Monday, February 24, 2014

The root of the disagreement between Johnson and Swift?

Samuel Johnson's dislike of Jonathan Swift's work is famous. Jackson Bate offers the reasonable explanation that what Johnson saw in Swift was a dark reflection of himself--the self he could have been had he let his satiric bite run free rather than constantly attempting to check it and temper it with religious belief. Bate writes,
The Life of Swift strikes the modern reader as the only hopelessly biased Life. Here we can only try to remember Johnson's lifelong fear, especially after the breakdown in his fifties, of the powerful satiric bitterness of his own nature, and his dread--a dread with which he was constantly living--of falling into the anger and the sense of emptiness about life that he associated with Swift.
I suspect Evelyn Waugh may have played a similar role--a sort of "there but by the grace of god"-style role model--for satirically inclined interwar writers.

Bate's position is convincing, and it conforms to what we know of Johnson and of Swift (even as it does nothing to lessen the wish that their lives could have overlapped, giving them an opportunity to meet). But perhaps the explanation is simpler? Perhaps, it's rooted in a simple disagreement about the proper way to approach a hill?

As we saw on Friday, Johnson is documented as a hill-roller: in his fifties, while on the trip to Scotland with Boswell, he took a wistful roll down one, to the amusement (and, presumably, brief worry) of all around. Swift, on the other hand--well, let's let Leo Damrosch, author of last year's excellent biography, tell it:
Swift . . . became convinced that exercise was beneficial, in an era when medical theory discouraged it, and most people avoided it. At Moor Park, as he told Deane Swift long afterward, he would work for two hours and then take a break by running up to the top of a nearby hill and down again. "This exercise he performed in about six minutes; backwards and forwards it was about half a mile."
Oh, I'll admit it seems silly: Could two such great minds as these truly be set at odds by such a silly difference? Could a preference for rolling rather than running down a hill really be enough to cause Johnson to cast Swift beyond of the pale of his appreciation?

Perhaps not--but then, perhaps we should remember what Swift's friend Gulliver learned about the origins of the ongoing conflict between Lilliput and Blefuscu:
It began upon the following occasion. It is allowed on all hands, that the primitive way of breaking eggs, before we eat them, was upon the larger end; but his present majesty's grandfather, while he was a boy, going to eat an egg and breaking it according to the ancient practice, happened to cut one of his fingers. Whereupon the emperor his father published an edict, commanding all his subjects, upon great penalties, to break the smaller end of their eggs. The people so highly resented this law, that our histories tell us, there have been six rebellions raised on that account; wherein one emperor lost his life, and another his crown. These civil commotions were constantly fomented by the monarchs of Blefuscu; and when they were quelled, the exiles always fled for refuge to that empire. It is computed that eleven thousand persons have at several times suffered death, rather than submit to break their eggs at the smaller end.
Suddenly that hill is looking more like a mountain, isn't it?

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