January 11, 2009

Johnson's Anxiety

I've been thinking about why it is that other people's scruples are somehow consoling, such as Samuel Johnson's, beyond merely the consolation of companionship. I can't imagine Johnson could be damned (though obviously who can know) and so his fear seems a idiosyncracy indicative of humility, a charming tic. As Adam Gopnik writes in a recent New Yorker :
What makes [Johnson] so sympathetic is that his sense of Christian faith proceeds from his sense of himself as a sinner, not as the saved. Where others were sure of feeling superior to the people who didn't believe, Johnson was just hoping to get to Heaven on a lucky break - praying for mercy, but not counting on it.
"Lucky break" is one definition of grace, or at least the way I see it since anything unearned feels of that category. Of course the pain of fear of Hell and the anxiety it produces is nothing to be dismissive or jest about. But perhaps the disease is worse than its cure, for if Johnson had escaped the mental agony and anxiety it might've provided him sufficient license to miss Heaven. Perhaps it's not completely unlike the way Mother Teresa was said to have the darkness of soul in order not to become full of herself and full of the ego that one so close to God would otherwise feel. (So too St. Paul and his thorn of the flesh.)

Gopnik opines, against the backdrop of Johnson's living in close quarters with his love interest, that:
Johnson's piety is more impressive if we imagine it up against the keen daily edge of erotic appetite, rather than simply a long-term bulwark against imagined insanity. Compare him with C.S. Lewis, who modelled himself on Johnson, and we recall that Lewis, too, becomes human when at the end of his life he wanted something, the physical love of his American mistress. We love Johnson for his humanity, and what makes us human is the contest between our desires and doctrines.
Gopnik's definition of what makes us human recalls a recent talk given by Pope Benedict on the topic of original sin:
As a consequence of this evil power in our souls, a murky river developed in history which poisons the geography of human history. Blaise Pascal, the great French thinker, spoke of a "second nature", which superimposes our original, good nature. This "second nature" makes evil appear normal to man. Hence even the common expression "he's human" has a double meaning. "He's human", can mean: this man is good, he really acts as one should act. But "he's human", can also imply falsity: evil is normal, it is human. Evil seems to have become our second nature. This contradiction of the human being, of our history, must evoke, and still evokes today, the desire for redemption. And, in reality, the desire for the world to be changed and the promise that a world of justice, peace and good will be created exists everywhere. In politics, for example, everyone speaks of this need to change the world, to create a more just world. And this is precisely an expression of the longing for liberation from the contradiction we experience within us.

1 comment:

Maureen said...

But hat kind of mind would call Joy "his American mistress"? Creepy.