Tuesday, December 31, 2013

A Translation of "Morgen Salzburg" (Thomas Bernhard interviewed by Armin Eichholz on July 24 and 25, 1976)

Tomorrow Salzburg

ARMIN EICHHOLZ: Is Salzburg now more of a nuisance than usual to you, given that not only is the festival starting on Sunday, but also…

THOMAS BERNHARD: Salzburg has never been a nuisance to me.  What are you getting at?

ARMIN EICHHOLZ: …because the festival coincides with the Olympic games in Montreal—and sports famously “entertain and befuddle and stultify the masses,” [as we all know] from reading Bernhard.

THOMAS BERNHARD: Everything involving masses of people is hard to put up with.  I have always detested sports.  When a hundred people are marching along [in one direction], the hundredth person simply has to march in the opposite one.  Without even asking himself why.

ARMIN EICHHOLZ: So, tomorrow Salzburg!  Of course in your play The Force of Habit the phrase is always “tomorrow Augsburg”—but as the president of the Salzburg Festival, Dr. Josef Kaut, suspects, by the “musty, abhorrent nest” you obviously mean Salzburg.

THOMAS BERNHARD: Dr. Kaut is always suspecting the wrong thing.  But I of course couldn’t care less what Dr. Kaut suspects.  I used to be very fond of him.  But fondness sometimes ends for some reason or other.  When you’re friends with someone, you shouldn’t tell lies about him, I think.  In any case the world is made up of nothing but lies and non-facts and perversions…

ARMIN EICHHOLZ: So is Augsburg really Salzburg or not?

THOMAS BERNHARD: Oh, that was such a long time ago.

ARMIN EICHHOLZ: Did you know, by the way, that in the sixteenth century, after the peace of Augsburg, “going to Augsburg” sometimes meant “I’ve got to pee”?  Golo Mann quotes a letter sent from Madrid in 1599 by the German consort of King Philip III to her brother Archduke Ferdinand of Styria; she complains about her strict duenna and writes…“she cleaves to my side throughout the day, and I can’t go to Augsburg unless she’s standing behind me…”  In other words: she couldn’t even go to the loo [Lokus] without a chaperone. 

THOMAS BERNHARD: I really like the anecdote.  But “loo” is a Bavarianism.  People don’t say “loo” here.

ARMIN EICHHOLZ: At most here in Ohlsdorf, in connection with the genius loci… [Eichholz is apparently making a pun on “Lokus,” a pun that Bernhard will take up three replies on (DR).]

THOMAS BERNHARD: …but naturally I understand it; I grew up in Traustein.  So I enjoy a certain kinship with “loo.”

ARMIN EICHHOLZ: Mr. Bernhard, is it possible [for me] to utter in your presence that old Salzburg Festival catchphrase coined by Max Reinhardt without making you immediately…

THOMAS BERNHARD: As far as I’m concerned you can utter any phrase you care to.

ARMIN EICHHOLZ: Then I’ve got to tell you how very much, in spite of all the cars and in spite of the author Thomas Bernhard, I still savor Max Reinhardt’s first sally about the Salzburg Festival: the [idea of] viewing “the city as a scene.”

THOMAS BERNHARD: Are we talking about Salzburg now?  Not the loo?  Hence the loo [Locus] [that is] Salzburg.

ARMIN EICHHOLZ: And basically you work as a playwright and your most recent book is no exception: you view the city as a scene.  Only you approach [it], like some ur-Reinhardt, as a tableau of horror.  You view Salzburg as a “lethal town,” as a “museum of death,” as a “perfidious façade,” and you think that its inhabitants “slowly and wretchedly go to ruin on this thoroughly inhospitable architectural-archiepiscopal-addlebrained-National Socialist-Catholic terrain of death.”  Would you dare to say such a thing on the doorstep of the house Mozart was born in?

THOMAS BERNHARD: Oh, come on: I am after all a Salzburger!  Right?  My relationship to this town is a pre-deliction.

ARMIN EICHHOLZ: So then in your opinion it’s Johnny-come-latelys who have cultivated Salzburg’s spotless reputation?

THOMAS BERNHARD: Yes, and it’s the Salzburgers themselves who are responsible for the other one.  Trakl for example.  He certainly was no Johnny-come-lately.  Or just look at Mozart, [and] the things he said about Salzburg.  And a thousand others—only they didn’t put it in writing, that’s all.

ARMIN EICHHOLZ: So then you see a certain tradition in the terrain of death…?

THOMAS BERNHARD: …which you can’t escape from if you’re here.  Here [if] you put on an act [you can] do as you please.  The [common] people with their hustle and bustle, who obviously can’t just suddenly jump off their scenesaw…wherever gold falls through, there will always be people all too glad to stick their hands [into the machine to catch it]—and so of course nothing’s left in the bag, right?

ARMIN EICHHOLZ: Even supposing you don’t give a hoot about the hustle and bustle, “the city as a scene” isn’t something you can put out of commission by just talking.  Naturally people here don’t want to read Mozart; they want to hear him.  There are a few people who even want to see Thomas Bernhard, they say…

THOMAS BERNHARD: Sure, if I hadn’t lived in Salzburg from childhood onwards, and if I didn’t [have to] come across my stinking relatives bristling with nastiness wherever I went, I’d be perfectly happy there.  I’m perfectly happy to visit Salzburg for three-quarters of an hour, but after that, I’m done.  I know too much about the intellectual innards of the Salzburgian body politic.  Even a good-looking person—if you take him apart—is of course not attractive on the inside…Who, when he wants to spend time with a good-looking person, ever goes out of his way to rummage through that person’s intestines eh…?

ARMIN EICHHOLZ: All the same, you have gotten your best results in the theater by rummaging around in people’s intestines…

THOMAS BERNHARD: I have of course also emerged from the intestines, recently…

ARMIN EICHHOLZ: …And have developed a highly competent medical language for [describing] them… Consider the Doctor in The Ignoramus and the Madman, when he’s describing the dissection, “One surveys the Omentum maius
draws the latter away from the Taemia omentalis
of the Colon traversum
apron-esque mark my words
down into the pelvis
in inflammatory processes
in the abdominal cavity my dear sir
there may even be adhesions of the reticulum
the reticulum is warped in this direction
a completely warped reticulum
whence one may ascertain the nature of the outcome
One simply flings the reticulum upwards
and contemplates the situation of the abdominal organs
observes whether the lower liver is grossly distended
down to here
to this spot…” Now Hofmannsthal also got close to the Salzburgian body politic, but in a different way: he saw [Salzburg] as the “heart of the heart of Europe” and he expressly wished to exclude from the festival [everything that was] “gloomy, inwardly vulgar, completely unsacred…”   But that of course is exactly what you are now trying to introduce [to the festival] with your Anti-Festival The Celebrities, which has failed to be performed in Salzburg.       

THOMAS BERNHARD:  Salzburg has actually profited from The Ignoramus and the Force of Habit—make of that what you will.

ARMIN EICHHOLZ:  What I want to make of it is…

THOMAS BERNHARD: You want to make something of it?

ARMIN EICHHOLZ: …a sort of Salzburgian dramaturgy of the Bernhard plays.  For example right now Maria Becker is playing your “Madam President” in a completely psychologically motivated way—as a counterexample [take] Bruno Ganz who once played your doctor (in the Ignoramus) completely unnaturalistically and made him into a linguistic marionette.  The one [actor] makes your text into something that’s the opposite of what’s made of it by the other [actor].  How does Bernhard himself view his Bernhard characters?

THOMAS BERNHARD: There are of course a hundred thousand possibilities in every case.  You can paint a landscape in twenty-thousand different ways, until you think it looks too stupid, and it always turns out differently.  A play by me is just a template.  Mediocre actors aren’t interested in it, because they’re too stupid.  And among the really great ones, there are really only five or six who are attracted to it.  But everybody does, you know, something different with it.  That’s the whole point.  My [plays] aren’t like the plays normal people write, where every gesture is scripted—you’ve got to go here, and inhale and exhale…
In [my plays] all of that is the actor’s business.  And I just supply the skeleton.  I basically couldn’t care less what he does with it, provided it’s brilliant and a good match for his abilities.  I’m certainly not wedded to anything.  [I] have no desire to win anybody over.  [Or] to march under any sort of banner…I try to come up with a stimulant.  Chiefly for myself.  That’s what interests me most of all.  If somebody manages that, and there’s a huge crowd—well, splendid.  Most of the time it goes awry in one way or another, even with the best actors.  Because they can only put up with my lines for three out of the four hours and in the end they don’t really have any faith in them.  The resistance to such things is always very strong in all the theaters and among every sort of people.  At first they champion them, but two days in people start saying, “What rubbish this is,” and then they get skittish.  Something like this only works when there’s a hundred-percent [commitment].  Then even the spectators get interested in it.  But when behind the scenes you have nothing but intriguers standing around and chatting, it’s a pile of shit—then it goes awry.  You also can’t just cast one part brilliantly and [let all the] others clam up.  With body and soul—of course there’s no such thing anymore.  When I write, I [give it] a hundred percent.  But everybody else also [has] to give theirs.  Shakespeare worked in a similar way:  he wrote texts that have to be realized [in the delivery]; and it’s only then that you can tell whether an actor really is an actor.

ARMIN EICHHOLZ: Am I right in assuming that you generally write plays that are much lighter in tone than their subsequent productions?

THOMAS BERNHARD: The lot of them are comic.  Just like in my prose you’re never allowed to know whether you’re supposed to howl with laughter or not.  This tightrope walk is where all the enjoyment lies.  But nuances—who really gets them nowadays?  You have only to read the reviews—according to them, I’m completely humorless and silly.  Who knows what they all expect of me…that I’ll be wearing a black cross, that I’ll drop dead…

ARMIN EICHHOLZ: If you still read theater reviews, you’ve only yourself to blame.

THOMAS BERNHARD: I read them.  I’d of course be an idiot if I said I wasn’t interested in them.  I read everything I can get hold of by any means, form myself a picture.  I’m obviously not made out of granite, or stone-deaf.  I’m very vital, thank God, but also a sensitive human being…

ARMIN EICHHOLZ: You were especially sensitive in the matter of the cancellation of the Salzburg performance of your Celebrities.  You certainly don’t exactly treat your festival mentors with kid gloves: your soprano knocks the head off a Lotte Lehmann dummy with a champagne bottle.  Your actress beats Helen Thimig to death with a candlestick.  Max Reinhardt perishes with a knife in his back.  A tenor strangles Richard Tauber.  And a publisher shoots Samuel Fischer in the back of the neck…--“a gagfest,” as you yourself call it.  But because the Salzburg Festival wasn’t crazy about it, you wrote, “I don’t need the festival.”

THOMAS BERNHARD: I chose to have it performed at the Theater an der Wien by genuine old pros.  In the teeth of every objection and of all my boosters.  I wanted to get it over with.  The [whole] story [had] to be brought to an end; it [was] just holding me up.

ARMIN EICHHOLZ: Mr. Bernhard, you smell human flesh in Salzburg, in  Fanny-von-Lehner[t]-Strasse.  In front of the Bürgerspital you still always see a severed child’s hand from the first bombing attack.  Near the train station you see the stacks of shrouded bodies…in your memoir of your time as a boarding school student in Salzburg, The Cause, which you have subtitled “a hint,” is this not all hinted at on a rather gargantuan scale?  

THOMAS BERNHARD: The people [of Salzburg] pretty much don’t see it at all anymore.  They just get angry when they’re reminded of it.

ARMIN EICHHOLZ: Coming from you, though, it [all] sounds so accusatory; as though it’s also everybody else’s obligation to smell the flesh of [dead] Salzburgers.  As a reader, I can’t deal with that.

THOMAS BERNHARD: Anybody who merely brings it up is troublesome.  [And] in general: a person who thinks is troublesome [person].  Ours is a truly rotten age—Trakl neither said nor inculcated anything different in his poems.

ARMIN EICHHOLZ: [But] you [have] a [certain] trick: [namely] of depicting your emotions as a boarding-school student by means of your present-day intellect.  You bequeath to your young[er self] a rather formidable aide-formuler.
THOMAS BERNHARD: What a load of stuff I have to deal with…

ARMIN EICHHOLZ: I think after reading so much Bernhard criticism you’re tough enough.  You did after all fully survive your early violin lessons in the shoe closet in Salzburg, [despite] trying to hang yourself with your suspenders.  What did you actually play in those days anyway?

THOMAS BERNHARD: I effectively couldn’t produce the simplest series of notes.  I took up my station behind the door and fiddled [away].  It sounded like Paganini or whatever.  [It] was naturally [all] improvised stuff.  It often [didn’t sound too bad].

ARMIN EICHHOLZ: [Quite] against your will, you are related to hundreds of citizens of Salzburg.  People who are now doctors, mill-owners, judges, went to high school with you—what’s your view?  Why do they find it easier to live in Salzburg than you do?  [Is it] perhaps [because] they have put more effort [into it] than you [have]?

THOMAS BERNHARD: Judges?  What [could I possibly] have to say to them?  With them all you can do is stand there.  At most control yourself.  At most not say anything.  Pretty much not anything at all, unless they ask you.  People like judges can’t be convinced [to accept] any sort of truth [or] the simplest fact in the world….   

ARMIN EICHHOLZ: And since we’re not supposed to ferret out the fact that you were once a court reporter for the socialist newspaper the Demokratische Volksblatt…but it all sounds as though you are blaming your fellow Salzburgers for not living as critically as you, for not suffering [like you, and be]ing conform[ists] instead.

THOMAS BERNHARD: But being a judge, along with writing about other [people], is a really wacky business, basically…

ARMIN EICHOLZ: But basically you get everything you write [about] from this region: in and around Ohlsdorf one runs into Bernhard people, Bernhard landscapes, Bernhard factories—but you seem to exclude yourself completely from [all] that.  You write so to speak as a Bernhard persona, not as yourself.  I think people are wrong to identify you with your persona.

THOMAS BERNHARD: Of course it’s absolutely preposterous!  I’ve got an alpine farm that I have to keep going, and I’ve got a lot to do here, I have to get up on a tractor…what interest do I have in this persona?  Am I supposed to put an ad in all the papers [announcing], “I am not me”?  [Just] because people believe [I’m] sitting here emaciated, gnawing away at my last idea, like some intellectual dog, with a revolver by my side…it beggars description.  People cause me no end of grief.

ARMIN EICHHOLZ: But after all in your latest book everybody still sees you sitting with a pair of suspenders around your neck in the shoe closet in Salzburg.

THOMAS BERNHARD: Every young person has done basically the same thing.  There are other [ways of] hanging, some more sensible, some less.

ARMIN EICHHOLZ: Do you really still come to Salzburg voluntarily?  Do you sometimes try to park there?

THOMAS BERNHARD: I have a permanent space there.

ARMIN EICHHOLZ: Oh, so that’s how it is.  But [what about] a Mozartkugel: you haven’t bought [one of those] yet, or [have you]?

THOMAS BERNHARD: I think I did buy one of those once, and [I] gave it away—and one time I ate one.  Marzipan is of course very unhealthy, right?  Really bad [for you]!  That’s what my brother told me; he’s an internist.  He says “Marzipan is the worst [thing for you].”  But you [must] know that [already]…

ARMIN EICHHOLZ: In any case the Mozartkugel was not one of your formative influences—if I read correctly, your grandfather fed you not with marzipan but with Montaigne…

THOMAS BERNHARD: My grandfather introduced me to him.  Probably with a great deal of effort.  But I was ready for the introduction.  By then I had only ever listened and [had] read almost nothing, because I basically found books loathsome.

ARMIN EICHHOLZ: Has it by any chance ever struck you that Montaigne wrote sentences that read like aphorisms in Bernhard?  Or that might have [served] as styl[istic] models for you[?]

THOMAS BERNHARD: Yeah, which ones?

ARMIN EICHHOLZ: For example: “By nature I have a whimsical and threadbare style.”  Or “It displeases me to say more than I mean.”  Or “Reflecting on death means reflecting on freedom.”  Or “I look at everything from the worst angle.”  And naturally “I reveal thoughts that are genuinely unpublishable.”

THOMAS BERNHARD: My world entirely.  It could be [taken] from my [own] experience.

ARMIN EICHHOLZ: Where in the world does your uneasy relationship with sports come from[?—given] after all that you used to run the hundred-meter [dash] and the kilometer so quickly.  What was your hundred-meter time?

THOMAS BERNHARD: All I ever knew was that when I [ran] nobody [could] keep up with me!

ARMIN EICHHOLZ: A lot of people can’t keep up with you today either, in Salzburg.  [Won’t] your scandalous Celebrities someday be allowed [to be performed] here?

THOMAS BERNHARD: I have nothing to do with that.  But the people will go away or die—but until they’re dead, Salzburg is dead, probably…unless I die first…

ARMIN EICHOLZ: One day of course you’ll be canonized as part of the baroque [city of] Salzburg.  There will be Bernhard days at the festival…

THOMAS BERNHARD: There’s no way of getting out of that.  They chuck you into the pot, stir, and cook you to a crisp with [the rest of it], whether you like it or not.   You’ve just got to be a tough bone.

ARMIN EICHHOLZ: Suppose despite everything you were asked or indeed begged to deliver the obligatory speech at the opening ceremonies of the Salzburg Festival—would you do it?

THOMAS BERNHARD: No!  Not even Canetti has done that.

ARMIN EICHHOLZ: Too bad.  You have always caused quite a furore with your ceremonial speeches.  For example [your acceptance speech for] the Austrian State Prize, when the culture minister stood up and walked out while saying, “We remain proud Austrians.”

THOMAS BERNHARD: Nothing but unqualified people in almost all governments…it’s always been that way.

ARMIN EICHHOLZ: [What about] yourself as someone who is qualified[?] You would never do it[?] Why spoil other people’s fun?  You sit here making fun of practically everything; you have this privileged position…

THOMAS BERNHARD: It’s never been all that privileged.   When I built this house eleven years ago, I got a loan of 30,000 schillings from the ministry.  Then for eleven years I heard nothing, until a month ago.  At the time I was in Lisbon, and the ambassador made a fool of me there, let the word get round in the Austrian colony that they shouldn’t go anywhere where this destructive, abominable guy was [supposed to be present]…naturally [the] Goethe Institute [there]—once again the Germans—found this [very] funny, right[?]…And when I got back, they asked me to pay back the loan.  And what was more, to pay it off in full immediately.  [Aggressive dunning] after eleven years.  Without anything, with no personal [return] address, no signature.  Can you imagine that someone like that is a privileged person?  I immediately ransomed myself from this ministry.

ARMIN EICHHOLZ: But suppose you were living completely anonymously in a large city.  You would no longer have any problems—it’s possible you would pretty much be unable to write anymore.  You need Salzburg; you need Ohlsdorf.

THOMAS BERNHARD: Yeah, yeah, problems.  In the best case, you live in an area that isn’t particularly attractive.  Because otherwise nothing seems right to you.  Perhaps I’d find London interesting.  You need an occupation that engrosses every single day as a counterweight.  I couldn’t sit and wait for something to happen to me.  I can only harvest horror using my domestic chores and then use this horror to write and then harvest horror through writing and then [go] back [to the domestic work].  A reciprocal routine that is constantly being reenacted.  And in winter…then the snow comes, of course.  And then everything turns white, and the white snow drives me to the paper and back from it…

AAMIN EICHHOLZ: …not even a writer can bear whiteness.  And what are you writing now?

THOMAS BERNHARD: I guess it’s going to be a play.  About a poet and about a critic.  These are of course similar offices, right?

AAMIN EICHHOLZ: I foresee trouble.  Now is the time to thank you for the conversation…

THOMAS BERNHARD: You call that a conversation?     


Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2013 by Douglas Robertson

Source: Der Wahrheit auf der Spur.  Reden, Leserbriefe, Interviews, Feuilletons.  Herausgegeben von  Wolfram Bayer, Raimund Fellingerund und Martin Huber [Stalking the Truth.  Speeches, Open Letters, Interviews, Newspaper Articles.  Edited by Wolfram Bayer et al.](Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2011). 

Sunday, December 22, 2013

A Translation of "Thomas Bernhards Lissaboner Erlebnisse" (A letter from Thomas Bernhard to the editorial offices of Die Presse)

Thomas Bernhard’s Adventures in Lisbon [1]

In today’s (June 2’s) issue of the Press a thoroughly mutilated and legally actionable version of my "Open Letter to the Chancellor of the Republic" is presented in a format and fashion against which I must protest in the severest possible terms.  I did not write a “Letter to the Editor,” under which heading the mutilation of my “Open Letter to the Chancellor of the Republic” has been printed today, but rather an “open letter,” and the concept of an “open letter” is clear.  Furthermore, your editorial staff have taken certain liberties with my writing style (I know why I write “rightly” and not “rightfully,” for example!), liberties by which I am appalled.  Contrary to your editorial distortion of the truth, I did not say a single word about my having also sent this “Open Letter to the Chancellor of the Republic” to the chancellor personally.

In all courtesy and in all sincerity, and out of the highest possible fanaticism for clarity, I must call on you to republish forthwith, [and] completely verbatim and absent any liberties from your editorial staff, my first letter of May 30, as well as the “Open Letter to the Chancellor of the Republic” that was sent to you in the same envelope, as well as the present letter, and naturally [to publish them] in the [proper] chronological order that will render the state of affairs [in question] intelligible once again.

If for any reason whatsoever you found it impossible to undertake the publication of my “Open Letter to the Chancellor of the Republic,” in the form that is specified with such crystal clarity in my request, you [were] obliged to inform me of this.  I cannot be satisfied with a solution of the fact-inverting, truth-effacing and distorting type that unfortunately reminds me all too vividly of my recently concluded Portuguese experience.  I hope it is possible in an Austrian newspaper ([but] which one?) to make public this state of affairs—one that involves [this country] and that is not without [a certain] piquancy—in a manner corresponding to the truth.   

Yours with exceedingly deep respect,
Thomas Bernhard

[1] Editors’ note: First published in the “Letters to the Editor” section of Die Presse on June 5, 1976.
To the letter as printed is appended the following remark: “The ‘mutilation’ consisted of the omission of the salutation, ‘Dear Most Highly Honored Chancellor of the Republic’ and of a half-sentence containing actionable verbal insults pertaining to Ambassador Weinberger.  That the author also sent a letter to the chancellor personally was but an entirely reasonable presumption.  The option of publishing an item in Die Presse under the heading ‘An Open Letter’ is available only to advertisers—that Mr. Bernhard wished to be so treated was by no means inferable from his letter to our editorial offices.  Regarding ‘rightly’ versus ‘rightfully’: this is not the business of the editors but rather of the proofreaders at our printer’s shop; when in such cases a certain spelling is expressly desired by the author it is customary to underline the relevant characters with a row of dots, which Thomas Bernhard did not do.  It was unfortunately impossible to call Thomas Bernhard as he does not have a telephone [at his house] in Ohlsdorf; consequently we communicated to him by mail.  (The Eds.)”

The editorial postscript fails to tally with the facts: the suppressed half-sentence referred not to the Austrian ambassador, but rather to all Austrians.  The entire sentence (with the suppressed passage underlined) reads: “Here, as they so often do, the Germans enjoyed a good laugh at the expense of the unmanageability, which is a kinder way of saying the stupidity and vulgarity, of us Austrians.”  (Quoted from Bernhard’s copy of the letter at the Thomas Bernhard Archive in Gmunden.)

Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2013 by Douglas Robertson

Source: Der Wahrheit auf der Spur.  Reden, Leserbriefe, Interviews, Feuilletons.  Herausgegeben von  Wolfram Bayer, Raimund Fellingerund und Martin Huber [Stalking the Truth.  Speeches, Open Letters, Interviews, Newspaper Articles.  Edited by Wolfram Bayer et al.](Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2011).

A Translation of "Ein destruktiver, schrecklicher Kerl" by Thomas Bernhard

“A Destructive, Horrible Guy” [1]

Now that I have returned from Portugal, where at the invitation of the Goethe Institute I delivered some lectures on my own work at the Universities of Lisbon and Coimbra and had some discussions with some students, it is beyond my personal power and more precisely the power of my brain, a brain that is ever mindful of the accountability of Austrians living abroad, to withhold from our chancellor and the broader [Austrian] public that portion of my traveling experiences involving the Austrian embassy and in particular the Austrian ambassador to Lisbon, Weinbeger, and I am quite simply duty-bound to share with you the following facts and circumstances:

At the end of my first lecture, the director of the German Goethe Institute in Lisbon, the distinguished and quite rightly world-famous translator of Latin-American and hence Portuguese and Spanish literature Curt Meyer-Clason, was invited along with me to a supper-party at the house of an Austrian family living in Lisbon, a supper-party that the Austrian ambassador was also supposed to attend.  Shortly before my lecture Mayr-Clason suddenly shared with me the news that Weinberger the Austrian ambassador would not fulfill his function as a guest at this party if I, and in this matter the ambassador had quite clearly been heard to say, “if this destructive, horrible guy,” was going to be present, and it was very politely suggested to me, probably for fear that the ambassador might [resort to more] coercive [methods], that because the hosts were an Austrian family living in Lisbon I would do better not to appear at this supper-party, and so as a matter of course I did not appear at that supper-party.

At this moment it dawned on me within the precincts of the university that the German Goethe Institute’s and the German embassy in Lisbon’s solicitude to inform the Austrian embassy of my residence in Lisbon and of my lectures in Lisbon through a number of very polite printed and unprinted invitations and leaflets had been exploited quite definitely by the Austrian embassy and unmistakably by the Austrian ambassador towards the end of ridding themselves of my personal presence by brusquely rebuffing me, by bringing me in contempt within the Austrian colony in Lisbon and throughout Portugal and snubbing me; meanwhile, the Austrian ambassador had publicly let it be known that I was “a destructive, horrible guy,” even though I have never met the Austrian ambassador to Lisbon and even though I am certain this ambassador has to this day not read a single line written by me.  Weinberger the ambassador has also spoken of me in terms akin to “this destructive, horrible guy” in communications to the representatives of the German Goethe Institute and of the German embassy, and hence to my hosts, who had been under the impression that the Austrian embassy in Lisbon was in some fashion interested in Thomas Bernhard, communications that at the very least must be described as indiscretions.

The day after my exclusion from the aforementioned supper-party and after the Austrian ambassador had made full and abundant use of the opportunity to bring me in contempt among the Austrians and Germans in Lisbon, I was invited by the German ambassador Caspari to a panel discussion at his private residence outside Lisbon with Cunhal, Soares, and the former king [of Italy] Umberto; hence [I received this invitation] at the very moment at which, by the most remarkable coincidence imaginable, suddenly and not unwittily in the eyes of Meyer-Clason who had been apprised of it, the Austrian ambassador in the course of bringing my personal presence into contempt had for his own purposes consistently and unremittingly replaced my actual name Bernhard with the admittedly not unattractive name Bernfeld.  Here, as they so often do, the Germans enjoyed a good laugh at our expense.  My experiences with representatives [of the] Austrian [government] in foreign countries have for many years now been exceedingly grotesque, and hence hardly ideal, but I ask myself today, at the end of this otherwise so highly and uncommonly fruitful trip, why these experiences must invariably be so exceedingly awful.  The snubbing of my person in this case when, to say nothing of invitations from other German sources, I had been very cordially addressed in invitations from the German ambassador not as a “destructive, horrible guy” but quite simply as Thomas Bernhard, is naturally tantamount to a snubbing of the people at the German Goethe Institute and at the German embassy at Lisbon.
In all humility and naturally also in all perplexity, I ask myself whether the remit of an Austrian ambassador in a foreign country, let us say Lisbon, vis-à-vis Austrians living in that foreign country, can really be not to render himself useful to them or quite simply to leave them in peace, but rather to bring them into contempt, and what is worse into public contempt, and to make Austria abroad   into a source of inexhaustible [and] endless but [ultimately] depressing sport.

Thomas Bernhard

[1] Editors’ note: First published in Die Presse, Vienna, June 2, 1976.

The editors appended the following note to the letter: “The author has sent an identical letter to the chancellor of the republic, Dr. Kreisky.  The Eds.”

This letter provoked a letter to the editors of Die Presse (June 5, 1976) by Trudy Lenz, a letter that inter alia states “As both the ambassador, Dr. Weinberger, and the director of the German Cultural Institute were guests at our house the evening after Th. Bernhard’s lecture at the University of Lisbon, I presume that the supper-party Mr. Bernhard was ostensibly both invited to and uninvited from was ours.  I was most astonished to learn that Mr. Bernhard felt uninvited, as no actual invitation of any kind was ever sent [to him] by us.  […] Until the very moment he entered our house, Dr. Weinberger knew nothing of the identity of the other guests, and therefore could not possibly have exerted any influence on the choice of those guests […] I shall continue to take an interest in the work of Thomas Bernard as a representative of contemporary Austrian literature, but I [must] add that I find his behavior [both] disappointing and disconcerting in a grown man and a writer worth taking seriously […]”

Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2013 by Douglas Robertson

Source: Der Wahrheit auf der Spur.  Reden, Leserbriefe, Interviews, Feuilletons.  Herausgegeben von  Wolfram Bayer, Raimund Fellingerund und Martin Huber [Stalking the Truth.  Speeches, Open Letters, Interviews, Newspaper Articles.  Edited by Wolfram Bayer et al.](Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2011). 

A Boswellian-Johnsonian Syllabus--Part II

JOHNSON: Preface to the edition of Shakespeare and Rambler No. 4.  BOSWELL: London Journal.

However checkered a reception-history the other facets of Samuel Johnson’s authorial métier may have suffered over the decades and centuries, and however direly these facets may still want for champions (in that it is still a very hard [albeit tenable and worthy] sell to argue, for example, that Rasselas is a better moral tale than Candide, or that The Rambler as a body of essays qua essays is superior to The Spirit of the Age), in one department his reputation seems to have risen and finally settled into a position of unbudgeable if not especially prepossessing preeminence.  No: I am not referring to lexicography, firstly because in that department Johnson’s reputation has been rock-solid from the date of the Dictionary’s publication, and secondly because rightly or wrongly lexicography has never sufficed on its own to establish its practitioners as writers or authors (such that we do not call the eminent lexicographers C.T. Onions and Robert Birchfield eminent authors, and having dismissed J. R. R. Tolkien as a lousy writer we need never dread the whisper of a demurral from an admirer of his exemplary contributions to the Oxford English Dictionary). I am referring, rather, to the department of literary criticism.  For although the wholesale eclipsing and discrediting of eighteenth-century aesthetics and poetics by Wordsworth, Coleridge, &co. made Johnson the critic seem hopelessly retardataire throughout the nineteenth century, by the early twentieth the seminality of his contribution to the Anglophone critical mainstream began to be generally acknowledged, by the mid-twentieth he had been quasi-officially installed as our language’s greatest literary critic, and nobody since has thought it practicable (or, at any rate, worthwhile) to dislodge him from this position.  Samuel Johnson has effectively been canonized as the Shakespeare of English literary criticism, and if even the present writer cannot repress a faint titter of derision in face of this epithet, this is merely because criticism is a less prestigious genre or mode than drama and the English language is not the preeminent force in criticism that it is in the other genre or mode, and not at all because he would ever flinch from citing Samuel Johnson’s opinion on a literary question with the same peremptory, four-of-a-kind flourishing insouciance that one cites a line of Shakespeare vis-à-vis some occurrence or phenomenon of extra-literary import.  So what accounts for this (relatively) newfound preeminence of Johnson as an Anglophone literary critic, his stable re-ensconcement as “the great Cham of” if not “literature” tout court, then of at least that side of literature that is devoted to the analysis and appreciation of other writing?  It is certainly not owing to that intrinsically dubious and in this case manifestly inapplicable notion of the backward-swinging pendulum, to some reorientation of the collective Anglophone readerly sensibility or Weltansicht to the norms of the pre-Romantic century, for insofar as we identify the Romantics with an exaltation of sentiment (and for all its reductiveness I don’t see any way of avoiding such an identification), it cannot be said that we have grown any less romantic (or Romantic-esque) in the course of the past fifty or sixty years—indeed, we are on the whole almost certainly more sentimental than the Romantics, as, for that matter were the Victorians (though they, too, were on the whole less sentimental than us).  No: without a doubt the resuscitation of Johnson’s literary-critical fortunes is principally owing to a much less intrinsically dubious and in this case manifestly form-fitting notion—viz. that of the retrieval of the baby from the thrown-away bathwater.  You see, the Romantics were against the eighteenth century prevailingly on account of its supposed unqualified classicism, its supposed unreflective veneration of the literature of Greek and Roman antiquity; or, to be more precise, of the poetic norms that had been abstracted from that literature by certain ancient critics, then prescriptively propounded by certain of their eighteenth-century successors, and finally (supposedly) unreflectively adopted by all of these successors’ contemporaries who fancied themselves poets.  In the Romantics’ view, the typical eighteenth-century poet went about preparing to write, say, a tragedy, not by rummaging through his memory in search of tragic events that he had personally witnessed, or even by reading some already-extant tragedy generally acknowledged to be a masterpiece (e.g., Oedipus the King a.k.a. Rex by Sophocles), but rather by consulting some rulebook on how to write a tragedy—either Aristotle’s Poetics or some seventeenth or eighteenth-century Francophone rehashing thereof.  And the net result of all this rule-bound-ness was (according to the Romantics) a century occupied from wall to wall (i.e., from ca. 1660 to ca. 1790) by paint-by-numbers literary productions.  That Samuel Johnson did not manage to escape this blanket indictment of his century is, while ultimately unforgivable, at least to a more than infinitesimal extent understandable.  For it cannot be denied that in certain registers and certain departments of his extra-lexicographical output Johnson did defer (whether rightly or wrongly) to the neoclassical norms of his time.  His sole dramatic production, the tragedy Irene, does indeed scrupulously conform to the Aristotelean (and Boileauean) unities of time, place, and action (of which I shall have more to say fairly soon) and for this reason (among several others) it comes across as stiff, cold, and unconvincing.  And from beginning to end, Johnson’s prose idiom is saturated with the tropes, figures, feints, and structures of Ciceronian rhetoric.  Those of us who love Johnson’s essays, sermons, tracts, tales, and letters do of course argue that the prevailing gravity of his subject-matter is benefited rather than handicapped by such receptive artificiality, but we would never dare to misrepresent this artificiality as a more “natural” or “spontaneous” alternative to the prose idioms of his great Romantic successors, Hazlitt and de Quincy.  Vis-à-vis Johnson’s general outlook on literature, though, we really would be so bold as to argue that he stole a rather impressively lengthy march on the Romantics.  Consider, for example, Wordsworth’s self avowed “principal object” in the Lyrical Ballads, viz. “to choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as was possible in a selection of language really used by men.”  It was for his attainment of this very object (or, rather, as the “and” forces one to acknowledge, two objects) that Johnson prized Shakespeare above all his contemporaries and successors (and all his predecessors apart perhaps from Homer [who in any case was universally venerated by the Romantics]).  While other dramatists (very much including the four great names of classical Greek drama—Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes) either wrote tragedies centered exclusively on the “crimes of men… the momentous vicissitudes of life…[and] the terrours of distress” or comedies centered exclusively “on [mankind’s] absurdities, the lighter occurrences [of life] and the gayeties of prosperity,” and thereby shut themselves off from an entire hemisphere of human experience, Shakespeare, says Johnson, persistently wrote plays that

are not in the rigorous and critical sense either tragedies or comedies, but compositions of a distinct kind; exhibiting the real state of sublunary nature, which partakes of good and evil, joy and sorrow, mingled with endless variety of proportion and innumerable modes of combination; and expressing the course of the world, in which the loss of one is the gain of another; in which, at the same time, the reveller is hasting to his wine, and the mourner burying his friend [i.e., in which each is involved in some “incident of common life”] ; in which the malignity of one is sometimes defeated by the frolick of another; and many mischiefs and many benefits are done and hindered without design.   

And into the mouths of the characters thus involved in this endlessly varying real state of sublunary nature Shakespeare (says Johnson) appropriately put not the “easy, elevated and harmonious…diction” of poets (specifically that of Joseph Addison’s impeccably neoclassical tragedy Cato)  but “the language of men.”  So, in short, in Johnson’s view Shakespeare was to be praised first and foremost for doing the two things that Wordsworth most prided himself on being (supposedly) the first person to do.  Above and beyond this, vis-à-vis the eighteenth century as a bastion of rulebound artificiality, Johnson defended and even championed Shakespeare’s flouting of two of the three Aristotelean unities—viz. the unities of time and place.  According to Aristotle and his modern disciples, the action of a tragedy had to take the form of something that could be enacted in stopwatch-measurable conformity with the amount of time that elapsed during its performance, and in a space no larger than that occupied by the stage on which the play was actually performed.  It had, in other words, to be a kind of analogue to the footage recorded by a convenience-store closed-circuit television camera over the course of, say, 180 minutes.  To treat the action otherwise, to have, say, the first act set in Alexandria in January and the next in Rome in March, was to disrupt the illusion of uninterrupted performativity, the illusion that one was watching something that was actually happening here and now.   But to such suffocatingly pedantic corsetry, Johnson raised an almost criminally obvious objection: viz., “that when the play opens the spectator [neither] really imagines himself at Alexandria, [nor] believes that his walk to the theatre has been a voyage to Egypt, [nor] that he lives in the days of Antony and Cleopatra… [that] the spectators are always in their senses, and know, from the first act to the last, that the stage is only a stage, and that the players are only players.”  Any emotion the spectators might feel in witnessing a theatrical performance arose (and ought to arise), according to Johnson, from a sense of the verisimilitude not of the overall causal framework of the action, but of the specific situations enacted: “The reflection that strikes the heart is not, that the evils before us are real evils, but that they are evils to which we ourselves may be exposed.”  Just because we do not mistake Desdemona’s bedroom in the final scene of Othello for an actual bedroom in an actual house on the actual island of Cyprus does not mean that we cannot be moved by this scene, because the evils to which Desdemona is exposed are evils to which we ourselves may be exposed, and her horror and desperation at these evils are expressed in language (e.g., “Kill me tomorrow; let me live tonight!”) that we (who speak “the language of men,” including women) could imagine ourselves using in the same ghastly situation.  (Indeed. Johnson described the experience of merely reading the scene for the preparation of his edition of Shakespeare as “dreadful” and “not to be endured,” and declared that he was “glad to have ended [his] revisal [i.e., editing] of it.”)  To this desideratum of immediate, local verisimilitude of speech and action Johnson added a second restriction on poetic license, one that was equally foreign to the norms of the ancients and their latter-day imitators: “a work of fiction” should “exhibit life in its true state, diversified only by accidents that daily happen in the world, and influenced by passions and qualities which are really to be found in conversing with mankind.”  It was on the basis of a total disregard of this norm that the genre known as heroic romance, the dominant narrative fictive genre of the Middle Ages, with its “incredibilities,” its “machines and expedients” such as “giants to snatch away a lady from the nuptial rites” and “knights to bring her back from captivity” had thriven; and Johnson welcomed this genre’s recent cession in popularity to the new genre of the novel (or, as he preferred to call it “the comedy of romance,” presumably because like the dramatic comedy it dealt with events of private rather than historical importance, but like the romance it employed narrative prose rather than dramatic verse), with its derivation of subject-matter from “general converse, and accurate observation of the living world.”  It should be mentioned here that Johnson’s impatience with the implausible machinery of the heroic romance did not fail to depress his estimation of certain of Shakespeare’s plays that did not scruple to avail themselves of that machinery.  On Cymbeline in particular his verdict was especially harsh.              

In short, as I have so far digested him, Johnson seems to be arguing for a judicious combination of tactical verisimilitude and strategic fabulousness–locally, in its treatment of specific incidents that elapse over the course of no more than several minutes, the drama should try as best it can to make them mistakable for actual, observable conversations, melees, and so forth; but globally, it should allow the audience’s imagination to supply the context of the scenario as a whole and to fill in the gaps between the episodes via which this scenario attempts its own realization.  And I imagine that on the evidence of this digestion, the reader will have begun to see why Johnson the critic has come to be regarded as a mind not “of an age but for all time.”  For although the specific means used towards staying it have varied widely over the  years and decades, Johnson’s recommended artistic course between the extremes of literal mimesis and unbridled whimsicality has for at least the past two centuries been the standard course pursued by dramatists, novelists, and poets (along with their more lately born brethren the moviemakers), and taken for granted by their readers and viewers.  We have come to acknowledge consciously that a certain amount of cozenage in art is unavoidable, that certain things must be excluded from it so that other things of greater importance can be included in it.  In this regard we moderns—Johnsonians all—are immeasurably more enlightened than the ancient critics, who found it easy to nitpick over violations of the unities of time and place only because they were blind to a thousand other more egregious implausibilities in their favorite plays.

But for all this broad agreement between him and us, not every tenet of Johnson’s aesthetics and poetics has slipped quietly into the mainstream of the twentieth-cum-twenty first century literary Ansicht: for, to modify without quite mixing metaphors, though Johnson may have more than one foot planted on the side of the river dividing us from those sword-wearing, long-waistcoated, hatbox coat-cuffed  neo-classicists, to most latter-day critics’ minds he retains at least a toe-hold or two on the other side, in the unmistakably then and there-cum-non here and now.  Ironically yet conveniently, the firmest such perceived toe-hold is to be found in the very essay—Rambler No. 4—in which Johnson defends contemporary literary realism most vigorously and cogently, and indeed, a mere carriage return-plus-.5” indentation from the above-quoted passages about how wonderful it is that we’ve finally gotten rid of all those tiresomely improbable knights and giants and replaced them with delightfully probable people of the sort one encounters in the real world, which passages are actually nothing but a buildup to a Mixalotian but that sets the prevailingly polemical tone and agenda of the remainder of the essay as follows:             

But the fear of not being approved as just copiers of human manners, is not the most important concern that an author of this sort [i.e., a novelist] ought to have before him.  These books [i.e., novels] are written chiefly to the young, the ignorant, and the the idle, to whom they serve as lectures of conduct, and introductions into life.  They are the entertainment of minds unfurnished with ideas, and therefore easily susceptible of impressions; not fixed by principles, and therefore easily following the current of fancy; not informed by experience, and consequently open to every false suggestion and partial account.

Now, from the point of view of a cultivated post-nineteenth century reader this passage cannot avoid coming across as insufferably ill-informed, priggish, and presumptuous at first blush.  After all, nowadays nobody thinks of a novel as something pitched by default at naïve, impressionable children; to the contrary, in our view a great novel is exactly the sort of book an unimpressionable, fixed-principled, experience-informed mind is best suited to read and should most enjoy reading.  What is more, although the core of our present-day narrative canon for worldly-wise oldsters is composed of novels written in the period of the novel’s full maturity—i.e., say, since ca. 1850 (and e.g., Bleak House, Moby Dick, War and Peace, The Brothers Karamazov, A la recherche, Ulysses, and Gravitys Rainbow), its inner periphery does include a pair of texts from Johnson’s age, the golden age of the novel qua novelty—namely, Fielding’s Tom Jones and Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, texts that Johnson is on record as having read in whole or part (though of the two only Tom Jones was extant at the time of Rambler No. 4’s penning).

Having pejoratively infantilized the new genre’s readership, Johnson goes on to inculcate a kind of characterological prescription for the sort of novel that is least likely to lead that readership’s vacant, tabularasal little heads astray on to the path of mischance and mischief:

In narratives, where historical veracity has no place [i.e., proper fictions, not narratives “based on a true story”] I cannot discover why there should not be exhibited the most perfect idea of virtue; of virtue not angelical, nor above probability, for what we cannot credit we shall never imitate, but the highest and purest that humanity can reach, which exercised in such trials as the various revolutions of things shall bring upon it, may, by conquering some calamities, and enduring others, teach us what we may hope, and what we can perform.  Vice, for vice is necessary to be shewn, should always disgust; nor should the graces of gaiety, or the dignity of courage, be so united with it, as to reconcile it to the mind.  Wherever it appears, it should raise hatred by the malignity of its practices, and contempt by the meanness of its stratagems; for while it is supported by either parts [i.e., talents or abilities] or spirit, it will be seldom heartily abhorred.

In short, to the twentieth-cum-twenty-first-century reader-cum-critic, [1] it can easily look as though in the last three-quarters of Rambler No. 4, Johnson performs a complete and decidedly unprepossessing retrenchment of the positions espoused in its first quarter (positions that, as we have seen, blend seamlessly with positions later espoused in the preface to Shakespeare); as though having built up the novel into the first sensible, realistic, adult-worthy literary genre the world has yet known, he perversely sets about first dumbing it down to the level of a fairy tale and then recommends dumbing it down even further to the level of the dumbest sort of fairy tale, one in which only the good witch has the magic wand and the bad witch looks both completely awful and completely doomed from the very beginning.  Or, to put it in other terms, the twentieth-cum-twenty-first century reader or critic cannot help regarding the late Rambler No. 4 Johnson as a precursor of the likes of those much-reviled 1980s bluenoses, Mary Whitehouse and Tipper Gore, a self-appointed cultural gatekeeper who supposes that we are not mature enough to handle the truth in all its messy and occasionally frightening and distasteful fullness and must therefore be presented with a censored and incomplete and hence patently unrealistic view of the world from which all the unpleasant elements have been brutally excised by the bleep, the black bar, or the airbrush—implements that without any detectable legitimate warrant this gatekeeper has taken it upon himself to wield with veto-proof peremptoriness.  And in this view of late-No. 4 Rambler Johnson the twentieth-cum-twenty-first century reader or critic is partly correct.  He or she is correct in assuming that late-No. 4 Johnson really did think he knew better than those impressionable tots and footmen and serving-maids and sedan-chairmen what they should be reading.  But he or she is incorrect in assuming that late-No. 4 Johnson predicated the constructing of an impressionable reader-safe novel on any sort of qualification—let alone abrogation or retraction—of the aesthetic realism advocated by early-No. 4 Johnson: to the contrary, late-No. 4 Johnson’s prescriptions constitute a reaffirmation, a refinement, and an elaboration of the tenets set forth by early-No. 4 Johnson (hence, further, a worthy propaedeutic to the tenets set forth in the preface to Shakespeare).  Now it so happens that my main Ziel, telos, or aim in this quasi-lecture-cum-mini-curriculum is to persuade the reader that late No.-4 Johnson was entirely within his rights to assume that he knew better than his impressionable contemporaries what those impressionable contemporaries should be reading, and by extrapolation that a correspondingly well-seasoned reader-critic of our own time (and no, I don’t mean the present writer specifically) would be correspondingly within his or her rights to decide what we (and yes, I do include the present writer in this collectivity) impressionable readers should be reading (and listening to and watching).   But I cannot arrive at this Ziel autc. without ceasing to treat Johnson’s oeuvre as a closed system—without, indeed and in particular, enlisting the aid of James Boswell; moreover, I ought not even attempt to approach this Ziel autc. without first demonstrating that late-Rambler Johnson’s literary aesthetic is sufficiently realism-oriented, for there is assuredly no point in trying to make a case that a certain person is qualified to be an arbiter of something (be it literature or socks) if his principal idea on that something is fundamentally bonkers (if he thinks that novels should be dumbed-down, airbrushed fairy tales or that socks should only ever be worn on the hands).  So towards that intermediate Ziel autc. let us make a second pass of our hermeneutic Dust Devil over Rambler No. 4 in search of any or all bits of prose that through juxtaposition therewith may serve to acquit the passages already quoted of the charge of pie-in-the-sky Pollyannaism.  I reckon the most exculpatory such bit to be the following:

The chief advantage which these fictions [i.e. (yet again), novels] have over real life is, that their authors are at liberty, tho’ not to invent, yet to select objects, and to cull from the mass of mankind, those individuals upon which the attention ought most to be employ’d; as a diamond, though it cannot be made, may be polished by art, and placed in such a situation, as to display that lustre which before was buried among common stones.

It is justly considered as the greatest excellency of art, to imitate nature; but it is necessary to distinguish those parts of nature, which are most proper for imitation: greater care is still required in representing life, which is so often discoloured by passion, or deformed by wickedness.  If the world be promiscuously described, I cannot see of what use it can be to read the account; or why it may not be as safe to turn the eye immediately upon mankind, as upon a mirror which shows all that presents itself without discrimination.

Observe first of all, I beg you, that Johnson postulates one limitation of the novelist’s art that places him or her well to the realward of the fairy tale-teller: he or she categorically is not “at liberty to invent objects.”  In other words, every person, place, thing, and state of mind described or represented by the novelist must be something of a kind that actually exists, and behave exactly as a person, place, thing, or state of mind of that kind actually behaves.  The novelist’s license, as an artist, Johnson goes on to say, is confined to selecting the objects that he or she will describe or represent; his or her art is essentially and preeminently that of an editor in a quasi-cinematic sense.  (It will be noted that this view anticipates Johnson’s rejection of the dramatic unities in the Shakespeare preface, for in flouting these unities the dramatist likewise selects and edits, splicing out great swathes of space and time in order to bring together places and events that are both mutually distant and mutually implicative.)   The alternative to a selective or editorial approach to novel-writing, namely a “promiscuously” descriptive one that “shows all that presents itself without discrimination” is bound to result in a text that is in the first place superfluous (“I cannot see of what use it can be to read the account”), because the human world itself already affords us plenty of promiscuous experience, and dangerous, because that world itself is dangerous.  “So you’re saying that Johnson is saying that reading a journalistically realistic account of a holdup at gunpoint is as dangerous as actually being held up at gunpoint.”  No, I’m saying that Johnson is saying that reading a journalistically realistic account of a holdup at gunpoint is as dangerous as actually watching someone else being held up at gunpoint, as “turning the eye immediately upon” such an event.  “And exactly how could that be dangerous, provided the spectator was unmistakably out of harm’s way—say, concealed behind a bulletproof partition?”  It could be dangerous if, say, the gunman happened to be particularly witty and good-looking and made off with the loot without actually having to shoot anybody, in that from all these particulars you might conclude (as you would be all too inclined to do, this being the only holdup at gunpoint you had ever witnessed), that gun-armed robbers weren’t such awful people as they were made out to be, or even that holding somebody up at gunpoint wasn’t a genuinely awful thing to do.  In demanding that “vice” as depicted in novels “should always disgust” and that “the graces of gaiety, or the dignity of courage, [not] be so united with it, as to reconcile it to the mind,” Johnson is merely espousing on the aesthetic plane what is a perfectly mainstream twenty-first century notion, a notion that all of us accept under the auspices of various jargonic designations—transference, peer pressure, the Stockholm Syndrome, etc.—viz., the notion that we can only be as well or badly behaved as the company we keep, and that if we wish to behave better rather than worse than we do now, we must associate with people who are better rather than worse behaved than we now are.  And as in life we select our moral betters not from the pantheons of such chimerical entities as angels and superheroes but rather from the available stock of actually extant men and women, in novels we should not be presented with figures who are “angelically” virtuous, virtuous “above probability, for what we cannot credit we shall never imitate,” but merely with “the highest and purest [virtue] that humanity can reach.”  In neither case—in his presentation of either virtue or vice—is the novelist expected to violate the norm of realism any more than we violate the laws of physical probability in managing to avoid the company of actual hucksters, pimps, and cutpurses.

Of course, here in the early third millennium this avoidance is often treated as just such a physical near-impossibility.  I do not mean, of course, that very many of us third-millennials actually end up consorting with known or self-avowed hucksters, pimps, or cutpurses, but that we are fond of supposing that everyone we know (including ourselves) has pronounced hucksterish, pimpish, and cutpursish tendencies, tendencies that we not only condone but embrace, snugly smug as we are in our conviction that they are automatically and universally counterbalanced by contrary tendencies towards philanthropy, puppy-dog succoring, and the like.  “There is good and bad,” quoth one of our leading saints, Sir Paul, “in all of us.”  Hence, in the name of realism people have come on principle to demand literary and cinematic characters who are “deeply flawed,” yet at the same time “deeply empathetic” (or “emotional”), characters who are shown committing exactly one morally reprehensible act for every morally praiseworthy one (“One minute the guy’s blowing some other guy’s head off with a sawed-off shotgun, the next he’s reading his four-year-old daughter to sleep from The Little Engine That Could—oh, the Oscarworthy verisimilitude!”) as if in compulsive compliance with some alchemic superstition.

A similar—albeit much more sophisticated—theory of the human moral composition and its claims on literary mimesis enjoyed some currency in Johnson’s day, and in Rambler No. 4 the Great Cham exacts few column-inches in endowing it with a second evacuative cavity:

Some have advanced, without due attention to the consequences of this notion, that certain virtues have their correspondent faults, and therefore that to exhibit either apart is to deviate from probability.  Thus men are observed by Swift [actually Pope] to be “grateful in the same degree as they are resentful.”  This principle, with others of the same kind, supposes man to act from a brute impulse, and persue a certain degree of inclination, without any choice of the object; for, otherwise, though it should be allowed that gratitude and resentment arise from the same constitution of the passions, it follows not that they will be equally indulged when reason is consulted; yet unless that consequence be admitted, this sagacious maxim becomes an empty sound, without any relation to practice or to life. 

Here, Johnson adds a sorely exigent layer of phenomenal reality to the bicameral theory of individual morality, the layer of deliberation.  While it is entirely possible that the same basic psychological disposition to the world could incline a person to feel grateful on one occasion and resentful on the next, it need not be his feeling at any given moment that immediately determines his behavior at that selfsame moment, for he may choose to behave either gratefully or resentfully (or indeed neither) depending on which attitude he concludes is more just or appropriate after an interval (which may of course be brief to the point of instantaneousness) of deliberation, after considering whether he has any just or reasonable cause to feel grateful or resentful.  There needs no ghost of an eighteenth-century literary critic to tell us this: each of us can recall moments when we were on the verge of throwing a resentful tantrum or crying a river of grateful tears in reaction to something somebody else said or did for or to us, only to do neither or the opposite because we suddenly realized our resentment or gratitude was unwarranted.  Of course (again with the of course!), many, most, or perhaps even all twenty-first century readers will balk at the notion that it is reason that they are consulting during the just-mentioned brief interval, believing as they do that reason is the antithesis of emotion and hence fit for employment only by purebred Vulcans and homicidal supercomputers; but the sort of reason Johnson has in mind is hardly incompatible with emotional vitality—to the contrary, it may cohabit with the most passionate emotional investment, an investment in, say, not wishing to cause another person useless and unmerited pain (a wish that we fail to fulfill when we are resentful of someone who has not injured us, or ungrateful to someone who has helped us).  What makes such consultation reasonable, or, more idiomatically rational, is not some supposed independence of emotion, but rather the mere fact that it involves certain cognitive operations—comparing the present moment with others in one’s own past experience or in the past experience of others, analyzing concepts (Is So-and-So strongly guilty of a full-blown “snub” or weakly guilty of a mere “oversight”) and so forth.  And to the extent that we admit that some people are much more skilled at or habituated to performing such operations, or base them on much more solid principles, than others, we must concede that Johnson’s recommendation of morally lopsided characters—of characters who are much more good than bad or much more bad than good—cannot be said to flout the realistic remit.

But something too much of this for now.  I have made the intrinsic case for the realism-friendliness of Johnson’s poetics of novel-writing as best as (so I flatter myself) it can be made; now I must make the case for Johnson’s conviction that adherence to his aesthetics-cum-poetics will necessarily be more beneficent, more productive of morally worthy behavior in readers, than adherence to rival aesthetices-cum-poetices, and in particular to the Manichean poetics of equipoised vice and virtue.  For in the end, the conclusion that a virtuous hero-centered novel need be no less realistic than a rapscallion-centered one can be more than “an empty sound, without any relation to practice or to life,” can have any bearing on the sort of novel a would-be novelist chooses or is supposed to write, only so long as readers are held to be “impressionable” enough to respond to characters in a novel just (or at least as much) as they would to characters of the same type in real life.  Received opinion in our so-called culture holds that only children are ever that impressionable, and that their impressionableness decreases with age to the point of nonexistence at the magical chronological milestone of 17.  This milestone is of course one year shy of our official age of majority, but it is, as they say, close enough for government work.  The calcification of the last traces of impressionability by fiction is essentially held by us to be coextensive with the attainment of adulthood.  At the age of eight we may (it is said) be forgiven for thinking that the horrible man with the chainsaw is out to get not only the silly people in the movie but also our mommy and daddy and us; at the age of eighteen we are supposed to know better, and to be able to spectate on the simulated chainsaw-butchering of thousands of people in succession with all the snifter-circulating detachment that we might bestow on a mathematical proof of the derivation of five from the addition of two and two, or a biopic of the present king of France as played by the Easter Bunny.  As adults, we are supposed to know that movies and other fictive representations have absolutely nothing in common with the real world, and to be utterly impervious to suggestion by them.  And far be it from me to impugn the enlightenment, the matoority, the irrevocable désabusement, of a single actual living number of my fellow post-millennial over-18s!  In the interest of keeping their reputations for uncorruptedness (note that I do not say incorruptibility) intact, I shall take my cautionary example from Johnson’s own time and indeed Johnson’s own circle.  Ladies and gentlemen—or, rather, fellow yobs and yobesses—I present to you James Boswell from the age of eighteen onwards.  Few young men of his time loved a realistic fiction, a “comedy of romance,” more than James Boswell, and in his native city of Edinburgh perhaps none at all did.  Certainly no other Edinburghian (or Edinburgher?) found his own enthusiasm for these fictions so hard to contain that he felt compelled to put it in writing and publish it.  Young Jamie’s favorite play by far was John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, the so-called “Newgate Pastoral” dramatizing the demimonde of highwaymen, informers, whores, beggars, gangsters, and turnkeys (not to mention hucksters, pimps, and cutpurses) in the London of the late 1720s, barely a decade before Boswell’s birth.  The Beggar’s Opera is plainly a satire, although exactly whom or what it is satirizing is not especially easy to specify.  Received literary history views it mainly as a political satire wherein each of the low-life figures in the dramatis personae stands in allegorically for some corresponding figure in the early Hanoverian political establishment.  Most notably the play’s principal personage—its “hero” in a loose sense—the highwayman and gang leader Macheath, is held to represent the first two Georges’ kleptocratic prime minister, Robert Walpole (who was then only at the midpoint of his de facto reign); such that the viewer is held to have been expected to read the flagrantly tacked-on happy ending, wherein Macheath escapes the hanging to which he is legally doomed, as a wry commentary on Walpole’s apparently unstoppable elusion of punishment for a multitude of sins and crimes.  Secondarily, the play is seen as a satire on the hyper-artificial conventions of Italian opera seria, then all the rage in London thanks to G. F. Handel and legal castration.  (Technically this is not the secondary but primary satirical register, as the very notion of a beggar’s opera makes sense only in juxtaposition with the notion of a non-beggar’s opera; but few people nowadays know enough about Italian opera seria to take much interest in the BO on a proto-opera buffic plane.)  But the play can be read as a political or musico-generic satire only because it is more fundamentally and less contestably satirical of the people and the sub-society it literally refers to and depicts—the sub-society of actual, non-metaphorical criminals and their immediate parasites.  When in the penultimate, third-wall-breaking scene, the character who presents himself as the play’s author, the eponymous beggar, nails his programmatic colors to the mast in saying that he intended to show “that the lower sort of people have their vices in a degree as well as the rich, and that they are punished for them,” one laughs only if one shares the actual author’s—Gay’s—gentlemanly assumption that the lower sort of people are more vicious than the rich and are therefore more generally (because justly) punished, and that in all the preceding scenes they have been plausibly shown to be no better than they should be.  The beggar has comically (and with appropriate lower-class gormlessness) inverted the play’s scale of values: the point it really means to get across is that the higher sort of people have their vices in a degree (but an assuredly lesser degree) than the poor, and that they should be punished for them as the lower sort really and quite justly are.  Gay’s intention may have been to make Walpole look like a petty criminal, or Handel’s Julius Caesar qua heroic out-belter of da capo arias look like a common ballad singer, but he could realize this intention only by making Macheath a plausibly contemptible common criminal and equally plausibly contemptible common ballad singer.   Anyway, the point of the laborious Cliffs-Notes-esque quasi-digression comprised by the preceding half-dozen sentences is to make clear that there is nothing about either the The Beggar’s Opera’s subject-matter or its treatment thereof that so much as whispers, let alone screams for the admiration of the likes of James Boswell—a  highly respectable young Scottish gentleman,  son of one of Caledonia’s most eminent jurists and established landowners, a young man with every prospect of enjoying an illustrious career as a barrister followed by a nearly-equally illustrious retirement as the quasi-feudal proprietor and master of a vast and (for Scotland) fruitful rural estate.  The denizens of the London demimonde were hardly young James Boswell’s people; indeed, they would not even have qualified to be his “people” in the old-fashioned sense meaning servants.  YJB had no reason to expect that he would ever be obliged to look a real-life highwayman, whore, pimp, or cutpurse aut al. in the eye through any medium other than the air above the desk in his office, in the setting of a client-advocate conference.  On the evidence of this flagrant ne’er-the-twain-ism, one is naturally bound to conclude that YJB’s reverence of The Beggar’s Opera sprang entirely from that sudden feeling of glory in the presence of inferior beings that Thomas Hobbes believed to be the sole and complete basis of laughter, that YJB attended all those scores of performances of TBO with the exclusive aim of smugly ejaculating to himself, “There despite the disgrace of the Devil ne’er go I!”  Alas!-stroke-Whodathunkit?: the archival record makes it impossible to doubt that the main reasons YJB so assiduously sought out those performances were to revel in the representation of a modus vivendi and a milieu that he longed to be embodying and inhabiting; and to marvel at the words, gestures, and actions of characters with whom he pined to switch not only places but identities.  To do quantitative justice to this TBO fandom would require a long essay on its own, for gushing references to and quotations of TBO are to Boswell’s early journals what the phrase “I Y One Direction” is to the notebook covers of a fifteen-year-old girl of 2013 (or rather, I suppose, 2012).  A single passage from the London Journal of 1762-1763 will suffice to give one a sense of its (the fandom’s) flavor and orientation:

I..sallied forth to the Piazzas in rich flow of animal spirits and burning with fierce desire.  I met two very pretty little girls who asked me to take them with me.  “My dear girls, said I, “I am a poor fellow.  I can give you no money.  But if you choose to have a glass of wine and my company and let us be gay and obliging to each other without money, I am your man.”  They agreed with great good humour.  So back to the Shakespeare [tavern] I went.  “Waiter,” said I, “ I have got here a couple of human beings; I don’t know how they’ll do.”  “I’ll look, your Honour,” cried he, and with inimitable effrontery stared them in the face and then cried, “They’ll do very well.”  “What,” said I, “are they good fellow-creatures?  Bring them up, then.”  We were shown into a good room and had a bottle of sherry  before us in a minute.  I surveyed my seraglio and found them both good subjects for amorous play.  I toyed with them and drank about and sung Youth’s the Season and thought myself Captain Macheath, and then I solaced my existence with them, one after the other, according to their seniority.  I was quite raised, as the phrase is: thought I was in a London tavern, the Shakespeare’s Head, enjoying high debauchery after my sober winter.  I parted with my ladies politely and came home in a glow of spirits.  (19 May 1763)

This is certainly a squalid enough scene, but what is most striking about it for our proverbial present purposes is not the squalor itself, but the means by which the recorder of the scene seeks to redeem himself from that squalor.  A self-aestheticizing rake of fifty or a hundred years earlier—say, a Rochester—would have peppered his description of one of his whoremongering sprees with classical allusions intended not to ennoble the debaucherous acts he had been engaged in but rather to accentuate their ignobility via the incongruously elevated pedigree of the names he was associating with them, and thereby inoculate himself against any more than transient association with his impromptu co-coitionists.  “In calling that poxy doxy what I rogered against a tree in St. James’s last night ‘Lesbia,’ and myself her ‘Catullus’,” our Restoration rake would have quotht to himself, “I put her in her place and keep myself in mine, ’cos after all she’s no Lesbia [N-swiving-B, you 21st-century lot, in my day, the word for girl-on-girl cravings was “Sapphism” not “Lesbianism”], whereas I bloody well am a Catullus, simply on account of being a poet and knowing who Catullus and Lesbia were.  So there!”  For Boswell, in contrast, whoremongering is worthy of aestheticization in its own terms; it requires no high-burlesque refiguration as a tryst between a god and a nymph or a swain and his inamorata; nor for him does aestheticizing require him to distance himself from, to repudiate, the act of debauchery qua act.  (Indeed, he is quite content to call what he has done “debauchery.” )  To be alone with two or more women of easy virtue in an ordinary London tavern is enough to make one feel that one is echoing, participating in, or fulfilling a great literary work, because ordinary London taverns and ordinary London whores are good enough for that great work’s hero, the great Macheath, who like Frank Wedekind’s Lulu “feels no need to represent himself as anything other than what he is”—viz. an ordinary (albeit exceptionally intrepid) highwayman.  But why should what was good enough for Macheath have been much more than good enough for Boswell?  What in the living heck was it about this twopenny-halfpenny presumptive nobody Macheath (the name “Macheath” means “Son of the Heath” [i.e., Hampstead Heath] and hence bespeaks a parentage too humble to be worth remembering) that made him an appealing so-called role model for the likes of James Boswell, kinsman of the Stuart monarchs and future Laird of Auchinleck?  The answer to this question is, I believe, contained in the genre of scenario that occasioned the self-Macheathization.  We do not, after all (well, perhaps not “after all” for those who have not read the London Journal from cover to cover, and who will consequently have to take my word for this) ever find Boswell recording, say, “I..sallied forth to the Piazzas in rich flow of animal spirits and burning with fierce desire for money.  I met a very well-dressed gentleman at whose breast I pointed my pistol whilst exclaiming, ‘Hand over to me every last farthing in your possession!’”  He does not, in other words, take an interest in imitating every genre of act that Macheath is capable of committing.  All we really have to go on in specifying this genre is the name of the song that Boswell elects to sing out of the dozen or so appropriated to Macheath.  And what does this selection tell us genre-wise?  The key word in the above-quoted passage, vis-à-vis cinching the answer to the question just asked, is “seraglio.”  You see, “Youth’s the Season” hails from a scene in which Macheath is sitting in a tavern where he is surrounded by seven women of the town, who all coo over if him as if they think he’s the cat’s pajamas as inhabited by the bee’s knees.  Boswell’s designation of his own mere brace of doxies as a “seraglio” proves that it was the sheer populousness of Macheath’s feminine retinue that appealed most to Boswell, and that it was this that he was striving to reconstruct in hooking up with two girls at the same time.  In Boswell’s eyes Macheath was evidently most admirable in his capacity as a kind of Christendom-inhabiting (albeit not exactly Christian) analogue to the Turkish sultan with his infinitely expandable collection of wives.  One should be on guard against poo-pooing the allure, the aura, the glamour of such a figure too precipitately.  For according to the admittedly dim and selective lights of my knowledge of the so-called western canon, a figure of precisely this sort was in 1728 without precedent in either ancient or modern Occidental literature.  To be sure, in classical and classically derived literature there are numerous examples of men who inspired boundless passion in specific women: for example, Ulysses in Circe, or Adonis in Venus  (who, while she may indeed stand in like Chaka Khan for “every woman” in her capacity of the goddess of love, is obliged to be enjoyed as an individual).  And in modern literature one need look no further than Shakespeare for scads of examples.  But none of these figures is ever represented as attractive to women in general: while Juliet, for example, may regard Romeo as the handsomest man who ever lived, for all we know not a single other scrotumless human in Verona would have given him the time of day or forborne to kick him out of bed for eating biscotti.  The nearest thing to an equivalent or precedent that I can recall is the Don Juan of Moliere’s play, which (as near as I can recall) had never been a big hit north of the Sleeve.  And in any case, Don Juan is at best a serial chick-magnet who can cuddle and carouse with only one woman at a time, and who—perhaps even more unappealingly—is constantly obliged to work for the regard and consent of his prospective conquests.  The idea that a man might simultaneously attract multiple women into his orbit by simply sitting still and being himself: this, I would wager, is something entirely new in the western masculine Vorstellungsschaft.  Of course, if one looks too closely at it, the plausibility of the conceit evaporates: the women in Macheath’s seraglio are not his wives, bound by law to coit with him and him alone, but prostitutes, free and indeed bound to coit with every Tom, Dick, or Harry who has a shilling to offer in return for the service; their devotion to Macheath is obviously either false or doomed.  But the verisimilitude of so many of the elements of the ambient diagesis helps the conceit to retain its speciousness, its semblance of coherence: the setting, is after all, a plausible simulacrum of a London tavern; Newgate is a real London prison; Lockit, Peachum, and indeed Macheath himself in his central function as a highwayman are figures of a sort one might actually see in or in the propinquity of that prison—why not dream that the plausibility of the whole is capable of being miasmically imparted to the exceptional implausibility of a single part?  And when (ahem!) erecting parallels to this situation in one’s own life, why not hope against hope that the sordid actual particulars of the scenario at hand will likewise hoist it aloft into the realm of the numinous?  Might not these two girls who have consented to share my company in the absence of any prospect of remuneration other than a glass or two of wine prove as devoted to me as Macheath’s “seraglio” was to him?  Well, it is certainly worth a try, or rather, two tries—after which, well, mightn’t I as well regard my own double-charged potency as sufficient proof?

Something too much of this.  I hope that it has done something in the way of fine-tuning and fleshing out Johnson’s admonitions on morally mixed characters—of giving some appetite-inducing heft and concreteness to his rather attenuatedly abstract “graces of gaiety.”  Young Boswell’s case vis-à-vis Macheath suggests that in order for a literary character to exert any sort of influence on a reader’s behavior, he or she must possess qualities that are not only intrinsically engaging but that are also lacking in both the reader’s own life and in the world of the established literary canon—that he or she must both fill a niche and fulfill a wish, a wish that need be none too refined or elaborate; and further that the aspects of such a character’s moral makeup that do not impinge on that niche or that wish are essentially the equivalent of inactive ingredients in a medication: if they are missing or defective (read: insufficiently realistic), the medicine will not go down, but when they are present and integral (read: sufficiently realistic) they effect no change in the organism.   “This is all shaping up to look rather more like a case in refutation of Johnson’s thesis than a case in illustration of it.”  You mean, I suppose, on account of all the bad Macheathean things Boswell didn’t do and indeed was never even tempted to do?  “Yes, on account of those, but also on account of the fact that the one Macheathean thing Boswell did do—namely, enjoy mutually consensual coition with two prostitutes—is arguably neither vicious nor sinful.”  You won’t prevail upon me to take the merest first baby-step into that particular moral maze, sir.  And indeed I shan’t have to take it, because in the present setting it really doesn’t matter what you or I think of whoremongering; in the present setting it is indeed enough to know that Boswell himself sternly disapproved of whoremongering to surmise that he might have done better to spend fewer of his teenage hours spectating on the antics of Macheath &co.  To be sure, the above-quoted passage from the London Journal gives no hint of the just-now-mentioned disapproval, but this is because it is too tightly implicated in the idiotopic aestheticizing moment.  Bereft of its very first sentence, in which Boswell concedes that “animal spirits” and “fierce desire” were the principal impetuses to his “sallying forth to the Piazzas,” the passage would lead one to believe that it was a record of spontaneous mutual affection arising among three totally financially disinterested parties and terminating in no consequence more dire than mutual gratification.  In his later journals, Boswell by contrast consistently writes of his bouts of whoring in a thoroughly self-flagellatory tone, devoting a minimum but adequately unflattering amount of his attention to his co-coitionists, and attributing his out-seeking of them to some outright Jekyll-and-Hyde-esque transformation of his personal essence, a transformation generally attributed in turn to overindulgence in the daemon alcohol.  “Fair enough, but surely you can’t prove that The Beggar’s Opera was the efficient cause of Boswell’s whoremongery, that had he never read the play or seen a performance of it he never would have coited with a single so-called lady of the night.”  Indeed I can’t, for the cussedly unbudgeable reason that both Boswell’s first reading or viewing of The Beggar’s Opera and his first visit to a so-called lady of the night antedate the period when he began regularly keeping a journal, and so we do not know which even happened first.  But never mind that, for your chicken-and-egg demurral is as far beside the point as your earlier demurral centering on the conjectural innocuousness of prostitution.  The point is that Boswell never wanted to be a whoremonger, and there is absolutely no doubt that The Beggar’s Opera made it easy for him to talk himself into believing that he was not mongering whores when he was doing just that.  To clarify this whole matter, allow me to draw not for the first time (i.e., in this we***g albeit not in this essay) on the work of the famous American philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt, in this case on his distinction between first and second-order volitions.  First-order volitions, according to Frankfurt, are desires that come to us unbidden and over which we have no control; second-order volitions are desires by which we seek to govern our first-order volitions; they are “what we want our will to be,” and in fully-fledged persons it is they and not first-order volitions that ideally govern conduct.  A person may on occasion or even frequently act on first-order volitions that are in conflict with his second-order volitions, but he will always subsequently regret having done so, because it is by his second-order volitions alone that he gauges his own conduct.  Like most men Boswell had second-order volitions to be loved by women in general and to avoid venereal disease, volitions that while often difficult to reconcile with each other in practice are not intrinsically mutually contradictory (this because enjoying the attention of women does not automatically entail copulating with them); like most men, too, he was subject to a first-order volition to copulate with any specific woman who was willing and available, a volition that is statistically if contingently irreconcilable with both of the preceding first-order volitions.  The example of Macheath led young Boswell falsely to believe that this first-order volition was not at odds with those second-order volitions, and thereby to indulge regretlessly for a time in behaviors that he deemed unwise and indeed vicious.

Something too much of this, the last of the present essay’s exhaustible thises (The third time is a charm, nest pah?).  It is time at last to demonstrate the numerical equivalence (or at least near-equivalence) of the conclusion to be drawn from the present Boswellian-Johnsonian syllabus and the Chinese price of tea that is the conjectural present reader’s own disposition to literary artifacts; to demonstrate to him or her that he or she should be as wary of the influence of such artifacts as Samuel Johnson thought the readers of novels should be and as James Boswell apodictically should have been.  Firstly to this end then: Boswell’s case demonstrates, as Rambler No. 4 Johnson’s arguments on their own do not do, that it is foolish to relegate susceptibility to literary representations to life’s earliest phases, to conjecture that it is something that one more or less inevitably grows out of along with a belief in Santa Claus (or, yes, the Easter Bunny) or that money grows on trees—this because the errors and sins that such representations persuade one to commit are not always of a sort to which only a child who has not attained the age of discretion is liable.  By The Beggar’s Opera the average five-year-old scion of an eighteenth-century land-owning family may have been tempted to take up thievery because he was unaware of the place of thievery in what Johnson called “the system of life”: unaware that the nature of their occupation prevented thieves from walking about openly in public; that being a professional thief is incompatible with being an upstanding landed proprietor and justice of the peace like his old man, whom he admires and aspires to be, and so on.  An average eighteen-year-old scion of an eighteenth-century landowning family has long since been immunized against this temptation, but he remains vulnerable to certain others because not all the social phenomena represented in The Beggar’s Opera are as demonstrably inimical to the lifestyle of a country squire, or as inalienable from the lifestyle of a highwayman, as thievery is.  Most men—including alike most thieves and most country squires–desire the admiration of women.  The odds of obtaining such admiration from a prostitute may have been low but they were not non-existent, and the temptation to try those odds was always a live one, given that consorting with prostitutes was a practice common to all ranks and classes of men.  And what was good and bad for the eighteenth-century prospective country squire must likewise be good and bad, mutatis mutandis, for his twenty-first century counterpart, for the twenty-first century man or woman who either already has or may reasonably expect to have some (I admit it in this so-called day and age it is devilishly hard to write the following words with a straight face) socially respectable and responsible position to fill.  To be sure, the mutatis to be mutandi’d are both numerous and in need of radical mutation.  For example, it is difficult nowadays to make prostitution seem glamorous as a scene and end in itself.  A few 70s blaxploitation movies aside, the pimp has lately been a universally reviled figure, an abusive, petty, avaricious scoundrel held up to the reader or viewer’s hatred and scorn from beginning to end; while the prostitute’s client, the so-called John, is invariably portrayed as the ultimate loser, a pathetic homunculus who turns to commercial sex only because he is so charmless and physically repulsive that not a single woman on the face of the earth will consent to coit with him for free.  Only is the hooker herself is ever seen in a flattering light, but never qua enthusiastic or even resigned plyer of her métier; she is always seen to have turned to prostitution only as a last resort beyond the last resort, and to be saving up every last penny towards her enfranchisement from the loathsome trade–an enfranchisement that the viewer cannot believe will be long in coming, as she is always portrayed by Hollywood’s current highest-grossing female lead.  On the other hand, certain sectors of the criminal demimonde that were formerly too remote from the reader’s or viewer’s lifeworld to incite literal mimesis and were therefore depicted with a mixture of denigrative realism and idealizing romanticism are now shown in a realistic yet flattering light; and the folkways of these sectors are adopted as moral and spiritual signposts even by people whose (again one can scarcely forbear sniggering) station in society might seem to preclude such adoption.  I am thinking here of the world of the Italian-American mafia as depicted in certain sorts of motion-pictural productions, the first of which was The Godfather and in whose company I include not only that movie’s two sequels but also such non-Coppolan entities as Goodfellas and The Sopranos.  Of course, there were plenty of movies and TV shows about the mob before The Godfather, but in these the gangsters were essentially depicted along the lines of Macheath and his fellow cutpurses in The Beggar’s Opera, as loveable rogues whose walk of life the viewer had no expectation would ever cross his own.  Much as one admires Frank Sinatra’s bird-pulling prowess in Guys and Dolls, one would never dream of exchanging professions with him.  With The Godfather, the mobster becomes for the first time a figure who is seen to possess both substantial power in the world and significant insight into its workings.  The message of such opera (sic) is no longer that the petty, insignificant criminal underworld evinces certain instructive if ultimately trivial resemblances to the grand, significant governmental overworld, but that the underworld is ultimately grander and more significant than the overworld, whose pseudo-potentates are merely putting on a show of being in charge while being jerked about like marionettes by their infinitely awe-inspiring gangland masters.  The locus classicus of this phenomenon is Godfather II’s treatment of the Cuban revolution, wherein a sagacious Mafioso twigs the imminent overthrow of the Batista regime while a clueless U.S. senator blithely tipples and gambles in the Mob’s casinos as if it’s still 1929.  The Mafioso in today’s Kulturslandschaft is both the paragon of and a panderer to the sociological type that David Riesman, at the dead center of the twentieth century, termed the “inside dopester,” a person who craves information on the hidden machinations of power not so much behind the official closed doors as behind the unofficial closed doors that lie behind them—sometimes as a mere voyeuristic gossip-monger, sometimes as an active coveter of real power.  If he is the former gossip-mongering subtype, he will console himself for all the fetching and carrying and bowing and scraping he is obliged to do in his place of employment with the thought that his nominal superiors are mere toadies and nonentities in their own right, if the power-coveting type he will embolden himself with the thought that if he merely manages to cut through all the namby-pamby bullshit procedurals and ceremonials with sufficient ruthlessness, his nominal superiors will soon be fetching and carrying for and bowing and scraping to him.  Of course, in the present system of life none of this will fly, because at bottom the namby-pamby bullshit ceremonials and procedurals of this system are no less exigent to its maintenance than their eighteenth-century counterparts were to the maintenance of its predecessor.  But as in The Beggar’s Opera, the photographic realism of the matte background painting—of the representation of social and historical context—serves to conceal the impracticability of the local mise en scène:  there really was a Cuban revolution in 1959, the casinos were really mob-owned, George Raft really did perform in them, and so on.  And so those members of the TV and movie-viewing public whose first-order volitions to be an asshole are not kept in check by second-order volitions to be a nice guy do their utmost to actualize a gangsterish ethos within the actual, present namby-pambyish system of life: they make a point of mercilessly bullying those (e.g., retail service workers) who fall into their power, however nominally and briefly; and they recompense every real or perceived slight, however slight, with torrents of abuse and vindictive snubbage.  But even nice-guyward tending second-order volitionally endowed people are likely to have this second order volition trumped by a rival and by no means analytically reprehensible second-order volition to be, as they say, in the loop, to be an inside dopester in the above-mentioned weaker voyeuristic sense.  They are likely, in other words, to feel demoralized at the reflection that in fulfilling the requirements of their jobs and treating others fairly they have shown themselves to be simps, goody-goodies, and squares unworthy of access to the inner sanctum, the holiest of holies; and hence, although not succumbing to the would-be Mafioso’s ethos themselves, to cut the would-be Mafiosi in their personal lifeworlds far too much slack.  And it is by the hope of re-moralizing those that I am brought full circle to Samuel Johnson’s prescription of characters who embody “virtue not angelical, nor above probability,” yet for all that “the highest and purest that humanity can reach.”  And now that I am arrived here, I am reminded by Johnson’s notion of barely sub-angelic virtue of a certain fictional character in recent popular-cultural history who fills that notion with a form-fitting literality that Johnson could not have expected or indeed wished of any personage in the hyper-anti-romantic novels of his own day.  The reader is doubtless familiar with a wildly successful so-called arthouse movie filmed and initially released in the late 1980s, Wim Wenders’s Himmel über Berlin, also known in English as Wings of Desire.  He or she will doubtless further recall that its central character is an angel played by Bruno Ganz.  And when this angel, fatigued by dozens of millennia of being an unpaid shrink to hundreds of generations of mortals, begins to think of turning mortal himself,  to whom does he turn to for counsel?  Why, to a former fellow angel who long ago made the plunge into mortality himself—a fallen angel indeed, but not a fallen angel like Milton’s Satan, condemned to dwell in hell for all eternity in punishment of felonious crimes against the deity; rather, an angel who has simply opted out of living forever and in the sky.  And who should this particular fallen angel turn out to be?  Why, the actor Peter Falk, renowned and beloved around the world for his performances of the part of the Los Angeles police detective Lieutenant Columbo.  You see, as Wenders explains on the commentary track to the DVD release of the movie, in trying to imagine what sort of human figure a fallen angel would look and behave like, he instantly alit on Columbo.  Even to the most ardent fans and cognoscenti of the Columbo movies Wenders’s choice is bound to seem a bit strange or heterodox.  For who among our fellow men and women is less angelic in aspect than Columbo, with that criminally utilitarian overcoat, that iron-proof rumpled suit, that ever-exfoliating drugstore cigar, that paintophobic backfiring jalopy, of his?  And yet if the Columbo fan interrogates his conscience as unrelentingly as Columbo himself would a suspect, he will eventually be forced to acknowledge that it is Columbo’s virtuousness that binds him so affectionately to this character, and that this virtuousness is indeed little short of angelic.  Yes, Columbo often has to be told to put out his cigar in non-smoking areas; yes, he shows up badly dressed in places where elegant attire is de rigeur; yes, he talks far too much about his wife; yes, he is extremely niggardly in his choice of haberdashery and other personal accoutrements; yes, he drives a car that looks unsightly and whose backfire is a constant source of irritation and false alarms; yes, he devotes an inordinate amount of attention to his pet dog.  But none of these shortcomings—even when spontaneously succumbed to rather than affected as a heuristic towards the solving of a case (not that it is often clear when one or the other is happening)—is properly speaking a vice.  Rather, each of them is either a mere foible or an actual virtue that does not come across as such merely because it is contingently socially incommodious.  Now as to the foibles: they are foibles and not vices firstly on account of their efficient and final causes—none of them is a manifestation of a will to cause pain to other people, or of callousness to the pain that other people are already suffering, or out of some perverse, childish pride in clinging to something bad just because others disapprove of it—and secondly on account of their non-involvement with the above-mentioned second-order volitions.  Columbo’s ubiquitous, indiscriminate cigar-smoking is a foible.  He engages in it out of a combination of habit and negligence, the habit of smoking by default and the negligence of one who is too absorbed in other matters to check whether smoking is appropriate in whichever place he happens to find himself.  But this ubiquitous-cum-indiscriminate cigar smoking is not something that he is complacent about, let alone proud of.  He really does want to stop smoking in non-smoking designated areas.  He wants his will to be that of a man who, before entering a room, asks himself, “Is this a place in which I can assume smoking will be permitted?”  (If Columbo went out of his way to smoke in places in which it was frowned upon or prohibited, or even merely tried to train himself to ignore “No Smoking” signs or the promptings of his own mind on the question of the appropriateness of smoking in a certain place—why then, yes, his smoking would be a proper vice, the vice of a man who wanted his will to be that of a man who was indifferent to or contemptuous of other people’s limited tolerance of cigar smoke.)  But as for our favorite public dick’s aesthetic shortcomings—the shabbiness of the car and the suit and so forth—do they not spring organically from the same source as his professional excellences?  Columbo’s car is a vehicle in an absolute and transparent sense: in the proverbially least pedestrian-friendly city in the world, it gets him to where he needs to go and serves no other purpose or function.  And as the matteness of the car’s paint-job does not even remotely impinge on its vehicular calling, Columbo quite rightly sees no need to have it redone.  Were the good lieutenant to succumb to the unlikely impulse to have his car repainted, he would be descending to the level of the faux high-society riffraff from which the bulk of his apprehendees hail, and for whom a car is principally not a means of getting from vocationally mandated Point A to vocationally mandated Point B, but a so-called status symbol—in other words, an indulgence of the vice of vanity, which I would argue is, to the very extensive extent to which the Columbo franchise has a moral agenda—the principal target, the principal object of opprobrium, of that franchise.  In the administrative hierarchy of the Los Angeles Police Department Columbo may be a mid-ranking member of the homicide squad, but in the personal moral hierarchies of his viewers he will always be the Big Cheese of the vice squad.  The culprits in the Columbo movies are all guilty of murder, but almost all of them have committed this cardinal sin only as a safeguard for their indulgence of the venial (but much more common) sin of vanity—each and every one of them kills not out of passion for killing in general or malice towards a particular person, but because in one way or other his intended victim’s existence either threatens to make him cut a shabbier figure in the world than he does now, or stands in the way of his prospects of his cutting a more illustrious one.  And it is Columbo’s mission to trace the etiologies of their idiopathic strains of vanity—to show how such mutually far-flung pursuits as oenophilia and dentistry can become implicated in this vice—while contrapuntally demonstrating his own immunity to it—through the aforementioned unprepossessing equipage, as well as his through his celebratedly ever-deferential comportment to everyone, suspects very much included.         

I do not wish to make too much of the salience of the Columbo franchise to our collective moral habitus; for after all, the last Columbo movie aired more than a decade ago, and the entire run of post-mystery movie wheel Columbos were condescendingly (if unjustly) greeted by most viewers as musty excavations from a dead-and-buried 1970s ethoscape.  But even the ghostly, residual popularity that Columbo now enjoys serves as a case in point of illustration of Theodor Adorno’s aperçue that “even today people are better than their culture.”  To judge by the current and recent offerings of the movie and television factories, one would indeed suppose that all biologically mature Americans—together with their fellow-consumers of Americana abroad—had succumbed unreservedly to the vice-centered Mafioso ethos.  Indeed, to judge by the likes of Dexter and Breaking Bad, one would suppose that we had forsworn even the Mafioso’s conception of vice as a Machiavellian means to an end that in principle could just as well be achieved by virtuous makeshifts, that we had come to revel in poisoning for the sake of poisoning and killing for the sake of killing, that we had ceased to be able to “credit merely human” vice and had begun to seek our so-called role models in the diabolically vicious.  But as I remarked earlier, the ever viceward-tending trajectory of our “comedies of romance” is founded on an alchemical misconception that Johnson definitively debunked over a quarter of a millennium ago.  Having begun by mistakenly equating vice with dramaturgical realism we have been steadily upping the ratio of vice to virtue in our dramatum personae ever since, to the present point when we are asked to root for protagonists whose vicious excesses put to ludicrous shame those of the most melodramatic moustache-twirling space opera baddies.  To say that this exhaustion of vice-centered dramaturgy heralds some salutary swing-back of the pendulum towards a virtue-centered one would be to indulge in the production of that verbal toxin that Johnson decried as cant, for as far as the present writer is concerned, the world would be better off if the entire fiction-factory were shut down for good—or at least a century or so—and we were thereby compelled to content ourselves with the fictions of our forbears; or better yet, with such factually grounded narratives as Boswell’s Life of Johnson.  But as long as we must put up with nominally new comedies of romance—with new novels and movies and plays and sitcoms and soap operas and the like—we should at least feel entitled in all jaded worldly-wisdom to flash our middle fingers at would-be verisimilitudinous polemics against “black-and-white morality” and in favor of the viciously “human.”  The world of the present is a noisome cesspit by comparison with Johnson’s and Boswell’s world, and nothing can be more deleterious to the morale of the would-be human inhabitants of that pit than the anthropomorphization of its most pernicious vermin.  If we are to retain any hope of not joining their ranks, we must see them in all their ghastly centipedal deformity; and complementarily we must see their antipodes, our fellow would-be humans, painted in the fairest possible colors and contrasted with their antagonists in the starkest possible moral terms.  One might say of the dramaturgical aesthetic artifact in the present world that it has progressed (or at least moved in some fashion) from being a locus of mere ethical concern (as it was in Johnson’s day) into one of genuinely religious import; and in the matter of religion, Johnson was of absolutely no mind to set himself above an “impressionable” hoi polloi: “Every man,” he told Boswell on April 3, 1776, “who attacks my belief, diminishes in some degree my confidence in it, and therefore makes me angry, and I am angry with him who makes me uneasy.  Those only who believed in revelation [i.e., the notion that salvation could be attained through a belief in Jesus’s divinity] have been angry at having their faith called in question, because they had something upon which they could rest as a matter of fact.”  “But aren’t you just passing the buck back to Johnson here, and isn’t he in just as shaky, as indefensible, a position qua gatekeeper of religious conviction as he was earlier qua gatekeeper of ethical purity?  For after all, if he had really believed that Jesus Christ was his savior, should he not have been secure in that belief, and invulnerable to the arguments of deists and other infidels?; and corollarily, if you really believe that people who live according to the precepts inculcated by The Rambler and Columbo are earmarked to dwell among the angels, should you not be secure in that belief, and willing to sit with your eyelids peeled back like the guy in A Clockwork Orange watching hundreds of hours of dramatic representations in which lovers of The Rambler and Columbo commit shedloads of atrocities against baby seals and crippled children and so forth?”  No I’m not and no he shouldn’t have and no I shouldn’t, but any explanation of these noes would require an excursion into fresh conceptual territory, an excursion that I hope to undertake in a future installment of this syllabus.               

[1] For example, John Richetti: “The contradiction between Johnson’s admiration for realism in literature and his fear of its ambiguous moral effects is worked out in [Rambler No. 4], by his insistence that although ‘the greatest excellency in art’ is to ‘imitate nature,’ authors must decide which parts of nature are ‘most proper for imitation.’ […] Add to the almost irresistible power they can exert Johnson’s recognition of the new appeal of the novel beyond an educated elite to its primary and dangerously impressionable audience—such books are ‘written chiefly to the young, the ignorant, and the idle, to whom they serve as lectures of conduct, and introductions into life,’ and much of this essay highlights the potential moral hazards of the new novel (a recurring concern, by the way, among moralists throughout the century).  And yet, in literary criticism  from his later years, Johnson is consistently on the side of the natural in literature—what we would call realism—often ridiculing what seem to him ludicrous fictions and poetic conventions (such as those found in pastoral poetry).  He praises Shakespeare in his preface to his edition of the dramatic works, for example, as the poet of nature: ‘his drama is the mirror of life.’  Shakespeare, says Johnson, ‘has no heroes; his scenes are occupied only by men, who act and speak as the reader thinks that he should himself have spoken or acted on the same occasion.”  “Fiction” (Chapter 23) of Samuel Johnson in Context, edited by Jack Lynch (Cambridge, 2012), p. 201.