Thursday, December 19, 2013

Detectives Beyond Borders' life of Johnson

Dr. Samuel Johnson (aka Blinking 
Sam), by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 
the Huntington
Vacation: 1. Intermission of juridical proceedings, or any other stated employments; recess of courts or senates. ...
2. Leisure, freedom from trouble or perplexity
Samuel Johnson, Dictionary of the English Language
I consulted my copy of Johnson's dictionary for terms related to law and murder (you know, to crime fiction), and I found the above — apt, since I bought the book during my most recent respite from trouble and perplexity.

Johnson was a man of words, but I bought the book because of a picture. I'd always associated Sir Joshua Reynolds with those endless English eighteenth-century society portraits by him, George Romney, and others, but this dynamic, loosely executed picture made me realize that Reynolds could do a fine job when he got hold of a worthwhile subject. And what the hell; the society pictures probably earned Reynolds and the others a nice living.

(Henry E. Huntington, who founded the collection where the Johnson picture hangs, loved eighteenth-century English portraits, and the Huntington has a room full of them. It's probably no accident that the most congenial portrait in the room to my eyes was Reynolds' of the celebrated English actress Sarah Siddons portraying the dramatic muse. It was about the only painting in the room whose subject is pictured doing something other than showing off his or her era's new attitudes to leisure. The same room, by the way, includes this impressive young man.)

Back to Johnson, whose portrait hangs upstairs from the society pictures opposite Henry Raeburn's portrait of James Watt (left). Can you imagine a scientist as a celebrity today?  Suddenly the eighteenth century's painting seems more like the century's literature, which included men like Hume, Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Rousseau writing for an educated public as well as for themselves and one another. It's still not my favorite period in art, but it's a lot more interesting to me than it was before this week.

(Detectives Beyond Borders readers may soon read more about Dr. Johnson. The preface to his dictionary includes an assessment of the dictionary maker's place in the public esteem that, with the substitution of one job title for another, would describe perfectly the lot of a modern-day newspaper copy editor in America.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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15 Comments:

Blogger R.T. said...

I remember consulting Johnson's dictionary when I research an article for Explicator. I was concerned about the meaning of "a month's mind" as contained in Congreve's The Way of the World and referring to a woman's disposition. You would be surprised what I discovered through Johnson. Think women's "lunar" cycles.

December 19, 2013  
Blogger seana graham said...

I can think of a few scientist celebrities today. Let's start with Stephen Hawking.

December 19, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T.: I looked under "lunar" and "moon," and I can't find that discussion in my abridged edition. But that man was a walking encyclopedia, by God. I have a feeling from browsing the quotations Johnson includes that he may turn out to be a great help to my reading of Shakespeare. And yes, I know he was a celebrated editor of Shakespeare.

December 19, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, I suppose you're right. Perhaps you could sneak Bill Gates in a scientist, since he is an engineer by training, I think. But something prevents me from considering Hawking on a par with Johnson and Watt. Maybe it's because I'm not sure his theories have worked their way into people's imagination and daily lives the way Johnson's dictionary and Watt's steam engine did in their day. Or maybe it's because I have not read Hawking.

December 19, 2013  
Blogger seana graham said...

Or,say, Carl Sagan. Or physicist Ed Stone who appeared on Stephen Colbert the other night.

December 19, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

Volume 2 of 1755 edition includes "month's mind" as a "longing desire."

I confess that my research for the full meaning also took me to OED (2d ed)- V. 9, and An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary by Joseph Bosworth (1964).

The finished article appeared in The Explicator, V. 57, No. 4, Summer 1999. I wrote the article at a time in my career when I was intrigued by the history of words and phrases.

December 19, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, I think Sagan probably comes closer than Hawking to filling the bill. Adrian M. would probably kick my tail for mentioning this, but I can't help recall a comment I read somewhere that A Brief History of Time is probably more talked about than read.

I had not heard of Ed Stone, but Stephen Colbert (Jon Sewart, too) is problematic. As much as I enjoy his show, and as much as I wish that the interesting people he interviews were better known, those interviews are a symptom of the reduced public attention span in the age of celebrity: The interviews last about 30 seconds and include three or four rapid-fire questions. The producers, probably rightly, fear that any real depth would lose the audience, which I find depressing.

December 19, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., I don't find that definition in my abridgment, but I will keep looking. In the meantime, my search took me to an entertaining and enlightening definition of moon-calf.

December 19, 2013  
Blogger seana graham said...

I think the interviews are more to sell whatever the interviewee is pitching, and, from my long experience in the bookstore, people do actually go out and buy the book or whatever the next day. Whether they actually read them is another question, but we can be hopeful.

I don't think Adrian would disagree with you on the unread nature of Hawking.

December 19, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, you're right, and that's part of the problem. The interviews are just one more commercial, albeit pitching a worthwhile product. And I don't blame the producers for doing things that way. It's just frustrating that they feel compelled to do so.

December 19, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I speak from personal experience in this matter, as I'll often want to hear more of what the speakers have to say than Colbert's and Stewart's format will give them.

December 19, 2013  
Blogger seana graham said...

I did like that Colbert awarded Ed Stone a lifetime achievement award from NASA on the program,which probably gave the honor a lot more play than if it had actually been presented in a scientific ceremony. Stone seemed like a good and humble guy, which he certainly wouldn't have to be in his position.

December 19, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I should look up Ed Stone, a sign that Colbert is doing his job well.

Don't get me wrong: I'm glad Colbert interviews people of substance rather than idiot semi-stars. I just wish he would talk to them longer and in greater depth.

December 19, 2013  
Blogger seana graham said...

I get the feeling he wishes he could too.

December 19, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

So he's rueful but savvy. I'll buy that.

December 19, 2013  

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