Sunday, April 26, 2015

Boswell’s Life of Johnson: 77

Edited by Dan Leo, LL.D., Assistant Professor of Unpopular Literature, Assistant Ping Pong Coach, Olney Community College; author of Bozzie and Dr. Sam: The Case of the Haughty Highwayman, the Olney Community College Press.

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Next day, October 20, he appeared, for the only time I suppose in his life, as a witness in a Court of Justice, being called to give evidence to the character of Mr. Baretti, who having stabbed a man in the street, was arraigned at the Old Bailey for murder.

Never did such a constellation of genius enlighten the aweful Sessions-House, emphatically called JUSTICE HALL; Mr. Burke, Mr. Garrick, Mr. Beauclerk, and Dr. Johnson; and undoubtedly their favourable testimony had due weight with the Court and Jury.

Johnson gave his evidence in a slow, deliberate, and distinct manner, which was uncommonly impressive.

It is well known that Mr. Baretti was acquitted.

On the 26th of October, we dined together at the Mitre tavern. I found fault with Foote for indulging his talent of ridicule at the expence of his visitors, which I colloquially termed making fools of his company.

JOHNSON. 'Why, Sir, when you go to see Foote, you do not go to see a saint: you go to see a man who will be entertained at your house, and then bring you on a publick stage; who will entertain you at his house, for the very purpose of bringing you on a publick stage. Sir, he does not make fools of his company; they whom he exposes are fools already: he only brings them into action.'

Talking of trade, he observed, 'It is a mistaken notion that a vast deal of money is brought into a nation by trade. It is not so. Commodities come from commodities; but trade produces no capital accession of wealth. However, though there should be little profit in money, there is a considerable profit in pleasure, as it gives to one nation the productions of another; as we have wines and fruits, and many other foreign articles, brought to us.' 

BOSWELL. 'Yes, Sir, and there is a profit in pleasure, by its furnishing occupation to such numbers of mankind.' 

JOHNSON. 'Why, Sir, you cannot call that pleasure to which all are averse, and which none begin but with the hope of leaving off; a thing which men dislike before they have tried it, and when they have tried it.' 

BOSWELL. 'But, Sir, the mind must be employed, and we grow weary when idle.' 

JOHNSON. 'That is, Sir, because, others being busy, we want company; but if we were all idle, there would be no growing weary; we should all entertain one another. There is, indeed, this in trade:— it gives men an opportunity of improving their situation. If there were no trade, many who are poor would always remain poor. But no man loves labour for itself.'

BOSWELL. 'Yes, Sir, I know a person who does. He is a very laborious Judge, and he loves the labour.' 

JOHNSON. 'Sir, that is because he loves respect and distinction. Could he have them without labour, he would like it less.'

BOSWELL. 'He tells me he likes it for itself.'

JOHNSON. 'Why, Sir, he fancies so, because he is not accustomed to abstract.'

We went home to his house to tea.

Mrs. Williams made it with sufficient dexterity, notwithstanding her blindness, though her manner of satisfying herself that the cups were full enough appeared to me a little aukward; for I fancied she put her finger down a certain way, till she felt the tea touch it.

In my first elation at being allowed the privilege of attending Dr. Johnson at his late visits to this lady I willingly drank cup after cup, as if it had been the Heliconian spring. But as the charm of novelty went off, I grew more fastidious; and besides, I discovered that she was of a peevish temper.

There was a pretty large circle this evening. Dr. Johnson was in very good humour, lively, and ready to talk upon all subjects.

Mr. Fergusson, the self-taught philosopher, told him of a new-invented machine which went without horses: a man who sat in it turned a handle, which worked a spring that drove it forward.

'Then, Sir, (said Johnson,) what is gained is, the man has his choice whether he will move himself alone, or himself and the machine too.'

Dominicetti {“an Italian quack, who made a considerable noise about this time, by the use of medicated baths” – J.W. Croker} being mentioned, he would not allow him any merit.

'There is nothing in all this boasted system. No, Sir; medicated baths can be no better than warm water: their only effect can be that of tepid moisture.'

One of the company took the other side, maintaining that medicines of various sorts, and some too of most powerful effect, are introduced into the human frame by the medium of the pores; and, therefore, when warm water is impregnated with salutiferous substances, it may produce great effects as a bath.

This appeared to me very satisfactory. Johnson did not answer it; but talking for victory, and determined to be master of the field, he had recourse to the device which Goldsmith imputed to him in the witty words of one of Cibber's comedies:

‘There is no arguing with Johnson; for when his pistol misses fire, he knocks you down with the butt end of it.' 

He turned to the gentleman, 

'Well, Sir, go to Dominicetti, and get thyself fumigated; but be sure that the steam be directed to thy head, for that is the peccant part. 

This produced a triumphant roar of laughter from the motley assembly of philosophers, printers, and dependents, male and female.

I know not how so whimsical a thought came into my mind, but I asked, 

'If, Sir, you were shut up in a castle, and a newborn child with you, what would you do?'

JOHNSON. 'Why, Sir, I should not much like my company.'

BOSWELL. 'But would you take the trouble of rearing it?' 

He seemed, as may well be supposed, unwilling to pursue the subject: but upon my persevering in my question, replied, 

'Why yes, Sir, I would; but I must have all conveniencies. If I had no garden, I would make a shed on the roof, and take it there for fresh air. I should feed it, and wash it much, and with warm water to please it, not with cold water to give it pain.'

BOSWELL. 'But, Sir, does not heat relax?'

JOHNSON. 'Sir, you are not to imagine the water is to be very hot. I would not coddle the child. No, Sir, the hardy method of treating children does no good. I'll take you five children from London, who shall cuff five Highland children. Sir, a man bred in London will carry a burthen, or run, or wrestle, as well as a man brought up in the hardiest manner in the country.'

BOSWELL. 'Good living, I suppose, makes the Londoners strong.'

JOHNSON. 'Why, Sir, I don't know that it does. Our Chairmen from Ireland, who are as strong men as any, have been brought up upon potatoes. Quantity makes up for quality.'

BOSWELL. 'Would you teach this child that I have furnished you with, any thing?'

JOHNSON. 'No, I should not be apt to teach it.'

BOSWELL. 'Would not you have a pleasure in teaching it?'

JOHNSON. 'No , Sir, I should not have a pleasure in teaching it.'

BOSWELL. 'Have you not a pleasure in teaching men?— There I have you. You have the same pleasure in teaching men, that I should have in teaching children.'

JOHNSON. 'Why, something about that.'

BOSWELL. 'Do you think, Sir, that what is called natural affection is born with us? It seems to me to be the effect of habit, or of gratitude for kindness. No child has it for a parent whom it has not seen.'

JOHNSON. 'Why, Sir, I think there is an instinctive natural affection in parents towards their children.'

Russia being mentioned as likely to become a great empire, by the rapid increase of population:—

JOHNSON. 'Why, Sir, I see no prospect of their propagating more. They can have no more children than they can get. I know of no way to make them breed more than they do. It is not from reason and prudence that people marry, but from inclination. A man is poor; he thinks, "I cannot be worse, and so I'll e'en take Peggy."'

BOSWELL. 'But have not nations been more populous at one period than another?'

JOHNSON. 'Yes, Sir; but that has been owing to the people being less thinned at one period than another, whether by emigrations, war, or pestilence, not by their being more or less prolifick. Births at all times bear the same proportion to the same number of people.'

BOSWELL. 'But, to consider the state of our own country;—does not throwing a number of farms into one hand hurt population?'

JOHNSON. 'Why no, Sir; the same quantity of food being produced, will be consumed by the same number of mouths, though the people may be disposed of in different ways.

We see, if corn be dear, and butchers' meat cheap, the farmers all apply themselves to the raising of corn, till it becomes plentiful and cheap, and then butchers' meat becomes dear; so that an equality is always preserved. No, Sir , let fanciful men do as they will, depend upon it, it is difficult to disturb the system of life.'

BOSWELL. 'But, Sir, is it not a very bad thing for landlords to oppress their tenants, by raising their rents?'

JOHNSON. 'Very bad. But, Sir, it never can have any general influence; it may distress some individuals. For, consider this: landlords cannot do without tenants. Now tenants will not give more for land, than land is worth.

If they can make more of their money by keeping a shop, or any other way, they'll do it, and so oblige landlords to let land come back to a reasonable rent, in order that they may get tenants. Land, in England, is an article of commerce. A tenant who pays his landlord his rent, thinks himself no more obliged to him than you think yourself obliged to a man in whose shop you buy a piece of goods. He knows the landlord does not let him have his land for less than he can get from others, in the same manner as the shopkeeper sells his goods. No shopkeeper sells a yard of ribband for sixpence when seven-pence is the current price.'

BOSWELL. 'But, Sir, is it not better that tenants should be dependant on landlords?'

JOHNSON. 'Why, Sir, as there are many more tenants than landlords, perhaps, strictly speaking, we should wish not. But if you please you may let your lands cheap, and so get the value, part in money and part in homage. I should agree with you in that.'

BOSWELL. 'So, Sir, you laugh at schemes of political improvement.'

JOHNSON. 'Why, Sir, most schemes of political improvement are very laughable things.'

(To be continued. This series is brought to you by Bob’s Bowery Bar™, conveniently located at the corner of Bleecker and the Bowery: “Why not join me for Sunday brunch at Bob’s Bowery Bar? And false modesty shall not prevent me from recommending the eponymous ‘Sternwall Special’:

two fried eggs, four thick rashers of ‘Bob’s Mom’s’ home-cured bacon, hash browns slathered with béarnaise, fried tomatoes au gratin, fresh-baked brioche, black coffee, and a tall schooner of Bob’s ‘basement-brewed’ house bock – all for the low, low price of $2.95!” – Horace P. Sternwall, host of Bob’s Bowery Bar Presents Horace P. Sternwall’s Radio Book Club, exclusively on the Dumont Radio Network, 4pm (EST) Sundays; this week’s guests: Ngaio Marsh, Mickey Spillane and Ayn Rand.)

part 78

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