I wrote this little blurb as I was reaching the end of Boswell’s lively tome, The Life of Samuel Johnson. I may have a new favorite book.
Reading about the slow, melancholy death, one might compare it, if he could, to the death of some great god—to the slow fall in health of Poseidon, Apollo, or Zeus. Indeed, if Gandalf were to die—if he could die—I imagine reading his death would be much like reading the death of the great Doctor. For Boswell has revered him, so praised his qualities and defended his quirks, that the death of Johnson is much like the death of a god who walked among us. He has presented the doctor to us, not in some narrow, psychological fashion that attempts to discover the “real Johnson,” the man behind the mask, but in the truest and most genuine fashion—his speech in public circles. Perhaps no man during his time, and indeed after, has given our world such a wide array of commentary on mere life. Nothing it seems but death—though at times even death—was open for Johnson’s opinion. And an illuminating opinion it was. And when we come to Johnson, we are met with every opinion entering every nook and cranny of the general human experience; we experience, in reading his death, not the death of a god but perhaps something stranger, something more grotesque and yet something more wonderful. We experience the death of man. And this man, above any other, with all his commentary on life, presents to us what the death of man means; for Johnson’s death teaches us that the death of man is the death of life. When Johnson dies, all his illuminating opinions seem to die with him. In him is the death not of a mere god, but a death of something far greater, a mere man, the death of an entire world. And yet in reading Boswell, we are reminded that the account is of a real man, a true man, who feels as alive today as he did then. The man who so feared death at once conquered it through the pages of Boswell. Boswell created a biography of a man, which has become a biography of a legend, a biography of a god. But we know that legends and gods are immortal. One could say, at the end of the tome, that Boswell created a man who became an everlasting god—because all true Christian men become, in a way, everlasting gods: more terrifying and powerful than Zeus, dying and rising more truly than the Phoenix. In this, Boswell wrote not the Life of Samuel Johnson, not a mere record of events, but the events that forever repeat themselves. We still fancy Boswell and Johnson meeting at the Mitre even today, for Boswell’s Life is more truly and accurately titled “The Everlasting Life of Samuel Johnson.”
Written and Transcribed at The Desert Schooner,
Las Vegas, Nevada
Early October, 2015
Painting: “Doctor Samuel Johnson”
By Sir Joshua Reynolds,
Oil on canvas, c. 1772