“The study of life not to be neglected for the sake of books” — Samuel Johnson

“The study of life not to be neglected for the sake of books” by Samuel Johnson

 On life, on morals, be thy thoughts employ’d;
Leave to the schools their atoms and their void.

IT is somewhere related by Le Clerc, that a wealthy trader of good understanding, having the common ambition to breed his son a scholar, carried him to an university, resolving to use his own judgment in the choice of a tutor. He had been taught, by whatever intelligence, the nearest way to the heart of an academick, and at his arrival entertained all who came about him with such profusion, that the professors were lured by the smell of his table from their books, and flocked round him with all the cringes of awkward complaisance. This eagerness answered the merchant’s purpose: he glutted them with delicacies, and softened them with caresses, till he prevailed upon one after another to open his bosom, and make a discovery of his competitions, jealousies, and resentments. Having thus learned each man’s character, partly from himself, and partly from his acquaintances, he resolved to find some other education for his son, and went away convinced, that a scholastick life has no other tendency than to vitiate the morals and contract the understanding: nor would he afterwards hear with patience the praises of the ancient authors, being persuaded that scholars of all ages must have been the same, and that Xenophon and Cicero were professors of some former university, and therefore mean and selfish, ignorant and servile, like those whom he had lately visited and forsaken.

Envy, curiosity, and a sense of the imperfection of our present state, incline us to estimate the advantages which are in the possession of others above their real value. Every one must have remarked, what powers and prerogatives the vulgar imagine to be conferred by learning. A man of science is expected to excel the unlettered and unenlightened even on occasions where literature is of no use, and among weak minds, loses part of his reverence, by discovering no superiority in those parts of life, in which all are unavoidably equal; as when a monarch makes a progress to the remoter provinces, the rustics are said sometimes to wonder that they find him of the same size with themselves. Read More

About these ads

“There are in English often long trains of words allied by their meaning and derivation” (Samuel Johnson)

There are in English often long trains of words allied by their meaning and derivation; as, to beata batbatoona battlea beetlea battledoreto batterbatter, a kind of glutinous composition for food, made by beating different bodies into one mass. All these are of similar signification, and perhaps derived from the Latin batuo. Thus taketouchtickletacktackle; all imply a local conjunction from the Latin tangotetigitactum.

From two are formed twaintwicetwentytwelvetwinstwinetwisttwirltwigtwitchtwingebetweenbetwixttwilighttwibil.

The following remarks, extracted from Wallis, are ingenious but of more subtlety than solidity, and such as perhaps might in every language be enlarged without end.

Sn usually imply the nose, and what relates to it. From the Latin nasus are derived the French nez and the English nose; and nesse, a promontory, as projecting like a nose. But as if from the consonants ns taken from nasus, and transposed that they may the better correspond, sn denote nasus; and thence are derived many words that relate to the nose, as snoutsneezesnoresnort,snearsnickersnotsnivelsnitesnuffsnufflesnafflesnarlsnudge.

There is another sn which may perhaps be derived from the Latin sinuo, as snakesneaksnailsnare; so likewise snap and snatchsnibsnubBl imply a blast; as blowblastto blastto blight, and, metaphorically, to blast one’s reputation;bleatbleak, a bleak place, to look bleak, or weather-beaten, blackblaybleachblusterblurtblisterblabbladderblewblabber lip’tblubber-cheek’tblotedblote-herringsblastblazeto blow, that is, blossombloom; and perhapsblood and blush.

In the native words of our tongue is to be found a great agreement between the letters and the thing signified; and therefore the sounds of the letters smaller, sharper, louder, closer, softer, stronger, clearer, more obscure, and more stridulous, do very often intimate the like effects in the things signified.

Thus words that begin with str intimate the force and effect of the thing signified, as if probably derived from στρωννυμι, or strenuous; as strongstrengthstrewstrikestreakstrokestripestrivestrifestrugglestroutstrutstretchstrait,strictstreight, that is, narrow, distrainstressdistressstringstrapstreamstreamerstrandstripstraystrugglestrangestridestradale.

St in like manner imply strength, but in a less degree, so much only as is sufficient to preserve what has been already communicated, rather than acquire any new degree; as if it were derived from the Latin sto; for example, standstay, that is, to remain, or to prop; staffstay, that is, to oppose; stopto stuffstifleto stay, that is, to stop; a stay, that is, an obstacle; stickstutstutterstammerstaggersticklestickstake, a sharp, pale, and any thing deposited at play; stockstem,stingto stingstinkstitchstudstuncheonstubstubble, to stub up, stump, whence stumblestalkto stalkstepto stamp with the feet, whence to stamp, that is, to make an impression and a stamp; stowto stowto bestowsteward, orstowardsteadsteadystedfaststablea stablea stallto stallstoolstallstillstallstallagestagestill, adjective, and still, adverb: stalestoutsturdysteadstoatstallionstiffstark-deadto starve with hunger or cold; stonesteel,sternstanchto stanch blood, to staresteepsteeplestairstandard, a stated measure, stately. In all these, and perhaps some others, st denote something firm and fixed.

Thr imply a more violent degree of motion, as throwthrustthrongthrobthroughthreatthreatenthrallthrows.

Wr imply some sort of obliquity or distortion, as wryto wreathewrestwrestlewringwrongwrinchwrenchwranglewrinklewrathwreakwrackwretchwristwrap.

Sw imply a silent agitation, or a softer kind of lateral motion; as swayswagto swayswaggerswervesweatsweepswillswimswingswiftsweetswitchswinge.

Nor is there much difference of sm in smoothsmugsmilesmirksmite; which signifies the same as to strike, but is a softer word; smallsmellsmacksmothersmart, a smart blow properly signifies such a kind of stroke as with an originally silent motion, implied in sm, proceeds to a quick violence, denoted by ar suddenly ended, as is shown by t.

Cl denote a kind of adhesion or tenacity, as in cleaveclayclingclimbclamberclammyclaspto claspto clipto clinchcloakclogcloseto closea cloda clot, as a clot of blood, clouted cream, a cluttera cluster.

Sp imply a kind of dissipation or expansion, especially a quick one, particularly if there be an r, as if it were from spargo or separo: for example, spreadspringsprigsproutsprinklesplitsplinterspillspitsputterspatter.

Sl denote a kind of silent fall, or a less observable motion; as in slimeslideslipslipperslysleightslitslowslackslightslingslap.

And so likewise ash, in crashrashgashflashclashlashslashplashtrash, indicate something acting more nimbly and sharply. But ush, in crushrushgushflushblushbrushhushpush, imply something as acting more obtusely and dully. Yet in both there is indicated a swift and sudden motion not instantaneous, but gradual, by the continued sound, sh.

Thus in flingslingdingswingclingsingwringsting, the tingling of the termination ng, and the sharpness of the vowel i, imply the continuation of a very slender motion or tremor, at length indeed vanishing, but not suddenly interrupted. [31]But in tinkwinksinkclinkchinkthink, that end in a mute consonant, there is also indicated a sudden ending.

If there be an l, as in jingletingletinkleminglesprinkletwinkle, there is implied a frequency, or iteration of small acts. And the same frequency of acts, but less subtile by reason of the clearer vowel a, is indicated in jangletangle,spanglemanglewranglebrangledangle; as also in mumblegrumblejumble. But at the same time the close u implies something obscure or obtunded; and a congeries of consonants mbl, denotes a confused kind of rolling or tumbling, as in ramblescamblescramblewambleamble; but in these there is something acute.

In nimble, the acuteness of the vowel denotes celerity. In sparklesp denotes dissipation, ar an acute crackling, k a sudden interruption, l a frequent iteration; and in like manner in sprinkle, unless in may imply the subtilty of the dissipated guttules. Thick and thin differ in that the former ends with an obtuse consonant, and the latter with an acute.

In like manner, in squeeksqueaksquealsquallbrawlwraulyaulspaulscreekshriekshrillsharpshrivelwrinklecrackcrashclashgnashplashcrushhushhisse,  fisse,  whistsoft,  jar,  hurl,  curl,  whirl,  buz,  bustlespindledwindletwinetwist, and in many more, we may observe the agreement of such sort of sounds with the things signified; and this so frequently happens, that scarce any language which I know can be compared with ours. So that one monosyllable word, of which kind are almost all ours, emphatically expresses what in other languages can scarce be explained but by compounds, or decompounds, or sometimes a tedious circumlocution.

(From Samuel Johnson’s A Grammar of the English Tongue).

Poet Sleep (Samuel Johnson)

sleep

“On Sleep” — Samuel Johnson

“On Sleep” by Samuel Johnson (From The Idler, No. 39. Tuesday, March 20, 1753)

 —[Greek: Oduseus phulloisi kalupsato to d ar Athaenae
Hypnon ep ommasi cheu, ina min pauseie tachista
Dusponeos kamatoio.]—HOM. E. 491

 —Pallas pour’d sweet slumbers on his soul;
And balmy dreams, the gift of soft repose,
Calm’d all his pains, and banish’d all his woes. POPE.

If every day did not produce fresh instances of the ingratitude of mankind, we might, perhaps, be at a loss, why so liberal and impartial a benefactor as sleep, should meet with so few historians or panegyrists. Writers are so totally absorbed by the business of the day, as never to turn their attention to that power, whose officious hand so seasonably suspends the burthen of life; and without whose interposition man would not be able to endure the fatigue of labour, however rewarded, or the struggle with opposition, however successful.

Night, though she divides to many the longest part of life, and to almost all the most innocent and happy, is yet unthankfully neglected, except by those who pervert her gifts.

The astronomers, indeed, expect her with impatience, and felicitate themselves upon her arrival: Fontenelle has not failed to celebrate her praises; and to chide the sun for hiding from his view the worlds, which he imagines to appear in every constellation. Nor have the poets been always deficient in her praises: Milton has observed of the night, that it is “the pleasant time, the cool, the silent.”

These men may, indeed, well be expected to pay particular homage to night; since they are indebted to her, not only for cessation of pain, but increase of pleasure; not only for slumber, but for knowledge. But the greater part of her avowed votaries are the sons of luxury; who appropriate to festivity the hours designed for rest; who consider the reign of pleasure as commencing when day begins to withdraw her busy multitudes, and ceases to dissipate attention by intrusive and unwelcome variety; who begin to awake to joy when the rest of the world sinks into insensibility; and revel in the soft affluence of flattering and artificial lights, which “more shadowy set off the face of things.” Read More

Harold Bloom on “The School of Resentment”

Harold Bloom on his agon with “The School of Resentment.” From his 1991 interview with The Paris Review.

INTERVIEWER

How do you account historically for the school of resentment?

BLOOM

In the universities, the most surprising and reprehensible development came some twenty years ago, around 1968, and has had a very long-range effect, one that is still percolating. Suddenly all sorts of people, faculty members at the universities, graduate and undergraduate students, began to blame the universities not just for their own palpable ills and malfeasances, but for all the ills of history and society. They were blamed, and to some extent still are, by the budding school of resentment and its precursors, as though they were not only representative of these ills but, weirdly enough, as though they had somehow helped cause these ills and, even more weirdly, quite surrealistically, as though they were somehow capable of ameliorating these ills. It’s still going on—this attempt to ascribe both culpability and apocalyptic potential to the universities. It’s really asking the universities to take the place that was once occupied by religion, philosophy, and science. These are our conceptual modes. They have all failed us. The entire history of Western culture, from Alexandrian days until now, shows that when a society’s conceptual modes fail it, then willy-nilly it becomes a literary culture. This is probably neither good nor bad, but just the way things become. And we can’t really ask literature or the representatives of a literary culture, in or out of the university, to save society. Literature is not an instrument of social change or an instrument of social reform. It is more a mode of human sensations and impressions, which do not reduce very well to societal rules or forms.

INTERVIEWER

How does one react to the school of resentment? By declaring oneself an aesthete?

BLOOM

Well, I do that now, of course, in furious reaction to their school and to so much other pernicious nonsense that goes on. I would certainly see myself as an aesthete in the sense advocated by Ruskin, indeed to a considerable degree by Emerson, and certainly by the divine Walter and the sublime Oscar. It is a very engaged kind of mode. Literary criticism in the United States increasingly is split between very low level literary journalism and what I increasingly regard as a disaster, which is literary criticism in the academies, particularly in the younger generations. Increasingly scores and scores of graduate students have read the absurd Lacan but have never read Edmund Spenser; or have read a great deal of Foucault or Derrida but scarcely read Shakespeare or Milton. That’s obviously an absurd defeat for literary study. When I was a young man back in the fifties starting out on what was to be my career, I used to proclaim that my chosen profession seemed to consist of secular clergy or clerisy. I was thinking, of course, of the highly Anglo-Catholic New Criticism under the sponsorship or demigodness of T. S. Eliot. But I realized in latish middle age that, no better or worse, I was surrounded by a pride of displaced social workers, a rabblement of lemmings, all rushing down to the sea carrying their subject down to destruction with them. The school of resentment is an extraordinary sort of mélange of latest-model feminists, Lacanians, that whole semiotic cackle, latest-model pseudo-Marxists, so-called New Historicists, who are neither new nor historicist, and third generation deconstructors, who I believe have no relationship whatever to literary values. It’s really a very paltry kind of a phenomenon. But it is pervasive, and it seems to be waxing rather than waning. It is a very rare thing indeed to encounter one critic, academic or otherwise, not just in the English-speaking world, but also in France or Italy, who has an authentic commitment to aesthetic values, who reads for the pleasure of reading, and who values poetry or story as such, above all else. Reading has become a very curious kind of activity. It has become tendentious in the extreme. A sheer deliquescence has taken place because of this obsession with the methods or supposed method. Criticism starts—it has to start—with a real passion for reading. It can come in adolescence, even in your twenties, but you must fall in love with poems. You must fall in love with what we used to call “imaginative literature.” And when you are in love that way, with or without provocation from good teachers, you will pass on to encounter what used to be called the sublime. And as soon as you do this, you pass into the agonistic mode, even if your own nature is anything but agonistic. In the end, the spirit that makes one a fan of a particular athlete or a particular team is different only in degree, not in kind, from the spirit that teaches one to prefer one poet to another, or one novelist to another. That is to say there is some element of competition at every point in one’s experience as a reader. How could there not be? Perhaps you learn this more fully as you get older, but in the end you choose between books, or you choose between poems, the way you choose between people. You can’t become friends with every acquaintance you make, and I would not think that it is any different with what you read.

INTERVIEWER

Do you foresee any change, or improvement, in the critical fashions?

BLOOM

I don’t believe in myths of decline or myths of progress, even as regards to the literary scene. The world does not get to be a better or a worse place; it just gets more senescent. The world gets older, without getting either better or worse and so does literature. But I do think that the drab current phenomenon that passes for literary studies in the university will finally provide its own corrective. That is to say, sooner or later, students and teachers are going to get terribly bored with all the technocratic social work going on now. There will be a return to aesthetic values and desires, or these people will simply do something else with their time. But I find a great deal of hypocrisy in what they’re doing now. It is tiresome to be encountering myths called “The Social Responsibility of the Critic” or “The Political Responsibility of the Critic.” I would rather walk into a bookstore and find a book called “The Aesthetic Responsibilities of the Statesman,” or “The Literary Responsibilities of the Engineer.” Criticism is not a program for social betterment, not an engine for social change. I don’t see how it possibly could be. If you look for the best instance of a socially radical critic, you find a very good one indeed in William Hazlitt. But you will not find that his social activism on the left in any way conditions his aesthetic judgments, or that he tries to make imaginative literature a machine for revolution. You would not find much difference in aesthetic response between Hazlitt and Dr. Samuel Johnson on Milton, though Dr. Johnson is very much on the right politically, and Hazlitt, of course, very much an enthusiast for the French Revolution and for English radicalism. But I can’t find much in the way of a Hazlittian or Johnsonian temperament in life and literature anywhere on the current scene. There are so many tiresomenesses going on. Everyone is so desperately afraid of being called a racist or a sexist that they connive—whether actively or passively—the almost total breakdown of standards that has taken place both in and out of the universities, where writings by blacks or Hispanics or in many cases simply women are concerned.

INTERVIEWER

This movement has helped focus attention on some great novels, though. You’re an admirer, for example, of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.

BLOOM

Oh, but that is a very, very rare exception. What else is there like Invisible Man? Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God has a kind of superior intensity and firm control. It’s a very fine book indeed. It surprised and delighted me when I first read it and it has sustained several rereadings since. But that and Invisible Man are the only full scale works of fiction I have read by American blacks in this century that have survival possibilities at all. Alice Walker is an extremely inadequate writer, and I think that is giving her the best of it. A book like The Color Purple is of no aesthetic interest or value whatsoever, yet it is exalted and taught in the academies. It clearly is a time in which social and cultural guilt has taken over.

INTERVIEWER

I know you find this to be true of feminist criticism.

BLOOM

I’m very fond of feminist critics, some of whom are my close friends, but it is widely known I’m not terribly fond of feminist criticism. The true test is to find work, whether in the past or present, by women writers that we had undervalued, and thus bring it to our attention and teach us to study it more closely or more usefully. By that test they have failed, because they have added not one to the canon. The women writers who mattered—Jane Austen, George Eliot, Emily Dickinson, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, and others who have always mattered on aesthetic grounds—still matter. I do not appreciate Elizabeth Bishop or May Swenson any more or less than I would have appreciated them if we had no feminist literary criticism at all. And I stare at what is presented to me as feminist literary criticism and I shake my head. I regard it at best as being well-intentioned. I do not regard it as being literary criticism.

INTERVIEWER

Can it be valued as a form of social or political literary criticism?

BLOOM

I’m not concerned with political or social criticism. If people wish to practice it, that is entirely their business. It is not mine, heavens! If it does not help me to read a work of aesthetic value then I’m not going to be interested in it at all. I do not for a moment yield to the notion that any social, racial, ethnic, or “male” interest could determine my aesthetic choices. I have a lifetime of experience, learning, and insight that tells me this.

 

Samuel Johnson’s Death Mask

Dr. Samuel Johnson, Origin of a Penis Euphemism

In his forthcoming cultural history of euphemisms, Euphemania, Ralph Keyes offers the following (seemingly apocryphal) origin of the euphemism “Johnson” (for “penis,” of course) –

Johnson is the last name most often used for the male sex organ. According to one theory, this slangy euphemism originated with the name of a large railroad brake lever. Lexicographer Eric Partridge thought it was more likely an abbreviated version of Dr. Johnson, a onetime synonym for “penis” that Partridge said might be based on the assumption that ‘there was no one Dr. [Samuel] Johnson was not prepared to stand up to.’ Working under the verbal restraints of his times, Partridge said this synonym was for the ‘membrum virile.’

Win a Copy of The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis

UPDATE: The contest is closed–and in record time.

Want to win a copy of The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis? Of course you do. The book makes a hefty stocking stuffer, so you could even give it away if you wanted to, but we suggest you do the selfish thing and hold on to it. It’s excellent.

Picador has kindly agreed to give a copy to one lucky Biblioklept reader (you must have a U.S. address, though). Win this handsome Davis volume by being the first to correctly answer all three questions of our quiz. Post your answers in the comments section.

1. Lydia Davis was married to another famous writer back in the 1970s. Name that writer and his new novel.

2. One of Davis’s short story collections is titled Samuel Johnson Is Indignant. Why is Dr. Johnson indignant? (Hint: Read our review).

3. In a 2008 interview with The Believer, Davis commented that she tried to translate/update a famous 18th century Irish novelist’s work. Who was the writer?