeur, or to intercept any part o that tenderness and benevolence which by the privilege of their common nature one man may claim from another.”
Ah, but now the café where I am writing this is getting crowded, and I want to go on for a few pages more. Maybe I will for tomorrow.