Friday, February 28, 2014

Of the faking of Brooks...

...there is no end.
Another Reynolds portrait of Johnson, wigless and somewhat younger (via Wikimedia).
David Brooks's sudden and startling jump into commentary on literary classics inexorably calls to mind the words of Dr. Samuel Johnson, in Rambler 28, on "The various arts of self-delusion":
There are men who always confound the praise of goodness with the practice, and who believe themselves mild and moderate, charitable and faithful, because they have exerted their eloquence in commendation of mildness, fidelity, and other virtues. This is an error almost universal [jump]
among those that converse much with dependents, with such whose fear or interest disposes them to a seeming reverence for any declamation, however enthusiastic, and submission to any boast, however arrogant. Having none to recall their attention to their lives, they rate themselves by the goodness of their opinions, and forget how much more easily men may show their virtue in their talk than in their actions.
In his own praise of that irascible old Tory as a "great essayist" and a self-made "something large, weighty and impressive," like a sort of human oak dining table, Brooks appropriates to himself an unearned character of literary ambition and moral seriousness in exactly that way. In fact praising himself by praising others (for mildness and moderation, charity and fidelity) is perhaps the central M.O. of his work, though it isn't often that he sets himself up as hilariously as this. I don't know to what extent he's surrounded by fearful yes-men and self-seeking flatterers, but some friend needs to tell him he is going too far.

I dearly love Johnson myself, though with little sympathy for his political and religious views—it's why I've taken his portrait by Joshua Reynolds, gaping in nearsighted horror at a typo or an ill-applied metaphor, as my avatar—but I don't think anybody has ever before called him one of "the greatest essayists who ever lived" on par with Michel de Montaigne, the inventor of the form (essai, "attempt", a literary hang-glider's leap off the cliff). Johnson's periodical essays on the model of Addison and Steele, all written and self-published on bloggy schedules when he was in his forties in 1750-54 and 1758-60, before and after he completed the Dictionary, were an important part of his career, and well-made and resonant, with their carefully plotted periods and grave messages, but if he achieved real greatness it was later on, in his writing on writing, the preface to his edition of Shakespeare and the Lives of the Poets, as a kind of Marian McPartland of 18th-century English letters, a fine performer in his own right but best remembered for his deep understanding, technical and emotional, of performers finer still.

Brooks's picture of Montaigne as a liberal foil to Johnson's conservative is attractive but simplistic (Montaigne was far too skeptical and too aristocratic to count as a progressive, and Johnson's conservatism was not exactly conventional). It is certainly not correct to say that "Johnson was charming, but he was not amiable" or that his essays display "a witty but relentless moral teacher".* Nor is it in any sense the case that he didn't believe in Montaigne's nosce te ipsum:
But whereas Montaigne put the emphasis on self-understanding, Johnson put the emphasis on self-conquest. Johnson didn’t go inward; he went outward.**
He didn't examine himself in public, the way Montaigne did, or discuss the size of his penis (that Montaigne did seems to be true; I imagine Brooks got it from a 2011 Times op-ed by Michael Gottlieb, where he may have picked the concept of putting Johnson and Montaigne together in the same space), but he spent the better part of his time in private self-discovery, agonizing over his moral character, and recommended the same to others in strong terms:
"When a man employs himself upon remote and unnecessary subjects, and wastes his life upon questions which cannot be resolved, and of which the solution would conduce very little to the advancement of happiness; when he lavishes his hours in calculating the weight of the terraqueous globe, or in adjusting successive systems of worlds beyond the reach of the telescope; he may be very properly recalled from his excursions by this precept [Know Thyself], and reminded that there is a nearer being with which it is his duty to be more acquainted; and from which his attention has been hitherto withheld by studies to which he has no other motive than vanity or curiosity." (Rambler 24)
But that picture of a charming but not amiable, witty but relentless moralist, looking out rather than in, is pretty clearly how Brooks thinks of himself. I'd say he's wrong there too. I'd say he's neither a Montaigne nor a Johnson but a lazy, incurious amateur.
Via Tower of Babel.
Johnson socialized with Brooks's Whig hero Edmund Burke, but had a poor opinion of his politics as dishonest
Of a person [Burke] who differed from him in politicks, he said, "In private life he is a very honest gentleman; but I will not allow him to be so in publick life. People may be honest, though they are doing wrong; that is between their Maker and them. But we, who are suffering by their pernicious conduct, are to destroy them...."
and overly partisan
a certain eminent political friend of ours [Burke] was wrong, in his maxim of sticking to a certain set of men on all occasions. "I can see that a man may do right to stick to a party," said he; "that is to say, he is a Whig, or he is a Tory, and he thinks one of those parties upon the whole the best, and that to make it prevail, it must be generally supported, though, in particulars, it may be wrong. He takes its faggot of principles, in which there are fewer rotten sticks than in the other, though some rotten sticks to be sure; and they cannot be well separated. But, to blind one's self to one man, or one set of men (who may be right to-day and wrong to-morrow), without any general preference of system, I must disapprove."
(quotes from, by my tweep @FrankLynchBkln)

*Also false that
Thomas Boswell said he fought his sins as if they were “the wild beasts of the Arena.”
It wasn't his sins but his fears of death that the quote describes him as fighting down, and as I'm sure readers of this page tend to know it wasn't a sports columnist for the Washington Post who said it but Johnson's biographer, James Boswell. I've sent a note on this to the Times under my street name. I assume the Times will correct The Times has corrected the name, but a screen shot is below.

**Just last June, Brooks thought inward-to-outward was a particularly bad thing:
Somewhere along the way, many people in the humanities lost faith in this uplifting mission. The humanities turned from an inward to an outward focus. They were less about the old notions of truth, beauty and goodness and more about political and social categories like race, class and gender.

No comments:

Post a Comment