Aspects of Samuel Johnson: Essays on His Arts, Mind, Afterlife, and Politics
Howard Weinbrot is among our most eminent eighteenth-century scholars. He has published several important studies since the 1960s, but Aspects of Samuel Johnson is his first book on Johnson. It collects sixteen essays written over four decades covering various aspects of Johnson's writing—poetry, metaphor, narrative style, and the idea of language in the dictionary (in a section on Arts); generality, genre, and skepticism (in a section on Mind); Percival Stockdale and the French response to Johnson's writings (in a section on Afterlife); and Jacobitism, politics, and the nature of scholarly and historical evidence (in a section on Politics). All but one of the essays has appeared elsewhere. Some of them—for example, "The Reader, the General, and the Particular: Johnson and Imlac in Chapter Ten of Rasselas," "Johnson and Genre," and the essays on Johnson's politics—are classics of their kind. The book exceeds the sum of its parts, for the contiguity of the essays allows the reader to appreciate the sustained consideration of the topics, and to acquire a general sense of the author's critical procedures. [End Page 645]
A "collected essays" implies if not the intervention of death (Professor Weinbrot is very much with us), then at least a summing up and looking back. Looking back over these essays from the vantage point of the present, one is struck by two ironically related things. The essays still accord with a general sense of Johnson as a philosophically conservative but rigorous moral thinker, whose learning and great command of the language are devoted to a rational understanding of human existence within formal Augustan and neoclassical forms. This is so because Weinbrot's essays were (along with formative work by Jean Hagstrum, Gwin Kolb, W. J. Bate, Paul Alkon, and others) partly responsible for promoting the idea of Johnson as such a writer, and because in some respects Johnson is indeed such a writer. Unlike other English writers—Shakespeare and Byron, for example—whose classic status changes over time, Johnson's identity as a writer has remained remarkably constant since he became the object of concerted critical attention midway during the last century.
This is odd, since the advent of discourse, ideology, theory, cultural studies, and a skeptical cultural politics—in short, the intellectual life of the last twenty years—has changed critical priorities in ways that are everywhere visible in eighteenth-century studies, for both good and bad, and one does not need to be an advocate of new methodologies to feel the need to consider their impact. Weinbrot, however, does not reflect upon the differences between his traditional historical scholarly approach and others, or even register that there are other legitimate ways of considering Johnson's writings and their connection to questions of critical and historical meaning and value. Certainly, he has "provided full and new citations for each essay and allowed necessary overlap in use of evidence and quotations" (11), and he has avoided the use of "prescriptive concepts like an 'age' which often also is 'Augustan,' or 'Christian Humanist,' or 'neoclassical,' or 'ancien' or some other construct to which the individual is subordinated, and through which he or the 'age' should be read" (22–23). But is this enough?
Weinbrot traces his critical approach to the "intellectual sway" of R. S. Crane and the Chicago School of formalists and neo-Aristotelians:
One of the difficult but I think healthy tenets of the Crane legacy was the coupled insistence on evidence and on approaching a work with as much neutrality as possible . . . plural approaches to literary texts, awareness of one's critical assumptions, testing of one's hypotheses, trying not to impose one's personal agenda on a text, casting a wide intellectual net, avoiding deductive contexts into which one fits the particular work, and insisting that the author, so far from being "dead," is paramount in his or her text.(22) [End Page 646]
Weinbrot applies these positivist principles learnedly and conscientiously to ensure a "retreat from the a priori [that] can help to illuminate the varied aspects of Samuel Johnson's arts, mind, afterlife, and politics" (22). Certainly, his "habitual distrust of the a priori" governs his declared indifference to critical fashion (22). Thus we get a Johnson firmly and unambiguously grounded as a historical figure in a wide array of historical, textual, and intellectual contexts, for whom authorial intention is paramount, but one in whom experience fails to command a convincing imaginative inwardness, and who resists rapprochement with current critical practices.
One does not have to espouse postmodernism to recognize how problematic literary—as well as historical and legal—evidence is. We might long for the golden ideal of a rational argument that derives its truth from evidence that is clear, coherent, accessible, and empirical, but evidence and truth are of many kinds, clearly work in complex ways in literary structures (poetic as well as legal and historic), and require subtle, nuanced forms of reading and attention that go beyond the formal and the empirical. This is not, as one sometimes feels in Weinbrot's essays, a matter of the incompetence, ideological agenda, or personal prejudice of other critics. Erudite, direct, and forceful, Weinbrot's explication of Johnson's thinking characteristically suggests few obstacles or difficulties. Evidence is positive, and either supports or does not support the argument. There is no middle ground. But this manner does not address the more nuanced and self-questioning nature of Johnson's writing that emphasizes how little truth is contained in any critical formulation, and his recognition that the thinking mind has to work to generate and to approximate itself to truth. Johnson's writing is particularly sensitive to the creative resistance necessary in generating knowledge and truth, especially truth that seems to be self-evident, and "neutrality" is seldom an option for him, whatever it was for Crane.
Resistance to desire, inclination, fantasy, doubt, opinion, argument, temporal change, and reality in its unexpected manifestations are all part of Johnson's discourse. This is not to say that he finds no value in those experiences, just that he usually encounters them skeptically, by incorporating and transforming them. The proposition, as expressed by Rasselas, that "when wrong opinions are entertained . . . they mutually destroy each other, leaving the mind open to truth," suggests a quintessentially skeptical Johnsonian manner of thinking. These aperçus, shorthand reminders of how Johnson's writing substantiates truths, play off partial perspectives against each other and thereby produce a larger, differential, inwardly experienced thought that is neither merely a synthesis nor an accumulation of the separate original propositions. As Boswell quotes him as saying, "human experience, which is constantly contradicting theory, is the great test of truth." [End Page 647]
Weinbrot is tough on views that apply the term "skepticism" or "resistance" to Johnson's writing, insisting (in "'Obstinate Contests of Disagreeing Virtues': Johnson, Skepticism, the But Clause, and the Dialectical Imperative") on the gap that divides Hume's atheism from Johnson's Christianity, which "was hostile to skepticism because skepticism seemed hostile to happiness" (219): "Much of the supporting evidence for the nature of Johnson's presumed skeptical method actually is subsumed under what I call his secular dialectical imperative" (228). And again, the "fluidity of thought and willingness to engage in the 'but clause' of exception to received wisdom characterize Johnson's dialectical mode of proceeding and its acceptance of contradiction" (209). But "dialectical imperative" is too blunt an instrument to probe the aspect of Johnson's thought that recognizes the many ways in which experience exceeds and escapes the capacities of the rational mind to control its meaning, however necessary the rational mind is to a moral being. Fred Parker (in Scepticism and Literature ), who gets short shrift from Weinbrot, describes that recognition as "sceptical thinking," an "expectation of almost inevitable slippage in a series of distinct but overlapping areas: between theory and experience, between the mind and the world, between language and its referents" (10), and as a way of coming at knowledge that distinguishes it from Pyrrhonism and atheism. Like some other recent critics of Johnson, Parker finds particular value in Johnson's skeptical thinking as it "exposes ideas to the transforming processes of literary realization . . . imbuing them with a new, subtle life invisible in summary and resistant to abstraction, that easily evaporates in any history of thought" (5).
Certainly, when faced with the prospect of life without moral purpose, it is easy to embrace the hope, happiness, mercy, and love of which Johnson's writing is full. But the pricelessness of these values is not a given in Johnson's writing, but repeatedly wrestled by him from the jaws of doubt, difficulty, and pain. Being intrinsic to Johnson's knowledge of being human, these values are the warp of a woof that is his sceptical thinking. The outcome is not atheistic rationality—he is clearly antagonistic to the philosophical project of Hume and Voltaire—but a supple, creative, and synthetic form of thinking that opens up layers of historical and personal experience to the reader. But Weinbrot will have no truck with it. This is a pity because it prevents the connection that needs to be made between what Weinbrot demonstrates, in a useful essay ("Johnson Before Boswell in Eighteenth-Century France") about Johnson's presence in French eighteenth-century letters, and Johnson's imaginative appropriation and Anglicization of seventeenth-century French critical thought (described by Parker, Philip Smallwood, and others).
The difference between Weinbrot and Parker amounts to more than semantics; it is indicative of a general failure of a positivistic methodology to [End Page 648] engage with arguments, no less grounded in literary and historical evidence, that value different, real things in Johnson's writings and in literature itself. Aspects of Samuel Johnson constitutes a substantial body of work, but it represents only one way of reading Johnson's writing, and it is weakened by its indifference to legitimate alternatives.
Greg Clingham is Professor of English and Director of the University Press at Bucknell University. He has recently edited a festschrift for the late Simon Varey, Sustaining Literature: Essays on Literature, History, and Culture, 1500-1800 (2007), and he is at work on a book on narrative and the ends of law, 1650-1850.