Wednesday 28 June 2023

"I refute it thus!" - in which Johnson kicks a stone.


Sculpture by William Fawke, found in The Garden of Heroes and Villains

“After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley's ingenious sophistry to prove the non-existence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it, "I refute it thus.”

This is a story from Boswell’s life and I first heard it before I had fallen down the wonderful rabbit hole of Johnsonianism. I’d heard of Johnson, there was a chapter of him in the Horrible Histories book Wicked Words, which repeated stories about him rolling down hills and a bizarre story about him kicking a mother and baby out of a carriage because she talked in baby talk - I’m not sure I’ve heard this story anywhere else. But I heard of Johnson kicking the stone in a lecture about George Berkeley, part of a series of lectures about him I had during my BA in philosophy. The lecturer was one of the best ones and he’d gone through Berkeley’s Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge really intelligibly. He told the story to illustrate how a misunderstanding of Berkeley could lead to an intelligent man making a stupid argument. I just remember thinking that this Johnson guy was a badass.

(Incidentally, there was actually an American Samuel Johnson who was a philosopher, educator and keen proponent and correspondent of Berkeley. There’s also Samuel ‘Maggoty’ Johnson, the official fool, stiltwalker and writer of Hurlothrumbo - his opinion on Berkeley is unknown but I reckon he’d have been a fan. Honestly, his characters in the play like the King Soaretherial lived in states of ideas more than matter.)

Johnson’s non argument has led to his action becoming the name of a logical fallacy called ‘argumentum ad lapidem’ or appeal to the stone. Essentially, when the first person makes a claim (the non-existence of matter) and the second refutes the claim (we are satisfied his doctrine is not true) and then backs up the claim without any evidence or reasoning (I refute it thus). As such, Johnson is represented in the philosophical community as a chump. I, however, think that philosophers are chumps and I will take a little time to justify Johnson’s actions

First, a brief overview of Berkeley and A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge. Berkeley had read his Locke, particularly An Essay Concerning Human Understanding in which all human knowledge is taken in by the senses and then systematised by the mind. This led a fundamental flaw in Berkeley’s eyes, if all we took in was sense data, how could we know that matter, that objects independent of the sense data actually exists? What is an apple if the size, shape, colour, flavour, texture and smell taken out? As he famously put it, "If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?" 

His solution is that esse est percipi, to be is to be perceived. That objects exist only as ideas - in the sense that idea is meant in Locke, as units of thought. But Locke had distinguished primary ideas, like extension, solidity and number, which come from an object and secondary ideas such as red, sweetness, aesthetic qualities, that come from the mind. Berkeley said that all ideas were secondary ones and that we can’t detach our experience of something from the qualities is possesses. The benefit of this idea is that it simplifies things, removes the need to believe in a strange, barely perceptible material world.

One of the aspects of the series of lectures was a look at any possible way of disproving Berkeley and he sewed his argument shut. It’s one tight, locked down text and, if playing Berkeley at his game, there really is no way to beat him, it is impossible to refute. In the book, he lists various arguments that could be made against his assertion of ‘the non-existence of matter’. One of these is listed, ‘Is not the whole of mankind of the opposite opinion?’ In his arguments against this, Berkeley reminds his readers that people are often wrong about things. He also says that people don’t really think the opposite. He encourages a person to imagine an object without its qualities, to imagine an apple without it’s shape, weight, texture, colour, smell, sweetness - what is really left? That to imagine only matter is the thing that’s ‘impossible to conceive.’

Honestly, Berkeley really battens down his hatches when it comes to arguing against possible objections. He even addresses religious qualms (being a Bishop and all) about how the non-existence of a material world may make miracles less miraculous. He repeatedly states that his immaterialism does not negate the existence of the ‘real and substantial in nature’ as the only things we know about those things are the ideas gathered from our senses. If he had been there, watching Johnson kick that rock with mighty force, he would have said that Johnson had used his sense to prove the existence of the idea of solidity in the rock - but not the existence of a rock-matter separate from his experience of kicking it. Indeed, any disproof that relies on any kind of sense perception only re-enforces it, and there’s no way of going outside of that sense perception. 

To be fair to Johnson though, he was no philosopher. A clever man certainly, I’d even esteem him wise about many things, but Johnson did not enjoy abstract philosophical debate. All the things that excited Johnson, be they politics, poetry, morality or chemistry had real world consequences. He was only interested in how people’s lives were effected and even when talking about poetry, his focus was always on the impact and effect on a reader. Even his biggest intellectual feat, his Dictionary of the English Language was about tying ideas to words, bringing both out of the ether and into people’s hands. What’s more, Johnson as a man was stridently proud of his non-academic status, reflecting that although his life had been far harder than those friends who’d stayed in university, it had given him tools and grit they did not.

Also, and most importantly, Johnson’s not involved in a philosophical debate, he’s just got bored of Boswell wittering on about some nonsense about matter not existing, probably garbled and half understood and Johnson’s had enough. Boswell will ‘never forget the alacrity’ that Johnson kicked that stone, kicking so hard he rebounded off. That speed and force tells it all, as does the curt ‘I refute it thus’, Samuel Johnson is not trying to make a grand philosophic point and failing, he’s just trying to get James Boswell to shut the fuck up.

I still think he’s a badass.

Wednesday 21 June 2023

A glimpse into Boswell's Corsica book.

 One of the subplots in Andrew McConnell Stott’s book about the Shakespeare Jubilee, What Blest Genius? is about James Boswell. Presented as the ideal audience member for such a piece of dramatic street theatre, Boswell used the Jubilee to promote himself and the book he had written the year before. That book was An Account of Corsica, The Journal of a Tour to That Island; and Memoirs of Pascal Paoli, published and reprinted in 1768. He attended the masked ball in a rather rushed approximation of a Corsican rebel’s outfit, tried to get people to call him ‘Corsica Boswell’ and gave out poems about how much the Corsican people loved Shakespeare.

I was lucky enough to look through a first edition of this book while volunteering at Dr Johnson’s House. It’s a slim work, bound in a glossy, brown leather and contains a beautiful and very detailed fold-out map of the island at the front. The book is printed in a rather large print and spaced out - it’s a beautiful object but there’s a sense of a student trying to hide the short length of an essay by printing it out in larger text. It begins with a geographical survey of the island, a lengthy section of Corsica in the classical era, focussing on the island’s long history of rebellion and bolshiness before moving on to the current fight against the Genoese. 

I wasn’t able to look at the book for very long so I went straight to the element that interested me most, Theodore Von Neuhoff, first and only King of Corsica. It’s a story that really interests me and Neuhoff is definitely a man“whose singular story has made so much noise”.  Neuhoff was a German spy and gunrunner who’d lingered around different Italian states, looking to make a quick buck. Boswell describes him as someone with a “strange, unsettled, projecting disposition”, and it’s true he was always moving from one place to another and getting involved in projects which might have made him rich.

The rebellion in Corsica was hitting an impasse. The island was home to a number of powerful families (Paoli being one of them) with long histories of blood-feuds and disagreement. It was decided that bringing a figure from outside the island would be the best idea, as he would have no bias and carry no long-standing hatred from any of these families. Neuhoff was decided upon because he also promised to arm them. Boswell gets his information about this period from General Paoli, who later became a long-standing friend and member of Johnson’s Club. It’s clear that Paoli felt that Neuhoff had conned them, or at the very least overpromised. The guns were delayed time and again. What’s more, Neuhoff had rather let the whole ‘king’ thing go to his head. 

“He was a man of very stately appearance” and he also adopted a Turkish dress which made him seem vain and silly. What’s more, “Theodore assumed ever more royal dignity. He had his guards, and his officers of state. He conferred titles of honour.” It seemed to the islanders, that there new King was more interested in his state of royalty then in helping them fight the Genoese. After a few months, things got to hot and Theodore left the island and ‘abdicated’ his throne. Interestingly, Boswell sees this as a chump move, believing that he should have held on longer. 

He therefore chose to relinquish his throne, and give up his views of ambition for safety, furnishing a remarkable example, how far a desperate spirit may go. For, had Theodore gained a little more prudence, and some better fortune, he, and his posterity, might have won the crown of Corsica, upon the generous title of having delivered the island from oppression.”

Eventually, Theodore found himself in England where he was imprisoned for debts and placed in jail in Soho. His debts were paid by Horace Walpole and Robert Dodsley, former footman who was instrumental in commisioning Johnson’s Dictionary. 

In retrospective, Paoli felt that, for all his faults, Theodore Von Neuhoff had revived and re-invigorated the island’s fight for freedom, a fight that Paoli then took over until he too was brought to heel, not by the Genoese, but by the island’s new masters, France. Those of a military inclination would then be brought into the French army and for Napoleon Bonaparte, one such Corsican, things went very well. Indeed, for a while, rather than there being a foreign king of Corsica, there were Corsican Bonapartes put on thrones in Italy and Spain. 

Boswell sums Neuhoff like this;

“Theodore was a most singular man, and had been so beaten about, by change of fortune, that he left the common sentiments of mankind and viewed things as some one who is mad, or drunk, or in a fever. He had nothing to lose and a great deal to win.”

It’s a rather dismissive summary of the man, but Boswell had a habit of dismissing things he didn’t understand (see his whole relationship with Oliver Goldsmith).

I didn’t get a chance to read the rest of the book but I felt very privaleged to read the part I had. It’s a very smooth and easy read, there’s very little Boswellian show-offness in it and if I can find a copy somewhere, I’d look forward to reading the rest.

Wednesday 14 June 2023

A Trip to the Royal Pavilion (and Brighton in general).

 Brighton is a place that’s pretty dear to me. I was born there but lived in a town further down the railway, visiting often to visit the beach and the pier (and once to the Dolphinarium before it became a Sea Life Centre.)

Despite my history and fondness for the place, I’d never actually visited it by myself and wandered about in my own inimitable style. I also has a fancy to visit The Royal Pavilion, having visited when I was 8 or so, but having a lot more knowledge of the 18th century and regency periods than I did then.

I hopped on the train at London Bridge and had a very easy ride to Brighton. There’s a magical moment on that route when the train goes into a tunnel through one of the South Downs and bursts out the other side. Very often, if it’s a little muggy and cloudy in London, the Downs shelter the sea side and you find yourself in brilliant sunshine, with Brighton being recorded as one of the sunniest Cities in the country.

Once off the train, rather than trammelling straight to the sea, I wandered around the houses and came upon the Church of St Nicholas of Myra, its original parish church. In the graveyard I came across the grave if Martha Gunn, one of the ‘dippers’ who would carry women out of bathing machines and dunk them in the sea. She lived till she was 88. There was also the grave of Phoebe Hessel, a woman who enlisted with her lover into the 5th Regiment of Foot, where she had a distinguished service and was bayonetted in the Battle of Fontenoy in 1745. She retired to Brighton, where she gave evidence against a robber and died at the age of 108. The sea air did both ladies some good.

After a little more wandering, I went to the Pavilion. It’s a little pricey at £18, though the ticket lasts all year (for whatever good that is). There are a number of options available to experience it; to buy a detailed (but also pricey) guidebook, to buy an audio-guide, to download it on a phone for free or to just wander and talk to the guides in the rooms. I recommend the guides. I highly recommend them. Each one I talked to had a fantastic range of knowledge but also clearly into certain aspects and that element of personality really raised the experience and made it worth it.

The Royal Pavilion is ridiculous - ‘Indian’ on the outside and ‘Chinese’ inside, and clearly all imagined by Brits. Oliver Goldsmith, in The Citizen of the World has his Chinese narrator laugh at the horrendous taste of English Chinoiserie with all the ‘sprawling dragons, squatting pagods and clumsy manderines’, something he wrote forty years before the Pavilion was begun. It’s a daft, tasteless and garish place which piles on so much excess that it kind of works.

Originally a simple farmhouse, Prince George had it done up into the Marine Pavilion in a French style. Later he had John Nash turn the outside into a Taj-Mahal-esque wonderland. Rather than rebuild exactly, Nash created steel frames to go around the original house and then build on. Some of this worked very well but a lot of it was short-sighted, being murder to upkeep. At one point, missing minarets were replaced with fibreglass versions but now renovations and maintenance is a constant work, using the same materials Nash used. In some ways, this already artificial building is more artificial. When Queen Victoria decided to abandon the palace, finding it too exposed and cramped, she stripped it of the original fixtures and fittings. Many of them have been put back by the Royal Family, but many are replicas. The music room in particular has been restored after an arson attack, something which took eleven years to restore before the Great Storm of 1989 blew on of the minarets through the roof.

Yet that adds to the pleasure of the experience. The striking rooms are truly striking. The Banqueting Room features a huge chandelier held up by a dragon. Apparently. the dragon was originally made for a chandelier commissioned by the actual Emperor of China but sent back because it has wings. The Music Room also has amazing chandeliers, and a roof covered in scales. The other grand room is the Saloon Room, with a huge, bright sunflower carpet in the middler. Oddly, the corridors linking these rooms, with their muted colours and thick-pile carpets look a little like an unfashionable hotel and the building does seem peculiarly dingy when not in one of the grand spaces.

Even the kitchen is themed, with the pillars shaped like palm trees. The kitchen was fitted up with all the latest technologies at the time, with a jack that turns by its own steam rather than clockwork or a poor dog. This impressive kitchen was largely created to tempt Marie-Antoine CarĂªme, ‘the king of chef and the chef of kings’ to cook there. This worked for a while but his practices irritated the other staff. One thing he did which upset the usual order, was insist that all the food created under his aegis belonged to him and all left-overs were his prerogative. The kitchen staff were used to using left-overs for themselves, and to make extra by selling left-overs to local hotels. The local poor were also invited to take left-overs (like the old lady in The Belly of Paris) and one of these was Martha Gunn, who was once caught trying to smuggle butter in her dress.

The other rooms include George’s private apartments, the ones he had when he was King and his gout wouldn’t let him climb stairs, and the private apartment of Queen Victoria, who had many mattresses. She made a very good point about the Pavilion, for a royal palace created near the sea, there are hardly any rooms that is can be viewed from. Indeed, there’s almost nothing nautical about Prince George’s seaside retreat.

I left the Royal Pavilion with my republican and leveller sentiments re-entrenched, but also a peculiar gratitude that George had at least done something fun and ridiculous with his absurd income.

The rest of the day was devoted to indulgence. I wandered the seafront, drank local bitter at the marina and enjoyed a fish mixed-grill with chips and mushy peas opposite the skeletal West Pier - that’s another thing that’s changed, when I was a kid it still looked like a building.

Eventually, I went back to the station and back home to London, a little pinkier, a mite poorer but a great deal happier.

Wednesday 7 June 2023

Review: Pandemonium by Armando Iannucci

In the late 90s, early 2000s I was in my mid-teens. Too old to play with toys, too young to go out (and too poor for the emerging internet), I watched a lot of comedy on television. One of the programmes I enjoyed most was The Armando Iannucci Shows. Less overtly political than many of his other works, they have a comic-pessimism founded on the expectation of a better world that I really connected with. As a result, I’ve always kept half an eye on what he’s produced and really loved The Thick of It and his Personal History of David Copperfield in particular.

When I heard he was releasing a mock-heroic poem about the experience of the pandemic in Britain, I was really intrigued. Mock heroic is one of the key registers of eighteenth-century writing and I have a particular fondness for it. I also think it’s a tone that really suits the world we are living in, where online bubbles allow people to be monarchs of their own realm and our politicians mix lofty rhetoric with venal actions. 

On picking Pandemonium up, I was a little disappointed that it didn’t rhyme. My experience of mock-heroic poetry comes from texts such as The Dunciad, The Hilliad and The Smartiad (and various other poems ending in -iad) so I was expecting heroic couplets. Instead, Iannucci was more inspired by Milton and Paradise Lost, as well as some of the monstery passages of Dante. He’s a big Milton fan, having spent four years on an uncompleted PHD on Paradise Lost, which he claims to have abandoned when he realised the first lines of the poem could be sung to the theme tune of The Flintstones

It tells the ‘epic’ tale of Orbis Rex, King of the Globe, who descends onto Earth with the first name rearranged into the more manageable, Boris (who as a child, said his ambition was to be the World King). When the beast Pandemic comes into the kingdom, Orbis lulls it into a false sense of security by doing nothing. He gives a rousing-esque speech to the people, flanked by the angels Sweetness and Light before shaking hands with the beast and succumbing to it. There he descends to the underground and meets the blind seer, Dom’nic, condemned to ride a carriage round and round a pillar to test his eyesight. The blind seer then shows Orbis the state of the nation, all the people dying, hiding and generally living in fear - Orbis chooses to disbelieve it. Then there’s a battle with nurses firing needles and Orbis declares the pandemic over and makes a speech how a problem is best solved by ignoring it and making up stories.

There are some really fun elements with how the epic and real mix. I liked how Chris Whitty and co were represented as angels, the references to Dominic Cumming’s Barnard Castle jaunt, the talk of vaccine-deniers and conspiracy theorists. I also loved how the speeches of Orbis genuinely sound like Boris Johnson, with his fractured sentences, trailing metaphors and ‘what-ho’ style British cosplay. 

The best part of Pandemonium is a subplot where Matt Hancock is represented as a Sir Galahad style hero tasked with arming the nation against the pandemic beast. He goes to this swirling vortex of body parts, the friends, donors (and pub landlords) of the Tory party. It’s a disgusting pile of parts, that speaks from a mouth formed by ‘fifteen twats and ani’. This blob of body parts then constitutes a horse-like creature called Dido, which Matt uses as his noble steed. This part works best because it’s truly disgusting and visceral and because it successfully evokes the disgust I feel towards the government’s ineffectual, wasteful, costly and ultimately murderous response to the pandemic. The trouble with the main part is, even as a mock heroic character, Orbis is too heroic. Even referring to Johnson in a mocking way as a hero, is to describe him in a way too close to the way he sees himself. As pathetic and empty the character Orbis is, he’s not empty or pathetic enough.

One clear omission in the poem is any reference to Partygate, as it was written before those stories had hit the press. He says he’s writing a second edition where he plans to add those elements in, maybe that will be a variorum edition - the original Dunciad was a slight work before the revisions and additions. This edition does have some brilliant illustrations by Andy Riley which add to the enjoyment.

The fact is, this poem was written ‘for the drawer’ and wouldn’t have been published if he hadn’t already had a famous name, an agent and a publisher. It’s no great work of literature, though it does have some striking passages.