Order & Wildness: In Us & Samuel Johnson
Dear Unknown Friends:
Our serialization of Eli Siegel’s magnificent 1949 lecture Poetry and Words continues; and in the present section, Mr. Siegel is looking at statements by Samuel Johnson about words. These statements are from the Preface to Johnson’s famous Dictionary of the English Language, completed in 1755.
I have thought it right to include here too a report I wrote many years ago—of another class about Johnson. In October 1968, Mr. Siegel gave a lecture titled Samuel Johnson Makes the Wild Looked At. This was literary criticism at once great and tremendously warm. Here was Eli Siegel, with his exactitude, understanding what hope impelled Johnson, late in his life, to visit the rough Western Islands of Scotland with James Boswell. Here was Eli Siegel understanding (as I say in my report) the yearnings of this formidable writer, who could scare people with the force and polish and causticity of his wit. The lecture was a living illustration of the principle at the basis of Aesthetic Realism: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.”
Samuel Johnson (1709-84) was himself one of the most important of critics. But he did not know what Eli Siegel was the critic to explain: our deep need is to be like art—to put opposites together. In the 1949 lecture Poetry and Words, Mr. Siegel showed that Johnson was intensely affected by the way words are at once orderly and disorderly, fixed and in a whirl. Those opposites are like the symmetry and wildness which, 19 years later, Mr. Siegel would describe as insistent within Johnson himself, impelling him to visit the Western Islands, a place so different from those elegant London drawing rooms. They are opposites troubling people now: We want our lives to go oh-so-smoothly, be oh-so-neat; yet we long to be surprised, shaken deeply, too. Every person desires order; every person feels there is a wildness in us we do not understand!
Toward the end of what has been called the greatest biography in English, James Boswell writes about the character of the friend he loved, Samuel Johnson. And he tries to place the grandeur of Johnson along with things about him which could not be praised, and along also with the bad feelings, the depression Johnson sometimes had. I’ll quote soon from the end of Boswell’s Life of Johnson. But first I quote an earlier sentence, telling of the period when Johnson wrote the passages Mr. Siegel comments on in Poetry and Words. Says Boswell: “At the time when he was concluding his very eloquent Preface [to the Dictionary], Johnson’s mind appears to have been in such a state of depression, that we cannot contemplate without wonder the vigorous and splendid thoughts which so highly distinguish that performance.”* And this, now, is from the final pages of Boswell’s Johnson:
[He was] stern in his taste;...impetuous and irritable in his temper, but of a most humane and benevolent heart, which shewed itself not only in a most liberal charity, as far as his circumstances would allow, but in a thousand instances of active benevolence....A constitutional melancholy...gave a gloomy cast to his whole course of thinking:...and allowance must be made for his uttering hasty and satirical sallies even against his best friends....He was somewhat susceptible of flattery....But his superiority over other learned men consisted chiefly in what may be called the art of thinking, the art of using his mind; a certain continual power of seizing the useful substance of all that he knew, and exhibiting it in a clear and forcible manner; so that knowledge...was, in him, true, evident, and actual wisdom. [II:653-5]
What is it in a person—even so fine a person as Johnson—that makes him ill-natured, unjust, also depressed? Eli Siegel is the philosopher who has answered that question. The cause is the desire for contempt: the desire to get an “addition to self through the lessening of something else.” Mr. Siegel showed that there is a fierce fight in everyone between contempt for the world and respect: between the victory of feeling people, things, and reality itself are not good enough for us; and the victory of seeing value in the world.
Boswell delicately describes contempt in Johnson: it is in his inflexibility or sternness, his irritability, his “hasty...sallies.” And Johnson thirsted to learn from Aesthetic Realism that depression and “constitutional melancholy” arise from a deep contempt. They have in them, with all their pain, the miserable triumph of our feeling the world is unworthy of us. And we can go for that triumph when we are much beset, as Johnson often was. Our contempt is also the chief thing making us dislike ourselves-because our opinion of ourselves depends on our justice to the world. The human fight, then, between respect and contempt was in Johnson. But his desire to respect the world was larger than most people’s. It was an 18th-century and immortal force. It had him love words, and use his thought as Boswell describes.
The thought of Eli Siegel was even greater than that of Johnson. And I, who was his student and knew him, as Boswell knew Johnson, am in a position to say that I never saw Eli Siegel be in any way petty or unfair. He was passionately, gracefully, imaginatively, powerfully just all the time. I saw this ethical and intellectual grandeur in Mr. Siegel, unwavering, year after year; and I wish Samuel Johnson, author of Rasselas, the Dictionary, the Lives of the Poets, could have seen it too.