How sad will it be if I turn out no better than I am!

From Rose Macaulay’s The Towers of Trebizond (ch 14), a weightier passage than camel medication and an indication of the depth of reading and thinking that lies behind the novel’s surface lightness:

It took me some time to make out the Greek inscription, which was about saving me from my sins, and I hesitated to say this prayer, as I did not really want to be saved from my sins, not for the time being, it would make things too difficult and too sad. I was getting into a stage when I was not quite sure what sin was, I was in a kind of fog, drifting about without clues, and this is liable to happen when you go on and on doing something, it makes a confused sort of twilight in which everything is blurred, and the next thing you know you might be stealing or anything, because right and wrong have become things you do not look at, you are afraid to, and it seems better to live in a blur. Then come the times when you wake suddenly up, and the fog breaks, and right and wrong loom through it, sharp and clear like peaks of rock, and you are on the wrong peak and know that, unless you can manage to leave it now, you may be marooned there for life and ever after. Then, as you don’t leave it, the mist swirls round again, and hides the other peak, and you turn your back on it and try to forget it and succeed.

Another thing you learn about sin, it is not one deed more than another, though the Church may call some of them mortal and others not, but even the worst ones are only the result of one choice after another and part of a chain, not things by themselves, and adultery, say, is chained with stealing sweets when you are a child, or taking another child’s toys, or the largest piece of cake, or letting someone else be thought to have broken something you have broken yourself, or breaking promises and telling secrets, it is all one thing and you are tied up with that chain till you break it, and the Church calls it not being in a state of grace, which means that you can get no help, so it is a vicious circle, and the odds are that you never get free. And, while I am on sin, I have often thought that it is a most strange thing that this important part of human life, the struggle that almost every one has about good and evil, cannot now be talked of without embarrassment, unless of course one is in church. It goes on just the same as it always has, for as T. S. Eliot points out,

The world turns and the world changes,
But one thing does not change.
In all of my years, one thing does not change.
However you disguise it, this thing does not change,
The perpetual struggle of good and evil.

But now you cannot talk about it when it is your own struggle, you cannot say to your friends that you would like to be good, they would think you were going Buchmanite, or Grahamite, or something else that you would not at all care to be thought. Once people used to talk about being good and being bad, they wrote about it in letters to their friends, and conversed about it freely; the Greeks did this, and the Romans, and then, after life took a Christian turn, people did it more than ever, and all through the Middle Ages they did it, and through the Renaissance, and drama was full of it, and heaven and hell seemed for ever round the corner, with people struggling on the borderlines and never knowing which way it was going to turn out, and in which of these two states they would be spending their immortality, and this led to a lot of conversation about it all, and it was extremely interesting and exciting. And they went on talking about their conflicts all through the seventeenth and eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and James Boswell, who of course was even more interested in his own character and behaviour than most people are, wrote to his friends, “My great object is to attain a proper conduct in life. How sad will it be if I turn out no better than I am!” and the baronet he wrote this to did not probably think it peculiar, and Dr. Johnson thought it very right and proper, though some people like Horace Walpole naturally found Boswell a strange being, and when he had to meet him Horace “made as dry answers as an unbribed oracle.” But they went on like this through most of the nineteenth century, even when they were not evangelicals or tractarians or anything like that, and nineteenth century novels are full of such interesting conversations, and the Victorian agnostics wrote to one another about it continually, it was one of their favourite topics, for the weaker they got on religion the stronger they got on morals, which used to be the case more then than now.

I am not sure when all this died out, but it has now become very dead. I do not remember that when I was at Cambridge we talked much about such things, they were thought rather CICCU, and shunned, though we talked about everything else, such as religion, love, people, psycho-analysis, books, art, places, cooking, cars, food, sex, and all that. And still we talk about all these other things, but not about being good or bad. You can say you would like to be a good writer, or painter, or architect, or swimmer, or carpenter, or cook, or actor, or climber, or talker, or even, I suppose, a good husband or wife, but not that you would like to be a good person, which is a desire you can only mention to a clergyman, whose shop it is, and who must not object or make dry answers like an unbribed oracle, but must listen and try to assist you in your vain ambition.

The Eliot quote is from his play The Rock and reprinted in Choruses from The Rock in Collected Poems, 1909-1962 (pg. 148) – also with some commentary in the newer The Poems of T.S. Eliot (v.1, pg 154). Below is the full speech in which this section occurs:

The lot of man is ceaseless labour,
Or ceaseless idleness, which is still harder,
Or irregular labour, which is not pleasant.
I have trodden the winepress alone, and I know
That it is hard to be really useful, resigning
The things that men count for happiness, seeking
The good deeds that lead to obscurity, accepting
With equal face those that bring Ignominy,
The applause of all or the love of none.
All men are ready to invest their money
But most expect dividends.
I say to you: Make perfect your will.
I say. take no thought of the harvest,
But only of proper sowing.
The world turns and the world changes,
But one thing does not change.
In all of my years, one thing does not change.
However you disguise it, this thing does not change:
The perpetual struggle of Good and Evil
Forgetful, you neglect your shrines and churches;
The men you are in these times deride
‘What has been done of good, you find explanations
To satisfy the rational and enlightened mind.
Second, you neglect and belittle the desert.
The desert is not remote in southern tropics,
The desert is not only around the comer,
The desert is squeezed in the tube-train next to you,
The desert is in the heart of your brother.
The good man is the builder, if he build what is good.
I will show you the things that are now being done,
And some of the things that were long ago done,
That you may take heart. Make perfect your Will.
Let me show you the work of the humble. Listen.

And no less significant – the Boswell quote from an early letter (1763, when Boswell was 23) to an older friend, Sir David Dalrymple:

My great object is to attain a proper conduct in life. How sad will it be, if I turn no better than I am; I have much vitality, which leads me to dissipation and folly. This, I think, I can restrain. But I will be moderate, and not aim at a stiff sageness and buckram correctness. I must, however, own to you, that I have at bottom a melancholy cast; which dissipation relieves by making me thoughtless, and therefore, an easier, tho’ a more contemptible, animal. I dread a return of this malady. I am always apprehensive of it. . . . Tell me . . . if years do not strengthen the mind, and make it less susceptible of being hurt? and if having a rational object will not keep up my spirits?

But Hodge shan’t be shot

From Boswell’s Life of Johnson:

Nor would it be just, under this head, to omit the fondness which he showed for animals which he had taken under his protection. I never shall forget the indulgence with which he treated Hodge, his cat: for whom he himself used to go out and buy oysters, lest the servants having that trouble should take a dislike to the poor creature. I am, unluckily, one of those who have an antipathy to a cat, so that I am uneasy when in the room with one; and I own, I frequently suffered a good deal from the presence of this same Hodge. I recollect him one day scrambling up Dr. Johnson’s breast, apparently with much satisfaction, while my friend smiling and half-whistling, rubbed down his back, and pulled him by the tail; and when I observed he was a fine cat, saying, “Why yes, Sir, but I have had cats whom I liked better than this;” and then as if perceiving Hodge to be out of countenance, adding, “but he is a very fine cat, a very fine cat indeed.”

This reminds me of the ludicrous account which he gave Mr. Langton, of the despicable state of a young Gentleman of good family. “Sir, when I heard of him last, he was running about town shooting cats.” And then in a sort of kindly reverie, he bethought himself of his own favourite cat, and said, “But Hodge shan’t be shot; no, no, Hodge shall not be shot.

Yes, Sir, but the University were not to be hanged the next morning

More Boswell and Johnson, now to page 274 of the first volume:

About this time there had been an execution of two or three criminals at Oxford on a Monday. Soon afterwards, one day at dinner, I was saying that Mr. Swinton the chaplain of the gaol, and also a frequent preacher before the University, a learned man, but often thoughtless and absent, preached the condemnation-sermon on repentance, before the convicts, on the preceding day, Sunday; and that in the close he told his audience, that he should give them the remainder of what he had to say on the subject, the next Lord’s Day. Upon which, one of our company, a Doctor of Divinity, and a plain matter-of-fact man, by way of offering an apology for Mr. Swinton, gravely remarked, that he had probably preached the same sermon before the University: “Yes, Sir, (says Johnson) but the University were not to be hanged the next morning.”

It will be ascribed to deep policy, when, in fact, it was only a casual excuse for laziness

From Boswell’s Life of Johnson (v.1 ~pg 185)

The Plan was addressed to Philip Dormer, Earl of Chesterfield, then one of his Majesty’s Principal Secretaries of State; a nobleman who was very ambitious of literary distinction, and who, upon being informed of the design, had expressed himself in terms very favourable to its success. There is, perhaps in every thing of any consequence, a secret history which it would be amusing to know, could we have it authentically communicated. Johnson told me, ‘Sir, the way in which the Plan of my Dictionary came to be inscribed to Lord Chesterfield, was this: I had neglected to write it by the time appointed. Dodsley suggested a desire to have it addressed to Lord Chesterfield. I laid hold of this as a pretext for delay, that it might be better done, and let Dodsley have his desire. I said to my friend, Dr. Bathurst, “Now if any good comes of my addressing to Lord Chesterfield, it will be ascribed to deep policy, when, in fact, it was only a casual excuse for laziness.”

It may be doubted whether such a mind as his was not more enriched by roaming at large in the fields of literature than if it had been confined to any single spot

From James Boswell’s Life of Johnson (pg. 57 of vol.1 of the 6 volume Oxford text edited by Hill and Powell).

In estimating the progress of his mind during these two years, as well as in future periods of his life, we must not regard his own hasty confession of idleness; for we see, when he explains himself, that he was acquiring various stores; and, indeed he himself concluded the account with saying, ‘I would not have you think I was doing nothing then.’ He might, perhaps, have studied more assiduously; but it may be doubted whether such a mind as his was not more enriched by roaming at large in the fields of literature than if it had been confined to any single spot. The analogy between body and mind is very general, and the parallel will hold as to their food, as well as any other particular. The flesh of animals who feed excursively, is allowed to have a higher flavour than that of those who are cooped up. May there not be the same difference between men who read as their taste prompts and men who are confined in cells and colleges to stated tasks?

Sir, he was impertinent to me, and I beat him.

The following throwaway remark appears in one of Borges’ lectures on English literature (collected and edited as Professor Borges: A Course on English Literature):

There was a legend, or story, that Johnson had an argument with a bookseller and felled him with a blow, not with a cane but with a book, a folio volume, which makes the anecdote more literary and also testifies to Johnson’s great physical strength, for such manuscripts are difficult to handle, especially in the middle of a fight.

Boswell’s account is a mere sketch since the event took place before he and Johnson came together, but it – if Boswell can be trusted in such matters – confirms the essential reality of what Borges takes more as symbol-laden exaggeration.

1742: AETAT. 33.]—In 1742 he wrote . . . ‘Proposals for Printing Bibliotheca Harleiana, or a Catalogue of the Library of the Earl of Oxford.’ He was employed in this business by Mr. Thomas Osborne the bookseller, who purchased the library for 13,000l., a sum which Mr. Oldys says, in one of his manuscripts, was not more than the binding of the books had cost; yet, as Dr. Johnson assured me, the slowness of the sale was such, that there was not much gained by it. It has been confidently related, with many embellishments, that Johnson one day knocked Osborne down in his shop, with a folio, and put his foot upon his neck. The simple truth I had from Johnson himself. ‘Sir, he was impertinent to me, and I beat him. But it was not in his shop: it was in my own chamber.’

Sadly, it must remain unclear whether Johnson deserves praise for his dexterous handling of a full folio.