Johnson and Fideism

Although the previous chapter was titled, “The Fideist Reaction,” there were several earlier hints of a “Protestant reaction” extending forward into the nineteenth century. That complete history does not appear in this chapter, as Parker analyzes Samuel Johnson’s works as part of the initial return of fideist art. Although the concept of a divided Samuel Johnson is not new, Parker provides us with new terms for that split in naming the two halves of Johnson’s literary nature—one part is Humanist curiosity about the world (and literature in particular), and one part is fideist skepticism about the value of earthly activities (literature among all others). This latter impulse is seen most strongly in The Vanity of Human Wishes and Rasselas, in which diverse human activity leads to the same sense of futility and exhaustion (with Solomon the representative, non-classical figure of spiritual weariness). This chapter really should be read with the previous chapter for full appreciation of the fideist motifs that Parker identifies in Johnson’s work. Among other motifs, Johnson’s work emphasizes futility, meditation, and stasis. This fideist element extended to Johnson’s perception of his own activities; his literary output stimulated and amused him, but could achieve for him no higher value: “For Johnson poetry (and every art) is a diversion, a toy…and a bauble” (238). Likewise, for Johnson private devotions, though a necessary and sober duty, could provide no sense of certainty, no knowledge of divine intentions. Parker argues that Johnson’s relationship to God, and hence to God’s works, is fideist in a specific and limited: “the form of imagination in which the divine is understood is infinitely remote from sensation, analogy, and all discursive knowledge” (231 n. 3). To seek, or rather linger patiently, is pious, but to expect certainty outside of the promises of the Bible is foolish.

This image of a fideist and un-analogical Johnson affirms the thesis of the book, which is that analogical representations of God became impossible after the Augustans had done their work. The contrast between Johnson in this chapter and the account of Edward Young in the previous chapter is meant to be instructive: one incorporates modes of inquiry despite pessimism about its relevance, and the other is meditative to the point of total absence/departure. The other part of this argument is that Johnson, by systematically (dialectically?) opposing his Humanist influences to his fideist beliefs, was in fact two—creating and sustaining a paradox, to the point that “Johnson was not a man of his time” (248).

This last assertion should be closely pondered for its historical implications. If Johnson combines all of these Augustan, Humanist and fideist influences, yet is not of his time, then how does he come to appear at the end of this book? It seems strange to conclude a historically situated reading with this kind of flourish, which shows respect for Johnson as a thinker and writer but leaves us in an odd place. We are told that “Johnson solved the problem that divided the literary culture of his day”—that is, the problem of reinstating religious expression in art—“by dividing himself” (249). The last time we saw such a division was in the account of Abraham Cowley, of whom it was said “He was one of the first to feel the failure of analogy. …one of the first to reckon with the problem of a necessary revision of consciousness” but also one who “left behind an indecipherable legacy” (78-9). If Johnson represents a solution to the problems created by the Augustans, where should we look for a continuation of that solution? If he is not of his time, what is his relevance? To put it another way, is Johnson a transitional figure like Cowley, a representative figure like Pope, or a revolutionary figure like Butler? This account seems in some ways to lean towards a transitional definition: Johnson looks back to Humanist authors “now obscure” and presides over the revival of “fideist art,” albeit without being able to fully occupy the fideist mode in the manner of Edward Young. I find myself wondering what might be the relationship of this final figure to subsequent fideism in Parker’s account.

Finally, I’d like to add on to Kirsten Wilcox’s final question in the previous post by asking frankly what our own assessment might be of the relative readability of Night Thoughts and The Vanity of Human Wishes. Wilcox asks whether Johnson and Young are “united in their turn against the Augustan empirical project”—if they are/if they are not, how might readability (or familiarity—the degree to which either is read these days) affect our ability to judge the similarity or difference of the impulses behind the two poems? And what then would be the relevance of such a comparison?

One response to “Johnson and Fideism

  1. David Mazella

    OK, now that we’ve begun the new year, I thought we could finish up discussion of BP, especially since this chapter felt like the payoff for the book as a whole.

    I often suspect, while I’m reading works of literary history, that an entire argument is built around a central author or work, with the other authors used as supports for that arrangement. Understanding the role of those central readings makes it easier to understand how we might modify the overall interpretation, if we wished to place a different figure at the center.

    In this instance, I suspect that BP was wrestling all along with the peculiarities of SJ’s religious thought, which I agree seems seriously at odds with both the established positions of mid-century people like Joseph Butler and earlier writers like the Metaphysicals. I also think that using this quality in his thought as a point of departure for the famous discussion (dismissal?) of metaphysical poetry is a brillliant way to approach SJ.

    It also seems particularly important to get this aspect of SJ right, since I’ve never been enamoured of the Donald Greene-style readings of the commonsensical Johnson when it comes to his ethical thought. And there is a powerful current of subjective religious feeling and especially introspection in SJ that seems foreign to most of the other canonized writers we read (there is nothing comparable to it in Sterne, Burke, Goldsmith, or Burney, to my knowledge).

    Strangely enough, I think the closest literary comparison is something like Brooke’s Fool of Quality, which a multivolume religious parable designed to resemble a sentimental novel. Or maybe Christopher Smart or Cowper in their moments of religious despair? But the isolation that BP refers to relates to his expressions of subjective religious feeling, which nonetheless come through sporadically in genres and forms not really conducive to such expressions.

    The insistence on his humanism, though, felt a little flat in comparison with Jack Lynch’s work, for example; I am convinced that SJ was more a historicist of neo-Latin culture and humanism than a full-fledged member of such a culture (this is where I cannot follow J.C.D. Clark, as interesting as his reading of SJ is). De Maria made similar claims, and was answered very plausibly that there is an element of modernist self-sufficiency in SJ’s thought (similar perhaps to Butler) that regretted such historical ruptures but rejected any make-believe solutions to them. So the Butler-Johnson trajectory is very believable for me.

    Since historicism (the empirical study of the past, which leads to a sense of difference and estrangement from the past) seems to be one of the root causes of fideist despair over the departure of the sacred, it seems strange to assume that SJ felt any kind of comfort or continuity with the humanist traditions or authorities. Emulation, yes. Comfort or security, no. So I would stress the “historicist” part of this equation for SJ, even while applauding BP’s very plausible reading of SJ’s religious estrangement.

    To give my own answer to Shayda’s question, my suspicion is that SJ is a culminating figure of fideism in literary history, the end of the line for the peculiar compromises represented by literary fideism. The next great literary figure with comparable interests in religious (read: theological) thought in my mind is Coleridge, and he represents a very different set of responses to historically different conditions. So I’d place him a the end of the line, in the same way that Milton, Bunyan, or Dryden represent the culmination (that is, the most convincing articulation) of the various currents in their period’s thoughts.