A Curious Miscellany of Items Philosophical, Historical, and Literary

Manus haec inimica tyrannis.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

On Dr. Johnson's Literary Criticism

As I mentioned in a previous posting, (“Look on My Works, Ye Mighty” May 9, 2009), I’m still reading my way through Samuel Johnson’s works, though in no particular order. I’m currently working on Volume 10, in which I came across an interesting piece of the good Doctor’s literary criticism (p. 85).

In his Miscellaneous Observations on the Tragedy of Macbeth (1745), he gives a gloss on these lines of Malcolm’s in Act I, scene vi:

“To throw away the dearest thing he ow’d,
As t’were a careless trifle.”

Johnson observes, “As the word ow’d affords here no sense but such as is forced and unnatural, it cannot be doubted that it was originally written, The dearest thing he own’d; a reading which needs neither defence nor explication.”

Now, in a sense he’s right: to the modern reader, “owned” is the more natural reading. But here as elsewhere Johnson is too quick to assume that Shakespeare intended what is natural to we later readers, while blaming the less natural sounding reading on faulty or careless typesetters and editors.

In truth, ow’d may have been a perfectly acceptable usage in Shakespeare’s time. According to the OED (entry: “owe”), the past participle of owe was owen (i.e. own) in Middle English and owen and oune were still used in this sense in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Also in the OED (entry: “own”), from around 1200 in the Southern dialect, the past participle of own in our modern sense was owe, in keeping with that dialect’s habit of dropping final n’s. And of course, the Southern dialect was Chaucer’s, which would eventually become Standard English.

Think of it this way: if X is owned, then X is owed to someone (i.e. its owner).

Interestingly, owe and own are also related to ought. This one is more difficult to wrap one’s mind around. Think of ought as owe / own in the subjunctive mood, in which case “X is owed to / owned by A” becomes “It ought to be the case that X is A’s”.

Enough of such pedantry. What is interesting about the fact that owe, own, and ought are etymological kindred is that Johnson, the great lexicographer, missed it. This is out of character, and can only be explained — at least in the case of his Shakespearean criticism — by his habit of underestimating the bard’s linguistic virtuosity.

Too often Johnson assumes that Shakespeare’s audience was just like us. To make matters worse, he assumes that Shakespeare would always deliver his lines in a form that was easily digestible by that audience. In his Proposals for Printing the Dramatic Works of Shakespeare (1756; in Works, Vol. X, p. 126), he writes: “But my opinion is, that very few of his [Shakespeare’s] lines were difficult to his audience, and that he used such expressions as were then common.”

It is this assumption that leads Johnson to make so many obtrusive and unwarranted emendations in his Observations on Macbeth. He sees difficulties where there are none, and certainly not if one can accept that Shakespeare intended his art to be as challenging to his own audience as it is to us. Incidentally, this latter point was the position taken by British literary critic Sir Frank Kermode in his book Shakespeare’s Language.

Where Johnson would try to rewrite a line to banish a perceived difficulty of sense or meaning, I am more inclined to engage Shakespeare on his own terms, which usually proves more rewarding. I shall close this essay with a little example of what I mean.

In Romeo and Juliet, the words of Juliet in Act V.iii.168-169, as she is about to plunge a dagger into her chest, appear in the first Folio (1623) thus:

“Yea, noise? Then ile be briefe. O happy Dagger.
‘Tis in thy sheath, there rust and let me die.”

There are various readings of this passage. For example, modern editions usually render “’Tis in thy sheath” as “This is thy sheath”. But I would prefer to focus on the word “rust”. The first printed edition of the play, the first Quarto edition of 1597 has “rest” instead. Now, it would be typical of Johnson’s method of redaction to go with the first Quarto reading, because rest seems the more concrete or “natural” word, which Shakespeare is presumed to have intended. He would assume that rust, being less natural, was a later editor’s or compositor’s error. If so, Johnson would be wrong. The first Quarto has no authority as a source text; it was a pirated edition with so many errors that an authorized second Quarto by a different publisher was made necessary a couple of years later with many and substantive emendations. Every subsequent printed version in Shakespeare’s lifetime (and beyond) replaces rest with rust.

(I should admit that I happen not to know which reading as a matter of fact Johnson preferred, as I do not have his edition of Shakespeare available to me. I have found his notes to that edition online, but the passage in question is unglossed).

Aside from textual authority, I would submit that rust is more in keeping with the notion of decay. The notion of rest, though it is often associated with death (e.g. “rest in peace”), does not sit well with the anguished and violent nature of Juliet’s suicide. Rust accords more with the tragic nature of the situation, in which a beautiful fifteen-year-old maiden will moulder away in the very tomb in which she kills herself. Shakespeare, being a master poet of the uttermost magnitude, would doubtless have been sensitive to all of this.

Johnson prefers concreteness (read: “naturalness”) in a poet. Unfortunately the great Doctor had the heavy soul of a moralist, and in this he excelled. He had not, however, the more airy soul of a poet, and his literary criticism too often suffers by this defect. It is what makes reading, for example, his Lives of the Poets tedious and maddening.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

"Write No Lies of My Conversion"

My (biological) father died of cancer recently. Attending his deathbed, I discovered that death has a new terror for us. It seems there is a certain kind of clergyman that haunts the palliative care units of hospitals, in hopes of gaining converts among those too weak or unconscious to offer much resistance to their insistent Christianity.

As my father lay a-dying, a nurse took it upon herself to call for a certain horrid little pastor. This, despite the fact that my father was well past the point where he could even be aware of the pastor’s presence, or to concern himself with thoughts of his immortal soul. Summoning a clergyman was high presumption on the nurse’s part. This little pastor she conjured up wormed himself into the good graces of the dying man’s family, to the extent that he wound up giving the eulogy at his funeral. The eulogy! For a man he had only “known” for a couple of days.

And what a eulogy it was. I can see in my mind’s eye how it was composed: he asks the man’s widow about his hobbies. Fishing? Perfect. The pastor has a pithy little self-help parable about fishing. Gardening? Excellent. He has one about that too. Thus, he stitches together a patchwork tribute out of cast-off bits of platitude, gleaned from whatever Christian comfort books are passing for theology in these debased times.

Given that his sermons seem to basically write themselves, I would at least have expected good delivery. No such luck. The man had no charisma whatsoever. He couldn’t read his own notes without stumbling and spluttering, and most of the time his diction was flat, lacking warmth. What’s worse, when he did decide to move himself into a transport of emotionality, it was obviously forced: there was no build-up to it, and it always seemed to accompany an irrelevant part of his text.

Where do they get these people? I was trained as an ethicist, and yet, I can find no work in my chosen field, because every opening is for someone with a degree in theology, as if you can’t possibly have any insight into questions of right conduct, the good life, or the human condition unless you’re a preacher of some kind. One sends one’s car to a mechanic, not a carpenter. Why are ethicists not qualified to speak on questions of ethical import? And let’s face it, when it comes to death, I’m afraid that only the dead are really qualified to speak. The rest of us are talking through our behinds.

The rest of this blog post will be devoted to two interesting examples where some famous non-believer is either reported — spuriously — to have had a deathbed change of heart, along with one example where the infidel died bravely, holding on to his reasoned beliefs, to the chagrin of deathbed parasites who would have loved to have been able to report otherwise.

John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester (1647-1680).

Those who have seen the film The Libertine, starring Johnny Depp, will be familiar with the naughty Lord Rochester. Rochester was a Restoration courtier and poet, infamous for his womanizing and hard drinking, as well as for his lewd poetry and notorious godlessness. By the age of thirty-three Rochester’s bright-burning candle was snuffed, done in by the combined effects of alcohol and venereal disease. He died, in the words of his eulogist, “a martyr to sin”.

A clergyman named Gilbert Burnet (1643-1715), future Bishop of Salisbury, attended Rochester at his deathbed and wrote a best-selling account entitled Some Passages in the Life and Death of the Honourable John, Earl of Rochester (1680). Apparently, Rochester had shown some interest in matters theological as he entered his final illness. According to Burnet, Rochester repented of his wicked ways, and died in the bosom of Abraham.

There is a putative letter of Rochester’s to Burnet, dated June 25, 1680, in which he expresses the hope that the Lord would “except [sic] of my death bed repentance”, etc. All very uplifting, except that this letter has the rather strange distinction of not being written in Rochester’s own hand, but rather in that of his mother, an upright Puritan at whose invitation Burnet attended the deathbed in the first place. Certainly those who knew Rochester more personally were buying none of it. One of these friends, the tragedian Thomas Otway (1651-1685), obviously alluded to the whole affair in his play Venice Preserv’d (1682). There, the character Pierre stands on the scaffold, awaiting execution, attended by a priest. He addresses the hangman thus: “Captain, I’d have hereafter / This fellow write no Lies of my Conversion, / Because he has crept upon my troubled Hours” (Act V, scene ii).

Thus, even more than three centuries ago, clergymen were an additional terror that death had to offer.

David Hume (1711-1776).

Hume was an atheist par excellence, and he was celebrated (or rather excoriated?) as such by his contemporaries. As he lay dying of cancer in 1776, many were curious to see if the consciousness of his imminent demise would occasion in him a change of heart. One of these was the famous biographer, James Boswell, who gave us his account of visiting Hume’s bedside.

Boswell, despite his womanizing and his many bouts of venereal disease, was a prig. He was — or claimed to be — a pious believer in the Deity and the life hereafter. He assumed Hume would see the light and seemed mightily disconcerted to find him in fine spirits, untroubled by the thought that he would soon cease to be, and in no hurry to revise his opinions on the matter.

In short, Boswell went to glory in the great atheist’s craven conversion, but instead, “I left him with impressions which disturbed me for some time.” Boswell and many others were denied their triumph.

A. J. Ayer (1910-1989).

In 1988, shortly before his actual death, A. J. “Freddie” Ayer, had a near-death experience. Ayer was one of the foremost twentieth-century analytic philosophers, a thinker of the most hard-nosed disposition. He was a well-known atheist. And yet, his near death experience, of which he published an account (National Review, Oct. 14, 1988), softened his stance somewhat. Although he remained an atheist, he could now understand how he could conceivably be wrong. As he put it, “my recent experiences have slightly weakened my conviction that my genuine death, which is due fairly soon, will be the end of me, though I continue to hope that it will be. They have not weakened my conviction that there is no god. I trust that my remaining an atheist will allay the anxieties of my fellow supporters of the Humanist Association, the Rationalist Press, and the South Place Ethical Society.” Hardly an inspiring deathbed conversion.

And yet, in 2001 Ayer’s attending physician, a Dr. Jeremy George, quoted Ayer as having said, “I saw a Divine Being. I'm afraid I'm going to have to revise all my books and opinions.” Of course, this came after Ayer had been dead for over a decade and was in no position to refute the claim. Interestingly, Ayer’s son was sceptical, noting that his father had never mentioned any such change of heart to him.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Procedural Injustice

One way to tell that a legal system has entered its decadent phase and is in need of reform is when its doctrines and procedures can be manipulated by parties to a dispute to ensure that something other than justice is done.

I came across an interesting example of this from the old English common law, before the great reforms of the nineteenth century. The particular example I have in mind was called “fourching by essoin”.

Put simply, an essoin was an excuse for non-appearance in court. There were several recognized forms of essoin. Probably the most common was essoin de malo lecti, pleading that one was bedridden with illness. There were other excuses: becoming ill on the way to court, being overseas, or being in the King’s service.

If a defendant used the plea of essoin de malo lecti, he was granted a year and a day to appear in court. If parceners or joint-owners of a property were sued, one joint-owner could plead sickness and be granted his year and a day’s grace. Upon the expiry of this period, the second joint-owner could do the same, buying another year and a day. Then the first joint-owner could plead his essoin again, carrying on the process. As A. W. B. Simpson related in his Introduction to the History of the Land Law (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961, p. 41), in one case the defendants carried this on for eight years, until one of them actually died, forcing the plaintiff to begin his suit all over again. Fourching was an ideal process for those with deep pockets, who could bankrupt an adversary by delays.

I suppose, if you owned land and were being sued over title, the best thing to do might be to find someone trusty to help you out, make them your joint-owner, and begin fourching your essoins. (Note that even the very existence of such an archaic legal jargon smacks of decadence.) Being more familiar with Roman law, I could give other examples of such collusive actions from that system.

Fourching by essoins is precisely the sort of thing that happens when procedures, or the mere forms of justice, begin to crowd out the dispensation of substantive justice. It is also the sort of thing that cannot be accomplished by mere laymen: it takes real professionals (read: lawyers) to come up with such abominations.