Thursday, November 20, 2008

At the table with Dr. Johnson

{Photo by rocketlass.}

After a too-large dinner of beans on toast--the perfect antidote to the biting, blustery sleaze of a typical Chicago November--I find myself reminded of a passage from Peter Martin's Samuel Johnson (2008) about Dr. Johnson at the table. While on a trip with Joshua Reynolds,
Johnson nonplussed everyone by swallowing no fewer than thirteen pancakes at a single sitting. They stayed three weeks in Plymouth. . . . He is supposed to have amazed his hostess there, too--who was counting assiduously--by drinking seventeen cups of tea in one sitting. When he asked for more, she cried out, "What! Another, Dr Johnson?", to which he replied, "Madam, you are rude."
Though, strictly speaking, Johnson's reply was out of line, it does seem that, once one has poured seventeen cups of tea for a guest, to balk at the eighteenth smacks of churlishness.

As for alcohol, though Johnson once assured James Boswell that "there was no man alive who had seen him drunk," Johnson's friend Edmund Hector met that assertion with a laugh. Martin offers Boswell's account of Hector's rebuttal, a tale of a night of drinking with Ford, one of Johnson's relatives:
[Ford] was it seems a hard drinker and he engaged Johnson and Hector to spend the evening with him at the Swan Inn. Johnson said to Hector, "This fellow will make us both drunk. Let us take him by turns, and get rid of him." It was settled that Hector should go first. He and Ford had drunk three bottles of port before Johnson came. When Johnson arrived, however, Hector found he had been drinking at Mr Porter's instead of saving himself. Hector went to bed at the Swan leaving Johnson to drink on with Ford. Next morning he perceived that Johnson who had been his bed-fellow had been very drunk and he damned him. Johnson tried to deny the charge. Literally speaking Hector had not seen him drunk, though he was sure of the fact.
I don't really want to know on what grotesque evidence Hector based his assessment; the mention of their sharing a bed makes me fear the dreaded bed-puke. Regardless, I love the image of a young Johnson, laboring under the brutalities of a grisly hangover, yet remaining determined to split hairs and win the argument by clinging to the slimmest reed of fact.

Martin goes on to explain that
Boswell himself acknowledged elsewhere that even in later life, although Johnson could be "rigidly abstemious,", he was not "a temperate man either in eating or drinking." He could keep himself from drinking, but once he started it was hard for him to control it.
And he knew the dangers of giving in to drink; as he wrote of Addison,
In the bottle, discontent seeks for comfort, cowardice for courage, and bashfulness for confidence. . . . He that feels oppression from the presence of those to whom he knows himself superior, will desire to set loose his powers of conversation; and who, that ever asked succour from Bacchus, was able to preserve himself from being enslaved by his auxiliary?
In the presence of Johnson, we ought to find ourselves in the opposite position to that in which he paints Addison: we should be oppressed by his superiority. Yet Johnson's raging appetites--and the fact that for the most part he did control them, and thought less of himself when he failed to do so--like so many other aspects of his complicated personality, help to render him fully human and accessible, his accomplishments all the more admirable for their origins in a man whose flaws could at times be nearly as prodigious as his talents.

1 comment:

  1. Such was an ideal post on a day when i have returned home with a few pints of post-dated Oktoberfest under my belt: many thanks to the good Doctor and yourself!