A shared wretchedness

I would call Dalrymple’s latest essay in The New Criterion extraordinary, were its insightfulness and eloquence not in fact so usual an occurence in his contributions to that great journal. An attempt to account for Samuel Johnson’s antipathy toward Jonathan Swift, given their many similarities, the essay begins with:

Whoever makes the folly of the world his study must oscillate between attempted detachment and involuntary disgust. Neither is satisfactory; nor is either effective…

Dalrymple suggests first that Johnson saw in himself what he disliked in Swift, then extends the argument to:

But I think the source of Johnson’s antagonism to Swift goes much deeper than this. It is that Swift was Johnson’s alter ego…Johnson, however, found it necessary to keep his saeva indignatio under control, not only for practical, but for psychological reasons…He lived before the fatuous idea took general hold that to express an anxiety, a misery, or a dissatisfaction is necessarily to overcome it. He believed, on the contrary, that it was necessary for man “to regulate his thoughts,”…To give way to rage, therefore, is not to lessen or discharge anger, but to be permanently enraged and eventually driven mad by the unalterable evils of the world, to end up like Swift…

Then, at the conclusion, we read what we Dalrymple devotees suspected from the piece’s opening sentences, that this is all a matter of a personal nature for him:

The Swift-Johnson dialectic, between uncontrollable, or at any rate uncontrolled, rage on the one hand (which has its illicit pleasures) and Augustan detachment on the other (a short step from indifference), is one that I have felt myself. My entire medical career has been spent among civil wars that pitted injustice against ambition or in situations in which vice and folly had no penalty and wisdom and virtue no reward. How was I to react?

For his answer, read the whole thing.

2 thoughts on “A shared wretchedness

  1. Ken

    For my money a hundred Swift’s don’t make a Johnson.

    With Johnson, you get the dictionary, you get the Shakespeare criticism, and you get a man who could play English like a violin.

    Swift, to me, always seemed a small and self-promoting soul. I put him with R.L. Stevenson in talent, if even that.

    re Boswell, Macauley has a great line on him. Somewhere Macauley said that one can read the entire Life of Johnson and not find a single thought of which a 13-year old would not have been capable of producing.

  2. Stan Bloodworth

    Also, Dalrymple tends to be discontent with the lack of self-restraints in modern society today, hence he can concur with Johnson to ‘regulate his thoughts’, even though he suspects he is thinking for his alter-ego.


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