Monday, May 23, 2005

Week 15 Samuel Johnson

Samuel Johnson's "On Fiction" (Rambler #4)

Johnson is responding to the rise of the middle-class public; he wants to articulate its demands and needs. In spite of his Platonic fear of art's power to contaminate young minds, Johnson believes that art, because it now deals with realistic characters with whom the middle-class audience can identify, affects the reader powerfully and teaches him how to behave in the various situations that modern Britain throws at its citizenry. Ultimately, though, it is important to state that for Johnson the neoclassicist, "the universe is a moral order structured by rational principles, and the aim of art is to reproduce and reaffirm that order" (Adams, Critical Theory since Plato). The critic may only judge how well nature—human nature—has been methodized. Middle-class complexity and urbanity should not be allowed to obscure this. We can find in the "Preface to Shakespeare" certain romanticist-tending ideas. Johnson pays a lot of attention to the poet in this preface, and he speaks well of the particularity and variety that romantics will valorize. All in all, there are a few too many "streaks" in Johnson's criticism for him to fit perfectly in the neoclassical camp.
Johnson believes poets should understand the middle-class society they depict. They must know its habits and mores. He assumes that city life and commerce have created a more or less common set of demands on artistic work, or at least that such a standard is crystallizing as he writes. The rise of the "public" subjects the realist poet, novelist, or dramatist to stringent requirements in copying and selecting from human manners, but this change in expectations alone is no guaranty that art will serve the moral purpose Johnson and many other critics want it to serve. We see Johnson trying to harness the identificatory, affective power of realistic fiction. (In the nineteenth century, by the way, critics like Thomas Carlyle, J.S. Mill and Matthew Arnold will lament advancing middle-class conformism in the arts and general culture.) In sum, aesthetic demands are shifting in Johnson's time, and his goal as a critic is to respond to and, perhaps, to shape those demands toward suitably moral ends. Let novelists take care: the very fact that their young middle-class readers can identify with the main character could be disastrous. Realistic art has great affective power, so writers must select their objects carefully.

Johnson holds a traditionally Christian view of humanity's fallen tendencies. He insists that men are often "discolored by passion, or deformed by wickedness." Behind the figures of deformation lies the idea that human life is always in flux, especially in the city. The old Christian idea about the variability of human passions is evident here, but added onto it is a wariness about the variableness of situations in eighteenth-century urban life. The old and allegedly stable aristocratic order is giving way to bourgeois anxiety. The point of art, for Johnson, is to teach people (especially young people) about all the snares that lie in wait "out there" in the real world and to show them how they might avoid those snares.

Samuel Johnson's Rasselas

According to Imlac, the poet must be skillful in bringing to the average reader's mind an idea of the tulip (or anything else) that will not conflict with the idea of a tulip in other readers' minds. The point is to achieve identity of ideas. What the poet gives us is not the particular tulip with its particular number of streaks; he gives us instead a general tulip with just enough streaks to remind us that tulips generally have them. John Locke says that while "mere words" may have caused the medieval scholastic philosophers infinitely many headaches, the most troubling cause of confusion is dissimilar ideas. Johnson follows this basic Lockean epistemological scheme. (Epistemology is the term for "theory of knowledge"—an epistemologist inquires into the grounds of acquiring knowledge.) Getting men to recall identical ideas would be important to Johnson's moral scheme. How, in other words, can the artist or critic reinforce a universal, rational, moral order if our ideas about virtue descend into mere temporality, diversity, and particularity? We should then be always quibbling over the number of streaks on our moral tulip, and obviously this quibbling can lead to no universal assent about morality. And there is, for Johnson, a stable moral order to reinforce in the midst of middle-class, urban English life. The average person must not let life's modern complexities lead him or her astray from this eternal order.

Imlac says that the poet must observe all aspects of the human condition and passions, all "changes of the human mind as they are modified by various institutions and accidental influences of climate or custom." This is to some extent a very modern claim in favor of diversity, but it's well to keep in mind that Johnson's neoclassical poet is expected to find a rational order underlying surface diversity.

Samuel Johnson's "Preface to Shakespeare"

Johnson's point is rather similar to that of David Hume in "Of the Standard of Taste." I don't mean to make any close philosophical connection; it's just that Johnson, like nearly all his contemporaries, must have been influenced both by the empirical tradition of England dating from Bacon and Locke to his own contemporaries Edmund Burke and David Hume. Hume makes much the same point in "Of the Standard of Taste" that Johnson makes: "But though all the general rules of art are founded only on experience and on the observation of the common sentiments of human nature, we must not imagine, that, on every occasion, the feelings of men will be conformable to these rules . . . . A perfect serenity of mind, a recollection of thought, a due attention to the object; if any of these circumstances be wanting, our experiment will be fallacious, and we shall be unable to judge of the catholic and universal beauty. The relation, which nature has placed between the form and the sentiment, will at least be more obscure; and it will require greater accuracy to trace and discern it. We shall be able to ascertain its influence not so much from the operation of each particular beauty, as from the durable admiration, which attends those works, that have survived all the caprices of mode and fashion, all the mistakes of ignorance and envy. The same Homer, who pleased at Athens and Rome two thousand years ago, is still admired at Paris and at London. All the changes of climate, government, religion, and language, have not been able to obscure his glory."

Hume's individual critic needs to practice his craft, temper his state of mind, before he can make true judgments about what pleases or ought to please in art. The same goes for Hume's society (Scotland and England) as well—time alone will tell if a work is truly great. Similarly, while Johnson has recourse to the idea that there is truly some "universal human nature" behind all the variables in life, he pays due attention to the supposed distorting effect of these variables upon artistic judgment. Art, says Johnson, is inherently subject to the variables that cause the mind to be pleased or displeased with what it beholds. Poetry and drama are simply not "raised upon principles demonstrative and scientific"; we are not dealing with the Pythagorean theorem here but with a product whose purpose is to "teach by delighting." Inconstant creatures that fallen humans are, what ought to give them pleasure may not do so when it is first presented to them, and what at first pleases them may, in a hundred years' time, have passed out of fashion. In sum, says Johnson, "works tentative and experimental must be estimated by their proportion to the general and collective ability of man, as it is discovered in a long succession of endeavors." The empirical bent of that statement needs no explaining. Neither does the remark that, "what has been longest known has been most considered, and what is most considered is best understood."

But back to Shakespeare specifically. Since "human judgment, though it be gradually gaining upon certainty, never becomes infallible; and approbation, though long continued, may yet be only the approbation of prejudice or fashion," says Johnson, we must ask why Shakespeare still delights his audiences. For Johnson, there is a bedrock "human nature" that transcends time and place; the universal order is essentially a moral order, one which art can reinforce and the good critic discern. Evidently, there is a "standard of taste" in Johnson's view, and Shakespeare satisfies its demands. Shakespeare captures the variety, the mixed modes, of life. He knows that there are more passions than love; he is able to approximate the remote and familiarize the wonderful. His comedies and tragedies capture human experience in all its confusion, and yet we derive intelligible meanings from our reading experience. In scenes such as the "drunken porter" episode in Macbeth or the twinning of the Fool with King Lear, we are forced to see events from more than one perspective. We never get to exclaim arrogantly, "what a piece of work is man!" but instead must confront our own intellectual and moral complexities.

Finally, I believe that behind Johnson's maxim lies basic Lockean psychology and epistemology. In spite of all the vicissitudes in judging art that both Johnson and David Hume emphasize, there is still some kind of common experience to be arrived at, even if it takes a hundred years. Let's examine Hazard Adams' concise account of Lockean epistemology on page 252:

For Locke, words are signs of ideas, always based on experience, that precede them. Their relation to these ideas is purely arbitrary, though after repeated use they seem natural. Except for proper names, words are general and do not refer to specific objects. Rather, they signify abstract ideas built up from combinations of simple ones. These ideas are the "nominal" essences of genera and species, there being no "real" essences hidden and unknown to us.

Adams goes on to say that Locke prioritizes Ideas over words, leading him to condemn rhetoric as a means to use words to deceive and mislead men about their ideas. Adams also points out that "Locke locates truth in the empirically derived ideas." We may not know the "real essence" of particular things, but it is good enough, thinks Locke, that the ideas arising from sensory perceptions can be combined to form abstract "genera and species" that allow us to make our experience intelligible and classifiable. Here is an important passage from Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding:
6. It is true I have often mentioned a real essence, distinct in substances from those abstract ideas of them, which I call their "nominal essence." By this "real essence," I mean that real constitution of any thing which is the foundation of all those properties that are combined in, and are constantly found to coexist with, the nominal essence; that particular constitution which every thing has within itself, without any relation to any thing without it. But essence, even in this sense, relates to a sort, and supposes a species: for, being that real constitution on which the properties depend, it necessarily supposes a sort of things, properties belonging only to species, and not to individuals; v.g., supposing the nominal essence of gold to be body of such a peculiar colour and weight, with malleability and fusibility, the real essence is that constitution of the parts of matter on which these qualities and their union depend; and is also the foundation of its solubility in aqua regia, and other properties accompanying that complex idea. Here are essences and properties, but all upon supposition of a sort, or general abstract idea, which is considered as immutable; but there is no individual parcel of matter to which any of these qualities are so annexed as to be essential to it or inseparable from it. That which is essential belongs to it as a condition, whereby it is of this or that sort: but take away the consideration of its being ranked under the name of some abstract idea, and then there is nothing necessary to it, nothing inseparable from it. Indeed, as to the real essences of substances, we only suppose their being, without precisely knowing what they are: but that which annexes them still to the species is the nominal essence, of which they are the supposed foundation and cause.

7. The nominal essence bounds the species.—The next thing to be considered is, by which of those essences it is that substances are determined into sorts or species; and that, it is evident, is by the nominal essence. For it is that alone that the name, which is the mark of the sort, signifies. It is impossible therefore that any thing should determine the sorts of things which we rank under general names, but that idea which that name is designed as a mark for; which is that, as has been shown, which we call the "nominal essence." Why do we say, "This is a horse, and that a mule; this is an animal, that an herb?" How comes any particular thing to be of this or that sort, but because it has that nominal essence, or, which is all one, agrees to that abstract idea that name is annexed to? . . .

9. Not the real essence, which we know not.—Nor, indeed, can we rank and sort things, and consequently (which is the end of sorting) denominate them, by their real essences, because we know them not. Our faculties carry us no farther towards the knowledge and distinction of substances than a collection of those sensible ideas which we observe in them. . . . The workmanship of that all-wise and powerful God, in the great fabric of the universe and every part thereof, farther exceeds the capacity and comprehension of the most inquisitive and intelligent man, than the best contrivance of the most ingenious man doth the conceptions of the most ignorant of rational creatures. Therefore we in vain pretend to range things into sorts, and dispose them into certain classes, under names, by their real essences, that are so far from our discovery or comprehension. (Amherst: Prometheus, 1995. pp. 359-360)
Though the analogy is rough, we might say that "morality" somewhat resembles a Lockean "simple idea" for Johnson—though it may be covered up by the arbitrary, decaying language of fashion and politics, etc., time will wipe away these obstructions and allow us to understand one another's "ideas"—or universal morality, or aesthetic taste, in this case. We all have a common sensibility and a common capacity to discern these things. They are founded upon something valid.

Johnson slides smoothly into his rather strong condemnation of certain faults in Shakespeare. It is clear that Johnson's priority is moral improvement, though it is true enough that pleasure is the necessary means to moral ends. Other, lesser faults than the main one Johnson cites are that Shakespeare's plots are loose, his plays rife with anachronisms, and his attention always prone to be led astray by a quibble.

As for his criticism of strict neoclassicism, Johnson links Corneille and Dryden to the same naive mimetic view of art that Plato's Socrates held. As Professor Michael Clark of UC Irvine has said in a lecture, the empiricist tradition in England posits that "language parallels, and even replicates, natural processes and that we may, therefore, arrive at an exact correspondence between one word and one thing. If language can replicate natural processes, art can replicate nature. . . . If one word can mean (i.e. "represent") one thing, the interpreter can analyze language and thereby learn about the relationship between things themselves . . . . 'It is unnatural not to obey the unity of time,' says Dryden. Unity of place must also be observed, and the stage is only one place. In this instance, Dryden implies that there is a direct correspondence between nature and that which imitates it. While the Augustinian sign refers to something beyond itself, the neoclassical sign corresponds strictly to its referent." Furthermore, Clark says that "for the French rationalists, the locus of Being is rational thought processes, which themselves underlie natural processes . . . . For Pope and Johnson, to study nature is to study human nature, so two separate theories have been fused—that of inductive study of nature and that of rationalist psychology."

I would add to Clark's exposition that as far as I can see, for the British, rationalism and empiricism are not entirely separate doctrines. Continental rationalists imply that the universe operates along the lines of reason and mathematics. Writing just before Locke, the British scientist Isaac Newton makes it tenable to marry mathematics and empirical study of the universe. After all, the universe operates along the principles of something quite mathematical—gravity; we can see these laws at work in physical nature. We can go to nature itself and validate our theory that the universe operates along rational principles.

Language theory aside, Johnson says that there is nothing sacred about the unities of time and place. Thanks to plain common sense, he will not hear of the idea that the spectators are fooled into believing what they see on the stage. As Prof. Clark says, Johnson is a lot less interested in any theory of strict mimesis than he is in the psychology of artistic representation. For Johnson, art does not represent nature directly; it only moves us to think of reality. Notice that Johnson turns Corneille's and Dryden's alleged audience of true believers into a pack of deluded fools; "mass delusion" would be our term for it today. Their naiveté creates a scene no less than "fantastic." As Johnson says, "Delusion, if delusion be admitted, has no certain limitation." If we listen to Dryden, we shall slide right off the verge of the inane and absurd; we shall be unable to tell the difference between illusion and reality. But if I read Johnson correctly, he implies that sanity and moral soundness depend upon just this sense of balance. It is vital to retain the ability to see a fiction for what it is while comparing it to "real life" and drawing a moral lesson therefrom.

With regard to mimetic theory, Johnson values not so much "imitation of nature" as the effecting of an identification between the middle-class spectator and the "unheroic" character. This is an emotional identification. Fictions bring realities to life. We credit or rather value (note my shift in terms) fictions because they bring realities, possibilities, "moral landscapes" to mind.

A Further Note on Johnson and Pope

Just a quick note to make sure I am not misleading anyone when I refer some of Pope and Johnson's ideas to British empiricism. I think such statements are correct in general, but I also think it important to say that "British empiricism" is not exactly as static a movement as my commentaries may suggest. The differences between the early empiricism of Sir Francis Bacon and the Royal Society and the philosophy of the Scot David Hume show a steady tendency toward skepticism and even, in the case of Bishop Berkeley, toward an extreme idealism which posits that "all qualities of matter . . . [are] simply ideas in the mind" (From Classic to Romantic. Walter Jackson Bate. New York: Harper, 1946. 56). It is as if once Locke argued that our knowledge arises mainly from sense (and in some cases from introspection), the question as to whether in fact the "ideas" we get from sense data really correspond to the "outside world" was bound to emerge and become a central problem for empirical thinkers. Hume's answer was, as Bate says, that "the mind can know only its own isolated ideas, with no absolute confidence in the existence and nature either of the external world or of the rational validity of the mind's working" (56). That sounds like far too extreme a formulation for more neoclassical critics like Pope and Johnson.

Finally, while in Pope and Johnson imagination is not to be condemned, it should not run wild; there is nothing wrong with observing particularities, but ultimately the foundations of our knowledge are rational, not directly based upon sensory perception, as imagination too directly is. While both Pope and Johnson acknowledge that we discover truths or standards through experience, that probably doesn't mean to them that the very source and derivation of those truths is empirical nature.

PS: Bate's book, though written a half century ago, still retains all its capacity to introduce you to the major tenets of neoclassicism and romanticism. The same might be said for Meyer H. Abrams' book, The Mirror and the Lamp.

Albert Wlecke, Johnson's "On Fiction," Rasselas, and "Preface to Shakespeare"

Johnson lived from 1709-1784. When he died, Wordsworth and Beethoven were 14 years old. Johnson wrote the first major dictionary of English—the compilation was mostly his own work! Boswell and Walter Jackson Bate are both good sources on Johnson. He edited may periodicals, and wrote some fine poetry, most especially "The Vanity of Human Wishes."

Johnson's task in "On Fiction" is to sustain the basic Renaissance humanist rationale for literature, but he must face the advent of the novel and the change in readership this new genre signals. The middle class is interested in periodical literature and novels. By Johnson's time, authors begin to feel the need to translate their Latin and Greek epigrams since they are no longer sure of the public's ability to read ancient languages.

By Johnson's time, literature is changing, so theory has to change to accommodate it. We are no longer dealing with medieval romances, even though such ancient stuff is still published in his day. Johnson says that the task of our present writers is to observe carefully the middle-class world around them. They must know the "general converse" and engage in an acute observation of "the living world." This is still a version of the norm of verisimilitude, but with a middle-class twist. The rise of the common reader and the spread of literacy make this new norm possible.

Johnson says that the question of moral education cannot be separated from intellectual education. Literature, he thinks, is bound up with the education of the young, just as it does in Plato. It is not so much that the artist imitates life, or human manners; rather, he selects carefully what he will imitate, what he will feed the young. He should keep from them incongruous combinations of images—the kind that we see, for example, in poem's like Donne's "The Flea." He must also protect his audience from unjust premises and perverse opinions. Youth is impressionable, and literary works have the power to inculcate opinions for better or worse. (The same basic position might well be ascribed to today's "cultural studies" theorists.)

Sidney says that the poet teaches men "as if they had taken a medicine of cherries." Art can shape the will without our being aware of its doing so, or indeed almost without the intervention of the will. Johnson acknowledges art's power, and that is why the writer must be careful to portray what is "most proper fro imitation." He argues that the artist must represent the most perfect idea of virtue (an argument in accordance with that of Sidney).

In Rasselas, Johnson says that the natures of things and the passions of humankind are "always the same" at base. Shakespeare provides us with representations of universal nature. Aristotle, too, argues that literature presents universal truths about humanity. The argument Johnson makes would be too humanistic for many modern-day "anti-foundational" theorists—he would oppose the idea that notions about "human nature" are the product of ideology, oppression, and particular historical and social contexts. For Johnson, human nature is universal and timeless.