Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Samuel Johnson

The breaking of the vessels

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In his famous Dictionary of the English Language, Samuel Johnson defines chemistry as “an art whereby sensible bodies contained in vessels, or capable of being contained therein, are so changed, by means of certain instruments, and principally fire, that their several powers and virtues are thereby discovered, with a view to philosophy, or medicine.” As his source, Johnson cites the Dutch chemist and physician Herman Boerhaave, who writes in Elements of Chemistry, a textbook that was first published in the early eighteenth century:

Chemistry is an art that teaches us how to perform certain physical operations, by which bodies that are discernible by the senses, or that may be rendered so, and that are capable of being contained in vessels, may by suitable instruments be so changed, that particular determined effects may be thence produced, and the causes of those effects understood by the effects themselves, to the manifold improvement of various arts…The objects, in observing or changing of which this art is conversant, are all sensible bodies…especially if they are naturally capable of being contained in vessels, or by the power of this art, may be so changed, as to be confined within.

As a nineteenth-century professor and science writer named T. Berry Smith rather poetically explains: “The moon, though a sensible body, is no object of chemistry, for it is not capable of being contained in vessels.”

I was charmed enough by this definition to want to learn more about Boerhaave, whose biography Johnson wrote up as a young man in four issues of The Gentleman’s Magazine. Boerhaave is best remembered today for his work as a teacher and for his isolation of the chemical urea from urine, but in Johnson’s hands, he becomes a kind of early superscience hero in whom physical strength is inseparable from mental ability:

Boerhaave [was] a man formed by nature for great designs, and guided by religion in the exertion of his abilities. He was of a robust and athletic constitution of body, so hardened by early severities, and wholesome fatigue, that he was insensible of any sharpness of air, or inclemency of weather. He was tall, and remarkable for extraordinary strength. There was, in his air and motion, something rough and artless, but so majestic and great, at the same time, that no man ever looked upon him without veneration, and a kind of tacit submission to the superiority of his genius…The diligence with which he pursued his studies, is sufficiently evident from his success. Statesmen and generals may grow great by unexpected accidents, and a fortunate concurrence of circumstances, neither procured nor foreseen by themselves; but reputation in the learned world must be the effect of industry and capacity.

Perhaps most intriguing of all is a line that seems to anticipate Sherlock Holmes, or at least Dr. Joseph Bell: “He could, with uncommon readiness and certainty, make a conjecture of men’s inclinations and capacity by their aspect.”

There’s a lot of Johnson himself in this description, which, as the writer Paul Fussell points out, is really about a combined figure whom “we can only call Boerhaave-Johnson.” Boerhaave is never mentioned by name in The Life of Johnson, but its subject was intensely interested in chemistry, as Boswell observed during a visit to his library: “I observed an apparatus for chymical experiments, of which Johnson was all his life very fond.” He also conflated his own physical strength with his intelligence, as we see in some of the stories that Boswell recounts:

Many instances of [Johnson’s] resolution may be mentioned. One day, at Mr. Beauclerk’s house in the country, when two large dogs were fighting, he went up to them, and beat them till they separated; and at another time, when told of the danger there was that a gun might burst if charged with many balls, he put in six or seven, and fired it off against a wall. Mr. Langton told me, that when they were swimming together near Oxford, he cautioned Dr. Johnson against a pool, which was reckoned particularly dangerous; upon which Johnson directly swam into it. He told me himself that one night he was attacked in the street by four men, to whom he would not yield, but kept them all at bay, till the watch came up, and carried both him and them to the round-house. In the playhouse at Lichfield, as Mr. Garrick informed me, Johnson having for a moment quitted a chair which was placed for him between the side-scenes, a gentleman took possession of it, and when Johnson on his return civilly demanded his seat, rudely refused to give it up; upon which Johnson laid hold of it, and tossed him and the chair into the pit.

In his later essays, Johnson mentions Boerhaave only a couple of times, most notably in a discussion of clearly defining one’s terms, in which he praises the chemist for not assuming any previous knowledge on the part of his readers. This impulse found its greatest expression in the Dictionary, in which we can glimpse Boerhaave—a friend and early supporter of Carl Linnaeus, who took this project to its ultimate level—in its determination to confine everything in the world to its own proper vessel. And Boerhaave seems to have remained Johnson’s ideal of what a man might accomplish. In Young Sam Johnson, James L. Clifford writes:

One might almost piece together a picture of Johnson as he saw himself, or as he hoped to be, from selected passages in the life of Boerhaave—a man whose fortune had not been “sufficient to bear the expenses of a learned eduction,” but who through sheer determination had broken through “the obstacles of poverty.” Always it was Boerhaave’s “insatiable curiosity after knowledge” that had driven him on. Though subject to depression and lowness of spirits, yet “he asserted, on all occasions, the divine authority and sacred efficacy of the holy scriptures.” He had a large, robust physique and was remarkable for physical strength…The vigor and activity of his mind “sparkled visibly in his eyes,” and “he was always cheerful and desirous of promoting mirth by a facetious and humorous conversation.”

At one point in his biography of Boerhaave, Johnson writes in a revealing aside: “It is, I believe, a very just observation that men’s ambition is, generally, proportioned to their capacity.” The real vessel, in short, is the individual human being. And great accomplishment only occurs in lives that are big enough to contain it.

Quote of the Day

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He that writes may be considered as a kind of general challenger, whom every one has a right to attack; since he quits the common rank of life, steps forward beyond the lists, and offers his merit to the public judgement. To commence author is to claim praise, and no man can justly aspire to honor, but at the hazard of disgrace.

Samuel Johnson, in The Rambler

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December 8, 2017 at 7:30 am

The art of the epigraph

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The epigraph to Pale Fire

Years ago, in college, when I was working my way through a shelf of great books and dutifully writing down my favorite quotes, I came across the following anecdote in Boswell’s Life of Johnson:

This reminds me of the ludicrous account which [Johnson] gave Mr. Langton, of the despicable state of a young gentleman of good family. “Sir, when I heard of him last, he was running about town shooting cats.” And then, in a sort of kindly reverie, he bethought himself of his own favorite cat, and said, “But Hodge shan’t be shot; no, no, Hodge shall not be shot.”

It’s a deservedly famous passage—there’s even a statue of Hodge himself outside Johnson’s house in London—and it quickly ended up in my commonplace book. Then, just a few weeks later, I happened to read Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire for the first time, and I was tickled to find the exact same quote on the epigraph page. It’s still one of the oddest literary coincidences of my life, and although scholars have endlessly debated the significance of the quotation in the context of Nabokov’s extraordinary novel, to me, the moral was clear: quotations have a life of their own, and a line that catches one reader’s eye is likely to attract many others.

The epigraph, as I mentioned yesterday, is one of the most powerful—and underrated—tools in a writer’s arsenal. It appears in a uniquely privileged position at the beginning of a book, and it’s usually the first, and possibly the only, text a reader encounters. (Whenever I repeatedly pick up and drop a book for years, as I did with Gravity’s Rainbow, the epigraphs start to take on a weird prominence in my inner life.) It doesn’t consist of the writer’s own words, but it benefits from what seems like a considered process of selection, and it grows in apparent importance in proportion to its isolation on the page, in the way a random scrap of paper can take on new meaning as the centerpiece of a collage. It’s one of the few moments in a good novel in which the writer’s process appears in the foreground: any authorial decisions in the story itself should seem inevitable, or invisible, but in the epigraph, we see the writer at work, speaking directly to us through someone else’s words. This is particularly true in the case of a novel like Pale Fire, in which the relevance of the epigraph is pointedly obscure. It’s like a clue in a mystery novel, as capable of misleading as much as clarifying, but always turning the reader’s thoughts into unexpected directions.

The epigraphs for Part II

In particular, an epigraph serves two complementary functions: it both sets a tone and conveys additional information. The epigraph to Anna Karenina—”Vengeance is mine; I will repay”—alerts us at once to the fact that this is something more than an epic novel of manners. The epigraphs that Borges puts at the head of his short stories are often nods to his sources and inspirations, like the line from The Anatomy of Melancholy that appears in “The Library of Babel,” or offer a hint as to how the story itself ought to be read, as in the epigraph to “Three Versions of Judas,” taken from Seven Pillars of Wisdom: “There seemed a certainty in degradation.” Foucault’s Pendulum opens with an untranslated quotation from Hebrew, which tells us immediately that this is going to be a polyglot, occasionally impenetrable journey. Eco’s epigraphs here are particularly fascinating: they often include additional tidbits of lore or arcana that provide a kind of running annotation of the main action, like footnotes in epigraph form, a technique that I openly copied in The Icon Thief. (I used the epigraphs to incorporate material that I couldn’t include elsewhere but desperately wanted to preserve, like the implication that Marcel Duchamp may have occasionally appeared in disguise while he was living in New York.)

Ideally, however, an epigraph should leave something to implication. Poetry, for instance, is a rich source of allusive material, which is why the appearance of certain writers, like T.S. Eliot, John Donne, or William Blake, has almost become clichéd from overuse. (I include a quote from John Donne in City of Exiles, but only as part of a larger thread, almost a subplot in itself, that runs through the epigraphs of the last three sections, connecting Donne to The White Goddess and the Book of Ezekiel, with a sideward glance at Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot.”) And if it manages to strike the right balance between illumination and obscurity, an epigraph can highlight a buried theme that allows the reader to view the entire work in a different light, like the quotation from Dante that opens “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” As a rule, it’s a mistake to spell out your themes explicitly in the text, but there’s nothing that says you can’t give the reader a nudge in the right direction, and an epigraph is the perfect place for this: it stands slightly outside the body of the narrative, together and apart, and at its best, it can feel like a whispered aside from the author just before the curtain rises.

Written by nevalalee

January 15, 2014 at 10:00 am

Oliver Wendell Holmes on dreams

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Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.

We not rarely find our personality doubled in our dreams, and do battle with ourselves, unconscious that we are our own antagonists. Dr. Johnson dreamed that he had a contest of wit with an opponent, and got the worst of it; of course, he furnished the wit for both. Tartini heard the devil play a wonderful sonata, and set it down on awakening. Who was the Devil but Tartini himself? I remember, in my youth, reading verses in a dream, written, as I thought, by a rival fledgling of the Muse. They were so far beyond my powers, that I despaired of equalling them; yet I must have made them unconsciously as I read them…

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., “Mechanism in Thought and Morals”

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December 21, 2013 at 9:00 am

How will you be remembered?

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The Sanders portrait of William Shakespeare

All artists are shaped by the times in which they live, but we don’t always appreciate how deeply their times can be shaped by them—especially once they’re no longer around. To take an obvious example, I don’t think even an educated nonspecialist reader would be able to name such playwrights as Fletcher, Beaumont, John Ford, or even Ben Jonson if they hadn’t lived at the same time as Shakespeare, who stands as the kind of overwhelming figure who brings an entire generation of fellow writers to our attention. (Marlowe, I suspect, is the only one who might be able to hold his own.) I’m not even sure if we’d be as interested in the earlier history of England, or even the Elizabethan age that the poet prudently avoided engaging in his own work, if Shakespeare had never existed. The presence of one major writer may be the only thing that keeps a century alive in our imaginations, and that writer’s identity can often come as a surprise. It’s probably true that we only remember such figures as Oliver Goldsmith and Colley Cibber because of their association with Samuel Johnson, but for a lot of readers, we only know Johnson himself through Boswell.

This is all the more striking in the case of a poet like Dante, thanks to whom countless historical figures—Farinata, Cavalcanti, Bertran de Born—still exist for us solely because they appear in a few lines of the Inferno. Dante, unlike Shakespeare, was aiming for this deliberately: he was keenly aware of how a passage in an epic poem can preserve a name forever, and I’d like to believe, along with Borges, that he wrote the entire Divine Comedy as a way of enshrining a few images of Beatrice Portinari. The earliest function of poetry, at least in its epic form, was to serve as a kind of cultural memory, and it worked; it’s no accident that the oldest historical figure whose name is reasonably known to us is Gilgamesh. The poem remains, even after the civilization and the petty territorial disputes that fueled its indignation have fallen away. To the extent that international readers care at all about the Gulephs and the Ghibellines, it’s because Dante was there at the time. And nothing could have come as a greater surprise to his contemporaries than the fact that they would continue to exist only in the work of a solitary exile.

Illustration by Gustave Doré for Dante's Inferno

Even stranger is the case of the diarist, who, unlike novelists, poets, and playwrights, writes in secret, but whose works can be just as lasting. Countless figures persist only as an offhand mention in the journals of Samuel Pepys, and most of them would be shocked by which details have been passed down to posterity. As W.H. Auden writes in A Certain World:

The historical reputation of a public figure is based upon a large number of known data, some favorable, some unfavorable. Consequently, a single derogatory remark in a contemporary memoir affects his reputation, for better or worse, very little. In the case of an obscure private individual, however, the single derogatory remark may damn him forever, because it is all we shall ever hear about him.

January 3, 1854. In the evening went to a party at Mr. Anfrere’s. Very slow—small rooms, piano out of tune, bad wine, and stupid people.—Benjamin John Armstrong

Poor Mr. Anfrere! No doubt he had many virtues, but to posterity he is simply an incompetent host.

And it’s interesting to see the same process at work in the artists around us. Some authors are deservedly known as chroniclers of their time: in the New Yorker piece I discussed yesterday, Claudia Roth Pierpont regrets that we won’t have a chance to hear Updike or Roth on the age of Obama, thanks respectively to death and retirement. Updike, in particular, was one of our great chroniclers of the everyday, and there are countless scraps of ephemera from the latter half of the twentieth century—advertisements, jingles, products, packages—that live on because they briefly passed through Rabbit’s consciousness. It’s another reason to regret the death of the daily comic strip, which, at its best, preserves this sort of material forever: if I’m aware of such disparate figures as Caspar Weinberger and Jessica Hahn, it’s because of my dogeared Bloom County collections. (The wonderful thing about movies is that they pick up all this incidental detail in the fly, so that time turns the movies of, say, Robert Altman into priceless works of reportage.) We all fight so hard to be remembered, and we think we have a good sense of our achievements, but really, if any memory of us persists at all, it’s likely to be in a form we can’t expect, in the work of someone whose name we’ve never heard.

Do novelists have free will? Part 1

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Sam Harris

Recently, as part of a writing project I’m hoping to finish within the next couple of months, I’ve been thinking a lot about the problem of free will. Free will, like consciousness, is a phenomenon that seems perfectly obvious in our everyday life but increasingly elusive the more we try to pin it down. As David Eagleman points out in his book Incognito, science has long since established that much of what we think of as our own intentions and behavior arise from parts of the brain that aren’t immediately accessible to conscious thought. In the famous Libet experiment, for instance, subjects were told to flick a finger at the time of their choosing, while recording what they perceived as the exact moment at which they decided to move. What Benjamin Libet discovered was that readiness potentials associated with muscle movement could be detected in the brain about half a second before the subjects were conscious of having made the decision. Later tests have found similar brain activity as much as seven seconds in advance—which implies that consciousness, at least under some circumstances, is really just a way of retrospectively rationalizing actions we’ve undertaken before we’re even aware of it.

To some extent, we all know how this feels. This morning, for instance, while mulling over today’s blog post, I brushed my teeth, showered, shaved—and then brushed my teeth again. Why? I don’t know. My eye happened to fall on the toothbrush by the sink, and without any conscious input whatsoever, my “brushing my teeth” subroutine was absentmindedly activated for the second time in twenty minutes. Later, I made coffee and my morning omelet, and it’s safe to say that I was operating mostly on autopilot: I was watching my daughter and thinking about what I was going to write at the same time, so I was more than happy to outsource my breakfast to a different part of my brain. This kind of automation is a necessary part of survival, as well as basic happiness: I’d go crazy if I had to consciously think over each step of such routine activities, much less to remind myself to breathe twelve times each minute. It’s far less comfortable to acknowledge that higher levels of our actions and behavior may be equally out of our control, but the more we try to grasp what we mean by free will, the more it seems to slip through our fingers.

Samuel Johnson

Opponents of free will certainly have a strong case on their side. Every human thought or action arises from the firing of the brain’s neurons, which in turn are governed by the laws of physics, and attempts to explain consciousness by reference to quantum mechanics are really just a way of replacing one mystery with another. Go down far enough and we’re nothing but physical processes, and any event in the brain, big or small, can be traced back to another. Even if we’re willing to entertain the existence of a soul, this doesn’t solve the underlying problem of the unconscious roots of our influences and intentions, as Sam Harris notes in his little book Free Will: “If you don’t know what your soul is going to do next, you are not in control.” Harris writes elsewhere that most attempts to salvage the idea of free will begin with the premise that they want to prove, and that such efforts have more in common with theology than science or philosophy. And although Harris’s case is in some ways irrefutable, one is still tempted to respond to it in the same way that Samuel Johnson, in Boswell’s Life, replied to the doctrine of idealism:

After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it—”I refute it thus.”

It might seem equally quaint to point to one’s subjective perception of free will and say: “I refute it thus.” But that’s really all most of the arguments in favor of free will can do—and make no mistake, it’s a powerful piece of evidence. What Daniel Dennett has called “our important intuition that we are the authors of our moral decisions” is something we can’t easily dismiss. And although it’s far outside this scope of this blog to make a case one way or the other, I think it’s worthwhile to consider it through one particular lens: that of creative activity. At first glance, the act of writing a novel—or composing a symphony or executing a fresco—seems like a strong demonstration of willed, conscious activity: each book is a series of choices, executed over a long period of time and with a lot of reflection, constrained only by the artist’s ability. As much as any action in which human beings engage, the novel is an exercise in sustained consciousness that can take years to complete, and the result, however flawed it may be, can only be something that the author meant to do. Or can it? Tomorrow, I’ll be looking at the process of writing as an act of free will, and try to consider how much, or how little, it really explains.

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July 24, 2013 at 8:58 am

Writers of all work

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When I was younger, I wanted to be a man of letters. I wasn’t sure what this meant, or even if such a thing still existed, but based on my vague sense of what the position entailed, it sounded like an ideal job. You’d be a novelist first, sure, but you’d also write short stories, nonfiction, criticism, and more, following your own inclinations, after the example of many of my early heroes, like Norman Mailer. It never entered my head to wonder why a writer might produce a body of work like this—I assumed he did it just because it seemed cool. But the more time passes, the more I realize that the figure of “the man of letters” is really a byproduct of years spent looking for ways to make a living while writing. And it’s been like this for a long time. Speaking of the essayists of the eighteenth century, whom he calls “writers of all work,” the critic George Saintsbury says:

The establishment of the calling of man of letters as an irregular profession, and a regular means of livelihood, almost necessarily brought with it the devotion of the man of letters himself to any and every form of literature for which there was a public demand…It became, therefore, almost necessary on the one hand, and comparatively easy on the other, for the [writer]…to be everything by turns and nothing long.

Strike out the phrase “comparatively easy,” and you have a pretty good description of the contemporary freelance writer, which is essentially what Samuel Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith, and other denizens of Grub Street really were. They worked as essayists, dramatists, poets, and producers of what Saintsbury calls “hackwork or something more”—translations, histories, popular science—as demand and opportunity required. They were, in short, freelancers. And if their work has endured, it’s because of their exceptional talent, productivity, and versatility, all of which were born, not from some abstract ideal of the man of letters, but from the practical constraints of being a working writer, which is something that every freelancer can understand. They just happened to be better at it than most.

Looking at my own life these days, it’s clear that I’ve had to be “everything by turns and nothing long” to an extent that still takes me by surprise. In the past couple of months alone, I’ve seen the publication of my first novel, worked on the copy edit of the second, and pushed ahead furiously on a rough draft of the third. I’ve written a couple of articles, including my debut essay in The Daily Beast, as well as a long Q&A, a guest post on another blog, and thousands of words here. I have a science fiction novelette coming out in Analog in July and I’m preparing a proposal this week for another nonfiction project. In short, as usual, I’m working on a lot of things at once that don’t, at first glance, have much to do with one another, and sometimes the payoff can be hard to see. But this is what being a working writer is all about.

And this sort of multitasking has creative benefits as well. Drew Goddard, talking to the New York Times the other day about Joss Whedon’s wide range of activities, puts it nicely: “Everything became a vacation from other things.” When you get burnt out on one project, it’s nice to have something else to turn to instead, and your various pieces of work can inform one another in surprising ways. I’ve learned a lot about structuring nonfiction from my work as a novelist—a good essay is often surprisingly similar to a well-constructed chapter—and my fiction, in turn, has benefited from the skills I’ve acquired as an essayist and, yes, a blogger. Everything feeds into everything else, if not right away, then somewhere down the line. It keeps me sane. And after forty years of scrounging around, I’ll have a body of work of which I can hopefully be proud. Because in the end, a man of letters is just a freelancer who survived.

Written by nevalalee

April 18, 2012 at 10:48 am

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