Through the Magic Door/Chapter 3

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Through the Magic Door by Arthur Conan Doyle
Chapter 3

We can pass the long green ranks of the Waverley Novels and Lockhart's "Life" which flanks them. Here is heavier metal in the four big grey volumes beyond. They are an old-fashioned large-print edition of Boswell's "Life of Johnson." I emphasize the large print, for that is the weak point of most of the cheap editions of English Classics which come now into the market. With subjects which are in the least archaic or abstruse you need good clear type to help you on your way. The other is good neither for your eyes nor for your temper. Better pay a little more and have a book that is made for use.

That book interests me--fascinates me--and yet I wish I could join heartily in that chorus of praise which the kind-hearted old bully has enjoyed. It is difficult to follow his own advice and to "clear one's mind of cant" upon the subject, for when you have been accustomed to look at him through the sympathetic glasses of Macaulay or of Boswell, it is hard to take them off, to rub one's eyes, and to have a good honest stare on one's own account at the man's actual words, deeds, and limitations. If you try it you are left with the oddest mixture of impressions. How could one express it save that this is John Bull taken to literature--the exaggerated John Bull of the caricaturists--with every quality, good or evil, at its highest? Here are the rough crust over a kindly heart, the explosive temper, the arrogance, the insular narrowness, the want of sympathy and insight, the rudeness of perception, the positiveness, the overbearing bluster, the strong deep-seated religious principle, and every other characteristic of the cruder, rougher John Bull who was the great grandfather of the present good-natured Johnnie.

If Boswell had not lived I wonder how much we should hear now of his huge friend? With Scotch persistence he has succeeded in inoculating the whole world with his hero worship. It was most natural that he should himself admire him. The relations between the two men were delightful and reflect all credit upon each. But they are not a safe basis from which any third person could argue. When they met, Boswell was in his twenty-third and Johnson in his fifty-fourth year. The one was a keen young Scot with a mind which was reverent and impressionable. The other was a figure from a past generation with his fame already made. From the moment of meeting the one was bound to exercise an absolute ascendency over the other which made unbiassed criticism far more difficult than it would be between ordinary father and son. Up to the end this was the unbroken relation between them.

It is all very well to pooh-pooh Boswell as Macaulay has done, but it is not by chance that a man writes the best biography in the language. He had some great and rare literary qualities. One was a clear and vivid style, more flexible and Saxon than that of his great model. Another was a remarkable discretion which hardly once permitted a fault of taste in this whole enormous book where he must have had to pick his steps with pitfalls on every side of him. They say that he was a fool and a coxcomb in private life. He is never so with a pen in his hand. Of all his numerous arguments with Johnson, where he ventured some little squeak of remonstrance, before the roaring "No, sir!" came to silence him, there are few in which his views were not, as experience proved, the wiser. On the question of slavery he was in the wrong. But I could quote from memory at least a dozen cases, including such vital subjects as the American Revolution, the Hanoverian Dynasty, Religious Toleration, and so on, where Boswell's views were those which survived.

But where he excels as a biographer is in telling you just those little things that you want to know. How often you read the life of a man and are left without the remotest idea of his personality. It is not so here. The man lives again. There is a short description of Johnson's person--it is not in the Life, but in the Tour to the Hebrides, the very next book upon the shelf, which is typical of his vivid portraiture. May I take it down, and read you a paragraph of it?--

"His person was large, robust, I may say approaching to the gigantic, and grown unwieldy from corpulency. His countenance was naturally of the cast of an ancient statue, but somewhat disfigured by the scars of King's evil. He was now in his sixty-fourth year and was become a little dull of hearing. His sight had always been somewhat weak, yet so much does mind govern and even supply the deficiencies of organs that his perceptions were uncommonly quick and accurate. His head, and sometimes also his body, shook with a kind of motion like the effect of palsy. He appeared to be frequently disturbed by cramps or convulsive contractions of the nature of that distemper called St. Vitus' dance. He wore a full suit of plain brown clothes, with twisted hair buttons of the same colour, a large bushy greyish wig, a plain shirt, black worsted stockings and silver buckles. Upon this tour when journeying he wore boots and a very wide brown cloth great-coat with pockets which might almost have held the two volumes of his folio dictionary, and he carried in his hand a large English oak stick."

You must admit that if one cannot reconstruct the great Samuel after that it is not Mr. Boswell's fault--and it is but one of a dozen equally vivid glimpses which he gives us of his hero. It is just these pen-pictures of his of the big, uncouth man, with his grunts and his groans, his Gargantuan appetite, his twenty cups of tea, and his tricks with the orange-peel and the lamp-posts, which fascinate the reader, and have given Johnson a far broader literary vogue than his writings could have done.

For, after all, which of those writings can be said to have any life to-day? Not "Rasselas," surely--that stilted romance. "The Lives of the Poets" are but a succession of prefaces, and the "Ramblers" of ephemeral essays. There is the monstrous drudgery of the Dictionary, a huge piece of spadework, a monument to industry, but inconceivable to genius. "London" has a few vigorous lines, and the "Journey to the Hebrides" some spirited pages. This, with a number of political and other pamphlets, was the main output of his lifetime. Surely it must be admitted that it is not enough to justify his predominant place in English literature, and that we must turn to his humble, much-ridiculed biographer for the real explanation.

And then there was his talk. What was it which gave it such distinction? His clear-cut positiveness upon every subject. But this is a sign of a narrow finality--impossible to the man of sympathy and of imagination, who sees the other side of every question and understands what a little island the greatest human knowledge must be in the ocean of infinite possibilities which surround us. Look at the results. Did ever any single man, the very dullest of the race, stand convicted of so many incredible blunders? It recalls the remark of Bagehot, that if at any time the views of the most learned could be stamped upon the whole human race the result would be to propagate the most absurd errors. He was asked what became of swallows in the winter. Rolling and wheezing, the oracle answered: "Swallows," said he, "certainly sleep all the winter. A number of them conglobulate together by flying round and round, and then all in a heap throw themselves under water and lie in the bed of a river." Boswell gravely dockets the information. However, if I remember right, even so sound a naturalist as White of Selborne had his doubts about the swallows. More wonderful are Johnson's misjudgments of his fellow-authors. There, if anywhere, one would have expected to find a sense of proportion. Yet his conclusions would seem monstrous to a modern taste. "Shakespeare," he said, "never wrote six consecutive good lines." He would only admit two good verses in Gray's exquisite "Elegy written in a Country Churchyard," where it would take a very acid critic to find two bad ones. "Tristram Shandy" would not live. "Hamlet" was gabble. Swift's "Gulliver's Travels" was poor stuff, and he never wrote anything good except "A Tale of a Tub." Voltaire was illiterate. Rousseau was a scoundrel. Deists, like Hume, Priestley, or Gibbon, could not be honest men.

And his political opinions! They sound now like a caricature. I suppose even in those days they were reactionary. "A poor man has no honour." "Charles the Second was a good King." "Governments should turn out of the Civil Service all who were on the other side." "Judges in India should be encouraged to trade." "No country is the richer on account of trade." (I wonder if Adam Smith was in the company when this proposition was laid down!) "A landed proprietor should turn out those tenants who did not vote as he wished." "It is not good for a labourer to have his wages raised." "When the balance of trade is against a country, the margin must be paid in current coin." Those were a few of his convictions.

And then his prejudices! Most of us have some unreasoning aversion. In our more generous moments we are not proud of it. But consider those of Johnson! When they were all eliminated there was not so very much left. He hated Whigs. He disliked Scotsmen. He detested Nonconformists (a young lady who joined them was "an odious wench"). He loathed Americans. So he walked his narrow line, belching fire and fury at everything to the right or the left of it. Macaulay's posthumous admiration is all very well, but had they met in life Macaulay would have contrived to unite under one hat nearly everything that Johnson abominated.

It cannot be said that these prejudices were founded on any strong principle, or that they could not be altered where his own personal interests demanded it. This is one of the weak points of his record. In his dictionary he abused pensions and pensioners as a means by which the State imposed slavery upon hirelings. When he wrote the unfortunate definition a pension must have seemed a most improbable contingency, but when George III., either through policy or charity, offered him one a little later, he made no hesitation in accepting it. One would have liked to feel that the violent expression of his convictions represented a real intensity of feeling, but the facts in this instance seem against it.

He was a great talker--but his talk was more properly a monologue. It was a discursive essay, with perhaps a few marginal notes from his subdued audience. How could one talk on equal terms with a man who could not brook contradiction or even argument upon the most vital questions in life? Would Goldsmith defend his literary views, or Burke his Whiggism, or Gibbon his Deism? There was no common ground of philosophic toleration on which one could stand. If he could not argue he would be rude, or, as Goldsmith put it: "If his pistol missed fire, he would knock you down with the butt end." In the face of that "rhinoceros laugh" there was an end of gentle argument. Napoleon said that all the other kings would say "Ouf!" when they heard he was dead, and so I cannot help thinking that the older men of Johnson's circle must have given a sigh of relief when at last they could speak freely on that which was near their hearts, without the danger of a scene where "Why, no, sir!" was very likely to ripen into "Let us have no more on't!" Certainly one would like to get behind Boswell's account, and to hear a chat between such men as Burke and Reynolds, as to the difference in the freedom and atmosphere of the Club on an evening when the formidable Doctor was not there, as compared to one when he was.

No smallest estimate of his character is fair which does not make due allowance for the terrible experiences of his youth and early middle age. His spirit was as scarred as his face. He was fifty-three when the pension was given him, and up to then his existence had been spent in one constant struggle for the first necessities of life, for the daily meal and the nightly bed. He had seen his comrades of letters die of actual privation. From childhood he had known no happiness. The half blind gawky youth, with dirty linen and twitching limbs, had always, whether in the streets of Lichfield, the quadrangle of Pembroke, or the coffee-houses of London, been an object of mingled pity and amusement. With a proud and sensitive soul, every day of his life must have brought some bitter humiliation. Such an experience must either break a man's spirit or embitter it, and here, no doubt, was the secret of that roughness, that carelessness for the sensibilities of others, which caused Boswell's father to christen him "Ursa Major." If his nature was in any way warped, it must be admitted that terrific forces had gone to the rending of it. His good was innate, his evil the result of a dreadful experience.

And he had some great qualities. Memory was the chief of them. He had read omnivorously, and all that he had read he remembered, not merely in the vague, general way in which we remember what we read, but with every particular of place and date. If it were poetry, he could quote it by the page, Latin or English. Such a memory has its enormous advantage, but it carries with it its corresponding defect. With the mind so crammed with other people's goods, how can you have room for any fresh manufactures of your own? A great memory is, I think, often fatal to originality, in spite of Scott and some other exceptions. The slate must be clear before you put your own writing upon it. When did Johnson ever discover an original thought, when did he ever reach forward into the future, or throw any fresh light upon those enigmas with which mankind is faced? Overloaded with the past, he had space for nothing else. Modern developments of every sort cast no first herald rays upon his mind. He journeyed in France a few years before the greatest cataclysm that the world has ever known, and his mind, arrested by much that was trivial, never once responded to the storm-signals which must surely have been visible around him. We read that an amiable Monsieur Sansterre showed him over his brewery and supplied him with statistics as to his output of beer. It was the same foul-mouthed Sansterre who struck up the drums to drown Louis' voice at the scaffold. The association shows how near the unconscious sage was to the edge of that precipice and how little his learning availed him in discerning it.

He would have been a great lawyer or divine. Nothing, one would think, could have kept him from Canterbury or from the Woolsack. In either case his memory, his learning, his dignity, and his inherent sense of piety and justice, would have sent him straight to the top. His brain, working within its own limitations, was remarkable. There is no more wonderful proof of this than his opinions on questions of Scotch law, as given to Boswell and as used by the latter before the Scotch judges. That an outsider with no special training should at short notice write such weighty opinions, crammed with argument and reason, is, I think, as remarkable a tour de force as literature can show.

Above all, he really was a very kind-hearted man, and that must count for much. His was a large charity, and it came from a small purse. The rooms of his house became a sort of harbour of refuge in which several strange battered hulks found their last moorings. There were the blind Mr. Levett, and the acidulous Mrs. Williams, and the colourless Mrs. De Moulins, all old and ailing--a trying group amid which to spend one's days. His guinea was always ready for the poor acquaintance, and no poet was so humble that he might not preface his book with a dedication whose ponderous and sonorous sentences bore the hall-mark of their maker. It is the rough, kindly man, the man who bore the poor street-walker home upon his shoulders, who makes one forget, or at least forgive, the dogmatic pedantic Doctor of the Club.

There is always to me something of interest in the view which a great man takes of old age and death. It is the practical test of how far the philosophy of his life has been a sound one. Hume saw death afar, and met it with unostentatious calm. Johnson's mind flinched from that dread opponent. His letters and his talk during his latter years are one long cry of fear. It was not cowardice, for physically he was one of the most stout-hearted men that ever lived. There were no limits to his courage. It was spiritual diffidence, coupled with an actual belief in the possibilities of the other world, which a more humane and liberal theology has done something to soften. How strange to see him cling so desperately to that crazy body, with its gout, its asthma, its St. Vitus' dance, and its six gallons of dropsy! What could be the attraction of an existence where eight hours of every day were spent groaning in a chair, and sixteen wheezing in a bed? "I would give one of these legs," said he, "for another year of life." None the less, when the hour did at last strike, no man could have borne himself with more simple dignity and courage. Say what you will of him, and resent him how you may, you can never open those four grey volumes without getting some mental stimulus, some desire for wider reading, some insight into human learning or character, which should leave you a better and a wiser man.