Thursday, March 24, 2005

Plus ca change, as the Spanish say

I recently had an email from someone who wished to remain anonymous, providing an equally anonymous quotation from a grumpy old man of the past. (I could tell that the quoted author was long dead because of the nature of the prose.) Thanks to the miracle of Google I was able to trace the quotation if not the kind soul who sent it to me.

It turns out that the two paragraphs in question were written by Dr Samuel Johnson, and they originally appeared in a kind of eighteenth-century blog, called The Rambler.

Set out below, 255 years to the day after it first appeared, is Dr Johnson's take on the literary life. The prose is decidedly complex by our standards, but the messages, I think, are clear, and they remain valid today. First, those who fancy themselves as writers should take a long hard look at their qualifications for said career; and second, anyone who wants to be a writer is going to have a difficult time of it.

Here is what Dr Johnson had to say:
It may not be unfit for him who makes a new entrance into the lettered world, so far to suspect his own powers as to believe that he possibly may deserve neglect; that nature may not have qualified him much to enlarge or embellish knowledge, nor sent him forth entitled by indisputable superiority to regulate the conduct of the rest of mankind; that, though the world must be granted to be yet in ignorance, he is not destined to dispel the cloud, nor to shine out as one of the luminaries of life. For this suspicion, every catalogue of a library will furnish sufficient reason; as he will find it crouded with names of men, who, though now forgotten, were once no less enterprising or confident than himself, equally pleased with their own productions, equally caressed by their patrons, and flattered by their friends.

But, though it should happen that an author is capable of excelling, yet his merit may pass without notice, huddled in the variety of things, and thrown into the general miscellany of life. He that endeavours after fame by writing, solicits the regard of a
multitude fluctuating in pleasures, or immersed in business, without time for intellectual amusements; he appeals to judges prepossessed by passions, or corrupted by prejudices, which preclude their approbation of any new performance. Some are too indolent to read any thing, till its reputation is established; others too envious to promote that fame, which gives them pain by its increase. What is new is opposed, because most are unwilling to be taught; and what is known is rejected, because it is not sufficiently considered, that men more frequently require to be reminded than informed. The learned are afraid to declare their opinion early, lest they should put their reputation in hazard; the ignorant always imagine themselves giving some proof of delicacy, when they refuse to be pleased: and he that finds his way to reputation, through all these obstructions, must acknowledge that he is indebted to other causes besides his industry, his learning, or his wit.
Next week, Honoré de Balzac, writing in 1843, with the same message!


Anonymous said...

My hat is off to Doc Johnson. We complain today that there are too many writers. Notwithstanding "getting published," it's as clear today as it was then that there aren't enough good ones.

Christopher Willard said...

I suppose if Dr. Johnson had a word he didn't know the meaning to, his teacher couldn't say, "Go look it up." (that is until he finished his dictionary)

archer said...

I posted the passage here, actually, a couple of days ago. I thought I had deleted it, as I considered it too grumpy even for this space. If someone else beat me to it, I defer.