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
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?