Thursday 26 September 2013

Talk on Friendship at Samuel Johnson's House

Today I took myself off to a lecture at Dr Johnson's House to listen to Emrys Jones talk about conceptions of friendship in the early eighteenth century. Oddly enough Dr Jones didn't have a welsh accent. Before we listened to him, we were given the chance to look around the house. There have been a few changes recently under the new curator and deputy, including a very fetching adult sized eighteenth century coat which I defintely likes the look of - it was warm, looked good and had pockets large enough to carry a small library.

Dr Jones started his talk with Johnson's Ode on Friendship, so I will do the same

Friendship; An Ode by Samuel Johnson

Friendship! peculiar boon of Heaven,
The noble mind’s delight and pride,
To men and angels only given,
To all the lower world denied.
While love, unknown among the bless’d,
Parent of thousand wild desires,
The savage and the human breast
Torments alike with raging fires.
With bright, but oft destructive gleam,
Alike o’er all his lightnings fly,
Thy lambent glories only beam
Around the favourites of the sky.
Thy gentle flows of guiltless joys
On fools and villains ne’er descend;
In vain for thee the tyrant sighs,
And hugs a flatterer for a friend.
Directness of the brave and just,
Oh guide us through life’s darksome way!
And let the tortures of mistrust
On selfish bosoms only prey.
Nor shall thine ardours cease to glow,
When souls to peaceful climes remove.
What raised our virtue here below
Shall aid our happiness above.

He pulled out the points that an idea friendship is an elevated thing, beyond beast and hypocrite where a perfect disinterested friendship can be had by two moral people and their friendship elevates them further. He quoted other writers on the subject, including (I was surprised to note) Adam Smith from his Theory of Moral Sentiments. (I was tempted to read more of Smith, he being the only famous eighteenth century Adam I can think of).

There were then four key dilemas put in front of this ideal form of friendship.

1) Difference of Opinion - Can friends disagree on important points? As usual, I am rather inclined to agree with Goldsmith, who felt very deep disagreements would impede a proper friendship. I don't think I could be friends with someone who thinks greater freedom of firearms is good for the safety of the populace for example. Johnson retorted that maybe Goldsmith couldn't be friends with someone he disagreed with but he could, this is backed up with the large number of Whiggish friends but maybe discounted by 'I am prepared to love anyone but an American'. 

2) Competition - This is where Dr Jones went into an earlier period of the eighteenth century. He talked about Addison and Steele and the competition between them, especially given that Addison was regarded far more highly than Steele, though later Johnson marker Steele higher. (I actually prefer Addison, I find him more smiling.) He also talked about the Scriblerans treatment of Gay as more playfellow then serious literary partner. (Though I remember reading something about Pope being the butt of the jokes). There was discussion about whether a friendship actually needs competition and how a part of the moral elevation of friendship may be the competition to be better friends.

3)Whether a friendship is a true friendship or just patronage - This part mainly involved quotes about Pope and Bolinbroke and about the weirdness of false friends. This linked very well with the line about hugging flatterers in the Johnson ode.

4) Public/Private friendship - this was the crux of the talk. He talked about how nowadays we worry about a private friendship causing bad and immoral decisions in public (like Cameron and Coulton) but the worry in the eighteenth century was more how the public display of friendship would rob the notion of its intimacy and truth. Again, Pope was brought up a lot, especially in how he shaped his image as a good friend, a friend of virtue and a friend of virtue's friends. 

This world in which friendship is publically celebrated by poems, by dedications and by biography caused strain on the notion of friendship. Where friendship should have been seen as a profit in itself, the public lionising of friendship makes it a comodity. He concluded by saying that no eighteenth century writer became famous for his friendships without publicising it. An issue that I think is still alive today.

One last thing that interested me was how he linked this shaking in the notion of friendship with the bursting of the South Sea Bubble. I have to admit I didn't follow the reasoning behind this and would like to have bought his book to thrash it out in more detail. Unfortunately, the slim volume was fifty pounds and I don't have any friends who would stump me the cash.

The next lecture I am going to see will be about Grub Street. That's in a month's time or so.

All yours

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