Monday 16 January 2023

His Bright Designs

 Yesterday I attended my first Johnson Society meeting – in fact the first of their winter lectures in some while, thanks to the Covid panic. It was a fascinating talk by Freya Johnston, an Oxford professor of English Literature, titled, rather cryptically, 'Johnson's Designs', but also going under the title of 'The Unwritten Life of Samuel Johnson' ('Is there any?' remarked the lady sitting next to me.) Projected images, mostly of written pages, accompanied and illustrated the lecture, and there were a few technical glitches, whistles and bursts of feedback, to keep us entertained. There were around 50 people in the hall, and others were watching and listening remotely, via Zoom. 
The lecture took off from a recollection of Dr Samuel Parr, a now forgotten writer once known as 'the Whig Johnson', who claimed that he had long planned to write a life of Johnson, his hero, and that, if he had done, it would have been the finest thing he ever wrote. But he didn't – and that was the point: this lecture was all about works projected but never undertaken, a theme close to Johnson's heart, or his troubled conscience. At the core of the talk was a small notebook left among Johnson's papers, titled 'Designs'. It lists what appear to be works Johnson might have intended to write, but, for whatever reasons, never did (among them, oddly, a History of the Revival of Learning, which Johnson, in his Lives of the Poets, claims that Collins also intended to write and never did). 
Johnson's life does seem to have been unusually full, even for a professional writer, of works projected but never written, and his personal writings are correspondingly full of self-criticism for his procrastination and idleness. Despite his great achievements – not least the Dictionary – Johnson seems always to have been conscious of the great ocean of things undone all around him, of the labyrinth of paths not taken. This great rolling sentence from the Rambler (no. 8) sums it up: 

'If the most industrious and active of mankind was able, at the close of life, to recollect distinctly his past moments, and distribute them, in a regular account, according to the manner in which they have been spent, it is scarcely to be imagined how few would be marked out to the mind, by any permanent or visible effects, how small a proportion his real action would bear to his seeming possibilities of action, how many chasms he would find of wide and continued vacuity, and how many interstitial spaces unfilled, even in the most tumultuous hurries of business, and the most eager vehemence of pursuit.'

Anyway, I greatly enjoyed this first meeting, and am looking forward to the next.


No comments:

Post a Comment