Doctor Johnson’s failures
’Tis the season—for waking on a February morning to the consciousness of having failed to keep the resolutions made on New Year’s Day. I am meditating on this subject over a teacup full of Häagen-Dazs chocolate chocolate chip ice cream, at an hour long past the early bedtime I had promised myself, in the glare of a laptop screen I had resolved to shut down with the setting sun.
My comfort, along with the ice cream, is sitting next to me on the couch: volume 1 of the Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson, containing the prayers and diaries of this remarkable poet, journalist, critic, lexicographer, conversationalist, moralist, and satirist of human vanities: “Dr. Johnson,” “Dictionary Johnson.”
So great was Johnson’s impact on his culture that historians have embedded in the Age of Enlightenment, which crossed the continents during the long 18th century, an “Age of Johnson,” no less universal for being peculiarly English. Johnson was a man of faith and reason during the epoch in which it first became an article of secular dogma that these twin acts of the human spirit are separated by what Gotthold Lessing would call an “ugly great ditch.” Religion was “the predominant object” of Johnson’s thoughts, according to his biographer James Boswell, and to Johnson what religion entailed was a cycle of solemn resolutions, lapses, and prayers for grace to renew the attempt. On his 28th birthday he writes, “I intend to-morrow to review the rules I have at any time laid down, in order to practice them,” praying for divine help to redeem the time “which I have spent in Sloth, Vanity, and wickedness.” Every New Year’s, every birthday, he rehearses his resolutions. On the anniversaries of his wife Tetty’s death, he recalls the promises he made before her coffin: “To rise early / To lose no time / To keep a journal.” He prays both for and to Tetty “conditionally”—uncertain whether it were lawful for an Anglican, yet unwilling to discount the wonderful possibility of mutual aid between the living and the dead.