Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Theodore Dalrymple on Doctor Johnson

Via Alykhan, I came across this article by Dalrymple on Samuel Johnson's claim to greatness a couple of days ago. It left me with a burning desire to fill the Doctor Johnson sized gap in my reading. As I had read Voltaire's Candide last summer I decided to read Rasselas and attempt to replicate Dalrymple's comparison.

Rasselas is an absolutely superb novel. The writing is beautiful without ever being ornamental. It has a philosophical depth to it thanks to an unwillingness to rely upon the outlandish tortures which give Candide force. This makes it a far more significant and lasting contribution as an inquiry into the human condition rather than a narrow rebuttal of a contemporary philosophy; in Dalrymple's words:

"Voltaire’s Candide, which has always had more renown than Johnson’s Rasselas, is nevertheless far the more superficial work, its irony crude and shallow compared with that of Rasselas. The surface similarities of the stories only underline their difference in depth. The one, Candide, attacks a philosophical doctrine; the other, Rasselas, addresses a human condition that is with us still. Portraits of the two authors reveal the difference in their character: Voltaire looks like an unregenerate cynic who wants to shock the world by sneering at it, while Johnson looks like a man determined to penetrate to the heart of human existence. The more serious man is also far the funnier."

I'm actually somewhat confused as to why I was never recommended to read Johnson's work in my youth. His style is easy and the novel is a short one. The lack of popular appreciation which so shocks Dalrymple is, or at least was in my case, not a matter of choice but ignorance and I'm unsure of why those who know better allow that ignorance to persist.

Read Dalrymple's article and, if you haven't already been so lucky, acquaint yourself with Doctor Johnson's work.

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