Modernity's "Mr. Rambler": Tobias Wolff's Exploration of Vanity and Self-Deception in the Night in Question

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If it be reasonable to estimate the difficulty of any enterprise by frequent miscarriages, it may justly be concluded that it is not easy for a man to know himself; for wheresoever we turn our view, we shall find almost all with whom we converse so nearly as to judge of their sentiments, indulging more favourable conceptions of their own virtue than they have been able to impress upon others, and congratulating themselves upon degrees of excellence, which their fondest admirers cannot allow them to have attained.

--Samuel Johnson, Rambler 28

He had been forced to surrender certain pictures of himself [after eight months in Vietnam] that had once given him pride and a serene sense of entitlement to his existence, but the one picture he had not given up, and which had become essential to him, was the picture of himself as a man who would do anything for a friend. Anything meant anything. It could mean getting himself hurt or even killed. B.D. had some ideas as to how this might happen, acts of impulse like going after a wounded man, jumping on a grenade, other things he'd heard about and read about, and in which he thought he recognized the possibilities of his own nature. But this was different. ... Anything meant anything, but B.D. never thought it would mean volunteering for an ambush party.

--Tobias Wolff, "Casualty"

Johnson's observation in Rambler 28 neatly summarizes the argument that underlies almost every one of his 201 Rambler essays, which appeared twice-weekly between March 1750 and March 1752. (1) Indeed, a recent biographer of Johnson perceptively notes that the Rambler series "resembles a seventeenth-century sequence of sonnets in its devotion to the exploration of a single but infinitely complex idea," the subject of the Rambler being human vanity, our tendency to exaggerate our significance, talents, or virtue (DeMaria 145).

The Rambler papers were immensely popular in Johnson's day, spawning a number of imitators and appearing in ten collected editions before Johnson died in 1784. Johnson was best known to his contemporaries as a moralist, an appellation that derived in no small measure from Johnson's own understanding of his work, the Rambler series most especially. "I shall never envy the hours which wit and learning obtain in any other cause," Johnson declares in the final paragraph of his valedictory Rambler essay, "if I can be numbered among the writers who have given ardor to virtue, and confidence to truth. 'Celestial pow'rs! that piety regard, / From you my labours wait their last reward'" (5:320). (2)

Today we can expect very few readers besides specialist scholars to be conversant with Johnson's Rambler papers. "Mr. Rambler's" elaborate, profuse manner of expression and, for a critical mass of readers perhaps, Johnson's chauvinistic Christianity, his advocacy of subordination in matters political and social, his dated outlook on many other topics such as the traditional roles of men and women--not to mention his massive erudition, which the greatest scholars of any age would be hard-pressed to match--make Johnson's essays uncongenial to the modern sensibility. Nevertheless, the subject that most interested Johnson--our innate vulnerability to think of ourselves as much better than we really are and, correspondingly, the social and moral necessity of persistent self-evaluation--is a timeless and worthy one, even if the idea is, to say the least, not a major preoccupation of twenty-first-century American culture. If anything, our contemporary manner of living positively nurtures self-delusion and vanity. Take for instance the karaoke craze, in which the untutored and the abjectly giftless are expected to indulge the risible pretense that they can sing as well as, say, "The Three Tenors," or any moderately talented pop star. Another example can be found in the world of letters, in which scholars deny absolutely the validity of authorial intent or historical context properly understood, the objective being to exalt this ambitious theory or that, a practice that illuminates nothing beyond the mastodonic self-esteem of the critic at the direct expense of the creative intelligence. …