The World In Thirty-Eight Chap­ters Or Dr John­son’s Guide To Life The very DEF­I­NI­TION of a bril­lian LIFE

For­get his hi­lar­i­ous but un­fair de­pic­tion in Black­ad­der. This delightful ex­am­i­na­tion of the great Dr John­son and his Dic­tio­nary proves he lived...

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Un­book­ish types will best know Dr John­son through his com­i­cal por­trayal by Rob­bie Coltrane in Black­ad­der on TV. Dr John­son is seek­ing a pa­tron for his mon­u­men­tal dic­tio­nary. Black­ad­der’s own pa­tron, Prince Ge­orge – ‘as thick as a whale omelette’ – in­vites John­son to show him his great work, but sadly the dimwit Baldrick has just stoked a fire with it.

Black­ad­der at­tempts a cover-up by try­ing to com­pile a new dic­tio­nary, in the hope that Dr John­son will be none the wiser. When he gets stuck on Aard­vark – ‘A medium-sized in­sec­ti­vore with pro­trud­ing nasal im­ple­ment’ – Baldrick of­fers to help.

The def­i­ni­tions roll out: C is ‘a big blue wob­bly thing that mer­maids live in’, Dog is ‘not a cat’ and so on.

Through­out the episode, poor old Dr John­son is por­trayed as a bad-tem­pered pedant who never uses a short word when a longer one will do. At one point he tells Prince Ge­orge: ‘I cel­e­brated last night the en­cy­clopaedic im­ple­men­ta­tion of my premed­i­tated or­ches­tra­tion of de­motic An­glo-Saxon.’ To which the dopy Prince Ge­orge replies: ‘Nope – didn’t catch any of that.’

Though this was the clever­est and funniest of all the Black­ad­der episodes, it was also one of the most un­fair. Dr John­son could be a lit­tle gruff, to be sure, but to his con­tem­po­raries he was also the liveli­est com­pany, and equipped with the quick­est mind. As Henry Hitch­ings points out, his dic­tio­nary is full of sharp jokes. A thumb is ‘the short strong fin­ger an­swer­ing to the other four’. A rant con­sists of ‘high-sound­ing lan­guage un­sup­ported by dig­nity of thought’. A lizard is ‘an an­i­mal re­sem­bling a ser­pent, with legs added to it’. Opera is ‘an ex­otic and ir­ra­tional en­ter­tain­ment’ and, best of all, an or­gasm is ‘sud­den ve­he­mence’.

The late Frank Muir in­cluded a good sprin­kling of th­ese def­i­ni­tions in his glo­ri­ous Ox­ford Book Of Hu­mor­ous Prose. Among them were:

DULL: Not ex­hil­a­rat­ing; as, to make dic­tio­nar­ies is dull work.

MUSH­ROOM: An up­start; a wretch risen from the dunghill; a di­rec­tor of a com­pany.

OATS: A grain, which in Eng­land is gen­er­ally given to horses, but in Scot­land sup­ports the peo­ple.

PA­TRON: Com­monly a wretch who sup­ports with in­so­lence, and is paid with flat­tery.

TO WORM: To de­prive a dog of some­thing, no­body knows what, un­der the tongue, which is said to pre­vent him, no­body knows why, from run­ning mad.

Thir­teen years ago, Hitch­ings pub­lished an amaz­ingly en­joy­able book about the mak­ing of Dr John­son’s Dic­tio­nary. Five books later, he has re­turned to the man he de­scribes as ‘a heroic thinker’ to dis­cuss the full range of his achieve­ments. For as well as be­ing a lex­i­cog­ra­pher – ‘a writer of dic­tio­nar­ies; a harm­less drudge’ – John­son was a poet, a novelist, a play­wright, an ed­i­tor, a bi­og­ra­pher, a trans­la­tor and an es­say­ist.

More than 300 years since his birth, John­son’s words still shoot off the page like fire­works. They are full of wis­dom, too, and Hitch­ings is right to cel­e­brate them as a ‘guide to life’.

Of course, in re­cent years it has be­come fash­ion­able to pro­duce ba­nal self-help guides that pig­gy­back on well-known au­thors or po­ets. Books with ti­tles such as What Shake­speare Can Teach Us About The In­ter­net or Philip Larkin’s 10-Step Guide To The Sunny Side Of Life are in­creas­ingly com­mon. But Hitch­ings’s book on John­son is in­fin­itely more com­plex, and in­fin­itely more in­ter­est­ing.

In his in­tro­duc­tion, he writes: ‘This book is an­i­mated by dif­fer­ent ideas: that the dead do not van­ish com­pletely, that we aren’t obliged to em­broi­der the past or sex it up to make it per­ti­nent to our world, and that great writ­ers and thinkers speak in eter­nity… I present him as an ex­am­ple of how to act or think; oc­ca­sion­ally his role is the op­po­site,

‘Operaisan“ex­otic and ir­ra­tional en­ter­tain­ment” and an or­gas­misa “sud­den ve­he­mence”’

as an il­lus­tra­tion of how not to; and of­ten I draw at­ten­tion to some­thing he wrote or said that per­fectly co­nant denses an im­por­tant truth.’ Cer­tainly, Samuel John­son would have a hard time mak­ing it in the glossy world of our tem­po­rary congu­rus. He was ugly, scruffy and over­weight, with bad hear­ing and poor sight. He suf­fered from asthma, gouth rheuma­tism and de­pres­sion, and had var­i­ous tics – touch­ing ev­ery post when out walk­ing pock­et­ing scraps of or­ange peel, cluck­ing and whistling at ran­dom mo­ments – that would to­day proba- bly find him cat­e­gorised as OCD. Yet th­ese hard­ships honed his in­tel­li­gence and sharp­ened his un­der­stand­ing of hu­man na­ture. Vir­tu­ally ev­ery page of Hitch­ings’s new book con­tains an apho­rism from John­son of pierc­ing wit and in­sight into the pe­cu­liar­i­ties of the hu­man mind. How about this? ‘What is writ­ten with­out ef­fort is in gen­eral read with­out plea­sure.’ Or this? ‘There lurks, per­haps, in ev­ery hu­man heart a de­sire of dis­tinc­tion, which in­clines ev­ery man to hope, and then to be­lieve, that na­ture has given him some­thing pe­cu­liar to him­self.’ If he some­times seems too wordy, this is gen­er­ally be­cause his in­cli­na­tion is to re­veal the com­plex­i­ties and con­tra­dic­tions in the hu­man heart, rather than to be pat. Pre­cious few of his ob­ser­va­tions could be para­phrased with­out the loss of some­thing es­sen­tial.

In each of his 38 brief chap­ters, Hitch­ings fo­cuses on an event in John­son’s life, or on one of his ru­mi­na­tions, and then holds it up to the light, the bet­ter to test it against our con­tem­po­rary needs and dog­mas.

For in­stance, in chap­ter 24, he writes about John­son’s dic­tio­nary def­i­ni­tion of the word ‘net­work’, which has be­come fa­mous, or rather in­fa­mous, for be­ing dif­fi­cult to un­der­stand: ‘Any thing retic­u­lated or de­cus­sated, at equal dis­tances, with in­ter­stices be­tween the in­ter­sec­tions.’

But Hitch­ings ar­gues that, though the words ‘retic­u­lated’ and ‘de­cus­sated’ are now ar­chaic, the def­i­ni­tion still has a cer­tain some­thing, and ‘even if it’s not much help to some­one who doesn’t have a size­able vo­cab­u­lary, it has an oddly sat­is­fy­ing tech­ni­cal in­tegrity, and while Sam was un­doubt­edly try­ing to de­scribe a phys­i­cal ob­ject, he evokes a more gen­eral form, a kind of lat­tice or ma­trix that doesn’t have the im­me­di­ate tan­gi­ble qual­ity of, say, a fishing net.’ From here he goes on to deal with our con­tem­po­rary use of the word ‘net­work’, and to show that some­how John­son’s orig­i­nal def­i­ni­tion now seems more, rather than less, rel­e­vant, ‘since to­day a net­work is likely to be a com­plex sys­tem of re­la­tion­ships that we can’t nec­es­sar­ily see or touch’. He then un­cov­ers some­thing John­son wrote in one of his es­says all those years ago that seems pe­cu­liarly rel­e­vant to the age of Google: ‘We are in­clined to be­lieve those whom we do not know, be­cause they have never de­ceived us.’ And Hitch­ings ends up dis­cussing our con­tem­po­rary so­cial me­dia and their abil­ity to turn us all into ra­pa­cious solip­sists, ‘at the mercy of silent ob­ses­sion and cov­etous re­sent­ment’. No slouch him­self at the coin­ing of di­a­mond­sharp phrases, he de­scribes Face­book as ‘envy’s play­ground’, and then ends his free­wheel­ing chap­ter with yet an­other apt quote from Dr John­son: ‘All envy would be ex­tin­guished if it were uni­ver­sally known that there are none to be en­vied.’ Hitch­ings him­self could be said to pro­vide pos­i­tive proof of Dr John­son’s be­nign in­flu­ence on the world. As this delightful book goes on, his own apho­risms grow more like Dr John­son’s, as though in­fected with that ro­bust sym­pa­thy and in­tel­li­gence. Look­ing through my notes for this re­view, I some­times found it hard to re­call which phrase was coined by H Hitch­ings, and which by S John­son. For ex­am­ple, from a chap­ter on travel, I copied out two say­ings – ‘To visit an is­land is to in­dulge one’s fan­tasies of es­cape while also con­tain­ing them’ and ‘The use of trav­el­ling is to reg­u­late imag­i­na­tion by re­al­ity, and in­stead of think­ing how things may be, to see them as they are.’ Who wrote which? Hav­ing checked in the book, I find that the first is Hitch­ings and the sec­ond is John­son, but it might eas­ily have been the other way around.

‘Scruffy, fat and ugly, John­son would have had a hard time mak­ing it in the glossy world of self-help gu­rus’


the mean­ings of

life: A stained-glass rep­re­sen­ta­tion of Dr John­son. Be­low: the ti­tle page of his 1755 dic­tio­nary

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