Johnson, Writing, and Memory

By Greg Clingham | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 3
Law, narrative, and memory

On the morning of Tuesday 17 June 1783, Johnson (in his 73rd year) awoke to discover that he had suffered a stroke and had been deprived of the power of speech. He wrote the following note to his neighbour, Edmund Allen:

Dear Sir, It hath pleased Almighty God this morning to deprive me of the powers of speech; and as I do not know but that it might be his further good pleasure to deprive me soon of my senses, I request you will, on receipt of this note, come to me, and act for me, as the exigencies of my case might require. I am sincerely your's,

Sam Johnson 1

There is something iconic about this moment in Johnson's life: it tells of a long series of afflictions, both mental and physical; it tells of his courage in facing a death that always troubled him; and it tells of his wry humour - for a few days later (19 June 1783) he described the stroke to Hester Thrale by writing: “I was alarmed, and prayed God, that however he might afflict my body he would spare my understanding. This prayer, that I might try the integrity of my faculties I made in Latin verse. The lines were not good, but I knew them not to be very good, I made them easily, and concluded myself to be unimpaired in my faculties” (Letters, rv, 151). Above all, however, the moment in which Johnson's voice is silenced, as he imagines it, by a more powerful voice than his own, and he records God's writing as manifested in the physiological life of his own body in the simple and restrained eloquence of his letter, this moment dramatizes the inextricable relationship between identity, speech, and writing in Johnson's works, as it does the residual, almost instinctively textual manner in which he deals with the limits of the reality revealed to him by this occurrence. This powerful moment in Johnson's life is also, I would like to suggest, an example of legal thinking, in its broadest liberal terms, in that in the eighteenth century law helped

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