I’m nearing the end of Boswell’s Life of Johnson, and although I’m now feeling ready to move on, I will miss this book when I’m finished — it’s been such a nice almost daily companion for the last few months.
Death has been a recurring theme throughout the book, and, not surprisingly, it is appearing more and more often as Johnson ages — he talks about fearing death and not believing those who claim to face it with courage. He recognizes that it’s natural to fear death, but he also offers some wisdom as to how best to face it (this is Boswell’s recounting of Johnson’s conversation):
It is by contemplating a large mass of human existence, that a man, while he sets a just value on his own life, does not think of his death as annihilating all that is great and pleasing in the world, as if actually contained in his mind … It must be acknowledged, however, that Pope’s plaintive reflection, that all things would be as gay as ever, on the day of his death, is natural and common. We are apt to transfer to all around us our own gloom, without considering that at any given point of time there is, perhaps, as much youth and gaiety in the world as at another … Let us guard against imagining that there is an end of felicity upon earth, when we ourselves grow old, or are unhappy.
This attempt to keep a larger view of life — to realize that we are only a very, very small part of everything that exists — is a note Johnson frequently sounds. And I think it can be comforting to keep this larger view, especially when facing a particularly trying time. In the larger scheme of things, what does this little disturbance matter? On the other hand, when it comes to our own death, what else can we do but think of it as complete annihilation? Does it matter to me that the world goes on after I’m gone? Sometimes I think about what it would be like to live before a particular author existed — to not know about Shakespeare or Charles Dickens or Virginia Woolf because you lived before them, or to not know about the novel because you lived before it developed — and that makes me think about what I’ll miss. What wonderful writer will appear 100 or 200 years from now that I’ll never know about?
But as much as Johnson provokes gloomy thoughts of this sort, he also can be very good at putting them to rest. When Boswell complains to Johnson in a letter that he has “been troubled by a recurrence of the perplexing question of Liberty and Necessity,” this is Johnson’s response:
I hoped you had got rid of all this hypocrisy of misery. What have you to do with Liberty and Necessity? Or what more than to hold your tongue about it? Do not doubt but I shall be most heartily glad to see you here again, for I love every part about you but your affectation of distress.
Something about this combination of affection and gentle chastisement appeals to me. With problems that we can do absolutely nothing about, what use is there to dwell on them?
But lest you think The Life is all seriousness, I’ll include this amusing story. I’m not finding The Life terribly funny, but I did laugh out loud when I read this — speaking of the wife of a well-known author, Johnson says:
” … the woman had a bottom of good sense.” The word bottom thus introduced, was so ludicrous when contrasted with his gravity, that most of us could not forbear tittering and laughing; though I recollect that the Bishop of Killaloe kept his countenance with a perfect steadiness, while Miss Hannah More slyly hid her face behind a lady’s back who sat on the same settee with her. His pride could not bear that any expression of his should excite ridicule, when he did not intend it; he therefore resolved to assume and exercise despotick power, glanced sternly around, and called out in a strong tone, “Where’s the merriment?” Then collecting himself, and looking awful, to make us feel how he could impose restraint, and as it were searching his mind for a still more ludicrous word, he slowly pronounced, “I say the woman was fundamentally sensible;” as if he had said, hear this now, and laugh if you dare. We all sat composed as at a funeral.
Can you imagine?