Samuel Johnson: The Critic as Keeper of the Lights

Samuel_Johnson

A critic must follow his taste or his whim, whimsically, tastefully, moving where he is moved, often wrongheaded, no doubt, but true to his instincts—and on occasion he must throw caution out with the bathwater. He should never dismiss the past as merely old fashioned, or believe with a sense of revealed religion that something brand spanking new must be the real thing. Nor should he think the old ways sacrosanct and new ones just upstart pretenders. He should be, in other words, ready to raise his hand against all, yet happy and untroubled at being surprised into joy.
….– William Logan, The Savage Art

Nietzsche once described the art of the lie as the supreme vocation of the priest and the philosopher, seeking above all “the intention of taking in hand the direction of mankind”.1 The literary critic unlike those great Lawgivers, the priest and philosopher, harbors no telos for mankind, rather she is more prone to that lesser art of whim which dazzles us by its tantalizing tidbits and grotesqueries, seeks to entertain and enliven our drab days, rather than broker some sublime passage of strange days among gods or monsters, philosophers or mice. Instead the critic is that arbiter of taste and excellence, the curmudgeon of lost days, the artificer of echoes and gleams, lights and lustres from the past, broker of ancient minds; a traveler among the lonely alcoves of forgotten books and libraries who brings us a smorgasbord of foreign and domestic delights to tempt and allure us toward that strange kingdom of the imagination – what Borges once delightfully called, the Library of Babel. The babbling tongues of the dead that seek to enlighten and trouble our minds with their dark treasures and farces, romances and tragedies, the epics of ancient warriors and lovers, sea-farers and traders. A world at once human and monstrous that brings us both the marvelous, fantastic, and uncanny truths of our species.

Now don’t get me wrong there is a long history of those whimsical parvenus of the literary conclaves who have sought nothing more than to instruct and delight the masses or the royals (elites) of their day with a sprinkling of tasteful and elegant rhetoric. To be sure this is the subtle art of entertainment rather than moral turpitude. Even Samuel Johnson who above all sought the moral art of instruction knew that one needed to delight one’s audience with a sense of grace and style rather than beat them over the head with the hammer of truth like a priest or philosopher. Johnson at once didactic and delightful gave us that one thing we need as we enter the world of literature: an estimation of its grandeur and its grotesquerie; its common life among us. He gave us a man thinking. A man whose moral center although different from our own, a far from our own political and, shall I admit it, non-religious stance, was still of that caliber that even now his critical voice attains that inner necessity of truth that awakens in us the urge to become readers, to disturb the dust of these ancient texts with our own minds and ponder their worlds as if they are our own. Which, of course, they are.

Samuel Johnson on Shakespeare’s Macbeth once offered us a clue to the critic’s task saying that in “order to make a true estimate of the abilities and merit of a writer, it is always necessary to examine the genius of his age, and the opinions of his contemporaries”.2 This notion of a “true estimate of the abilities and merit of a writer” is that keen sense of taking aim, of looking over and esteeming what can be seen with the mind not the bodily eye. What is there and not there in both the actual words and “between the lines” of the text, as well as the relations between texts; those subtle influences that bring us that light of our own lives as if they, too, were mere words on a page come alive in the mind of a poet. One might refrain from such bold assertions and reprimands, sanctions and qualifications that bound Johnson to a rigid set of protocols, that kept his critical appraisals tightly knit within a certain moral universe which restricted him from transgressing decorum and taste, that forced him to cater to a specific audience whose own blinkered imaginations were controlled by Church and State.

Yes, we could trace the bewildering mechanics of this moral universe till we are blue in our face, but this is not the essential truth of the critic in Johnson. No. Johnson in spite of his moral universe escaped both his politics and his morality to give us that other more unique estimation. He gave us his judgment, his (mis)reading of that great poet, Shakespeare. He offered us not only a looking glass upon this famed poet’s art, but a carefully reasoned estimation that takes into account what Johnson would call “just representations of general nature”:

Shakespeare is above all writers, at least above all modern writers, the poet of nature; the poet that holds up to his readers a faithful mirrour of manners and of life. His characters are not modified by the customs of particular places, unpractised by the rest of the world; by the peculiarities of studies or professions, which can operate but upon small numbers; or by the accidents of transient fashions or temporary opinions: they are the genuine progeny of common humanity, such as the world will always supply, and observation will always find. His persons act and speak by the influence of those general passions and principles by which all minds are agitated, and the whole system of life is continued in motion. In the writings of other poets a character is too often an individual; in those of Shakespeare it is commonly a species.3

The power here is of those “general passions and principles by which all minds are agitated”. Why agitated? We know agitate is “to disturb,” from Latin agitatus, past participle of agitare “to put in constant motion, drive onward, impel,” frequentative of agere “to move, drive” or “shake”. It’s this sense of some force that suddenly awakens us, disturbs our equilibrium, forces us to become restless and disquieted by the thoughts we’ve just heard or read.

Suddenly we are thrown out of our complaisance, forced to reckon with something unknown, disturbing, that challenges our safe haven of moral and philosophical equilibrium, and causes us to move and be driven onward as if compelled by some inner daemonic force out of our present self-subjectivizing movement, our drab and staid, even normal existence – to the point that we must answer this strange intrusion into our normal lives with a greater power of imagination and intelligence; overcome this force by the answer of our own passionate being against this alienating power seeking power over us. That “the whole system of life”, or what some have termed the “moral compass” of our being is suddenly disturbed, set at odds, forced from its center of gravity as if rocked by some volcanic inner necessity, until we can find a new balance, a new way of being, we will be driven forward on the sea of our troubled mind like Ahab before the terrible white whale fated to defiance or ultimate defeat.

This is the reason we read, watch, and study such beings as Shakespeare and Johnson. They tell us what other critics and poets do not, they give us that common light that spreads itself across the species rather than the singular light of the separate individual locked away in his own doubts and quandaries unable to do for herself what has already been done in the greater book of being. In the characters of Shakespeare’s plays we learn to know ourselves, to see in their minds our own inner doubts and sorrows, our struggles and angers, our solitudes and questionings, and thereby gain some new balance and integrity in our lives that can defend us against these powerful inner drives that would deign destroy us.

Yet, without the scholar, the critic, the voice of this great agitator who pummels the disturbances that threaten us we would probably not read or know about such poets as Shakespeare. It’s the critics in every age that keep us aware of these ancient lights of the mind. Without the authentic critic we would probably be left to our own devices, lost among the ramblings of lesser lights wondering why we cannot find a foothold in this vast sea of literary endeavors. When one thinks of the millions of books now published yearly, and of the billions of works stored in archives that we’ll never read it is the Critic that plunders this vast world of riches for us, keep brining back to us, revising, reseeding, reestimating this heritage; and, yes, canonizing it against all those lesser lights that compete for a place in the sun of literature. In an age when the heritage of Western Civilization has come under scrutiny, when a generation of post-structuralists, feminists, post-colonialists, etc. etc. have all been attacking the whole notion of the canon, of both inclusion/exclusion of such notions we have to return to those creatures of mind that first formed such notions to begin with. The critics.

As a child I wasn’t a reader. Sure I had plenty of books around me. My father was an avid reader. My mother read to us from the classics: Dickens, Grimm, all the various works of American and European imaginative literature, etc. But I never picked up a book to read it for myself until forced to by a teacher for a class. Not until my own inner life lost that equilibrium of which I’ve spoken, that metaphysical ballast that seems to keep us afloat in life, did I begin reading in earnest, and will actual insight trying to gain some inner light onto the mad chaos of my own existence. And, like many I had no clue where to begin. Had no guiding Vergil to wander the hell of my own exasperated and youthful madness among the books of life and libraries. Like many I wandered through various poets (Milton, Wordsworth, Shelley, Eliot, Pound, Stevens); essayists (Montaigne, Pascal, Emerson); dramatists (Shakespeare, Marlow, Johnson, Tennessee Williams, et. al.); novelists (the usual suspects); philosophers, historians, political writers, … da da da da… but, in the end I had no way of ordering this vast array of information into some form of intelligibility or sense in my life. It all seemed to hang there like some impossible thought. Then for some reason I came across William Hazlitt and Samuel Johnson. Critics. Strangely they awakened a sense of ah ha…. a sense that suddenly all this “stuff” I’d been reading made some sense, brought a sense of proportion and balance, a way of seeing and ordering all this chaotic though into a unique vision of life, a “moral compass”. Even if I disagreed (and I did) with most of what they said (a lot of arguments!) they taught me the art of reading well, the art of reading for the lustres, the lights, the powers and dispositions in the texts that were already part of my own being; to read those authors that as Emerson had already taught me would “give me back myself”.

William Logan tells it right, the “critic is by nature a parasite—he cannot live without books, that most pathetic of bookworms, the critic. Judging at all seems the strangest part of the business—it’s not like checking a spot weld or overhauling an automatic transmission. What might be objective everywhere else is subjective here.”4 Books are our game and our life. We hoodwink ourselves into believing we are like everyone else we meet in our daily lives, when in truth there is something that separates us, divides us from the others, our reading. The others may read here and there, may pick up a magazine, read a newspaper, turn to the occasional article on the internet, run the blip-screen of twitter or facebook, keep up with friends… but, they are not readers, not immersed in the vast sea of literature. For them this is a closed book, an arcane religion with its own rules and regulations that they see as “egghead territory”. Of course they never admit it, want tell us to our faces, but they almost envy us our lot yet, like to tell themselves that were a little touched in the head, a little to far out there. And, maybe their right. We wander into other peoples minds as if we had good sense, as if all those strange worlds of books held some secret key to the mysteries of life, mind, and, our cosmological destiny. Or, we just like to laugh and cry over silly comedies and languish before the fire reading Waverly novels till the dawning light. Whatever holds us it is something that makes of us somethin else, something different, gives us that edge of (some call it vanity) light – a certain lustre to our lives and minds which shapes us differently. One cannot say its for the best, either. There’s no moral ranking in such an endeavor. No. To read and then to write of what we read, to turn a critical eye upon all that hive of chattering minds is to suddenly enter into dialogue with time, to enter a river from which there is no return, only an endless labyrinth of digressions, escapades, adventures.

So before we throw the baby out with the wash we need to make sure that our current attack on the whole gamut of the humanist tradition of our Western Civilization isn’t lost in an ignorant display of political correctness. This whole notion that all these “dead old white men” have no place in our world is to me the epitome of stupidity and unthinking. As Johnson says of Shakespeare,

It was observed of the ancient schools of declamation, that the more diligently they were frequented, the more was the student disqualified for the world, because he found nothing there which he should ever meet in any other place. The same remark may be applied to every stage but that of Shakespeare. The theatre, when it is under any other direction, is peopled by such characters as were never seen, conversing in a language which was never heard, upon topicks which will never arise in the commerce of mankind. But the dialogue of this authour is often so evidently determined by the incident which produces it, and is pursued with so much ease and simplicity, that it seems scarcely to claim the merit of fiction, but to have been gleaned by diligent selection out of common conversation, and common occurrences. (KL 94532-94537)

What Johnson describes here is the notion of an author who knows us better than we know ourselves, who brings out in his fictional characters a truth at once real and potent, that gives us back our own thoughts, that delivers us our own conversations, our life in a manner that allows us to accept what is fiction as real and pertinent; that restores to us that since of balance and equilibrium, equanimity without which we would still be wander in that sea of doubt and agitation, lost among the traces of secondary thoughts without ballast or safety net. This is the power of the greatest art, the critic’s art.

Yet, without the great critic to make us aware of these various poets, novelists, short story writers, dramatists, essayists, etc. we would wander the libraries and archives dumbfounded and sheepishly unsure of just which of these ancient texts might give us back our inner life and light. That’s why such beings as Samuel Johnson for all his moralisms, his cantankerousness, his curmudgeon ways was the great critic of his age and still offers us a view onto the lights of those worthies without which we would all be left in the cold dark impenetrable sea of words, restless and agitated but unable to overcome our doubts and veritable ignorance. The voice of the critic gives us the ancestral worlds of our mind where we learn to know our fleshly lives by way knowing ourselves in knowing others. By listening to the tales that are our lives, our humanity. Without the stories that give our lives meaning we are but the blank and empty registers of a universe devoid of mind. It is the strange lies we tell ourselves in the night that give us back the truth of our lives. We are made and undone by our fictions. Without them we are but mindless drift upon the sea of a terrible and infinite indifference, floating round a black hole that will slowly dissipate into the abyss at the end of time. Even to voice such a truth is literature: it gives us meaning even as it tells us there is no external meaning.


  1.  Nietzsche, Fredrich (2014-02-19). Will to Power (Kindle Location 2008).  . Kindle Edition.
  2.  Johnson, Samuel (2005-04-06). Notes to Shakespeare, Volume III: The Tragedies (Kindle Locations 24-29). Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.
  3. Johnson, Samuel (2013-09-15). Delphi Complete Works of Samuel Johnson (Illustrated) (Series Four) (Kindle Locations 94519-94525). Delphi Classics. Kindle Edition.
  4. William Logan. Guilty Knowledge, Guilty Pleasure: The Dirty Art of Poetry. Columbia University Press (April 1, 2014)

2 thoughts on “Samuel Johnson: The Critic as Keeper of the Lights

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s