Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Samuel Johnson and the Aesthetics of Complex Dynamics

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Samuel Johnson and the Aesthetics of Complex Dynamics

Article excerpt

After Bertrand Bronson, Johnsonians have been aware of the double tradition beginning in the 1700s and lasting into the twenty-first century.1 One side argues for Johnson the Tory conservative, dogmatist, defender of classicism, church tradition, and the social order. The other depicts him as a progressive whose skepticism exists in tension with his religious faith and respect for tradition. Many critics have followed Bronson's suggestion that the latter conception of Johnson is more accurate, but some late modern readers of Johnson have suggested that this tension is an uneasy one which leads not to balance but to irreconcilable contradiction. Steven Lynn cites a number of critics who have underscored Johnson's incoherency and tendency to reverse "polarities" in a list that includes such notables as Earl Wasserman, Irvin Ehrenpreis, Charles Hinnant, Boyd White, Jean Hagstrum, and others.2 Indeed, a new generation of Johnsonians has pointed to strong affinities between Johnson's skepticism and poststructuralism. Alex Segal and Helen Deutsch offer deconstructive readings of The Life of Savage-readings which support Raman Selden's contention that if we read Johnson deconstructively, "we arrive at a more acute perception of the uncertainty ... of his writing, an uncertainty which is sometimes expressed and sometimes repressed."3 As Seiden notes, this tendency to link Johnson with the postmodern seems a logical development from Bronson's readings which argued that in Johnson's writings, a "radical energy went hand in hand with a concern for order and authority."4

But to read Johnson deconstructively also problematizes Johnson's double focus on order and disorder-and increases the likelihood that, ultimately, the debate underlying the double tradition will return to its starting point and perhaps reinforce the image of Johnson the dogmatist that Bronson and others like W. J. Bate have challenged. For example, Thomas Reinert's postmodern reading of Johnson insists that Johnson is indeed a conservative, whose politics do "not so much follow from his conservatism as offer imaginary consola- tion for" a potentially nihilistic skepticism.5 Thus Reinert disagrees with Greene's interpretation of Johnson as a progressivist "gadfly" and insists that the tension between faith and empirical skepticism often leads to "simple" authoritarianism.6 If this is true, then Johnson's focus is not double but shifting and perhaps evidence of a retreat-Johnson's skeptical, deconstructive tendencies may lead him to embrace dogma and conservatism, in quest of what Lynn calls a "transcendent Other."7

Reinert's findings may seem harsh to those who view Johnson through the lens of more traditional critical paradigms, but the relationship between Johnson's skeptical, apparently deconstructive tendencies and his respect for tradition has proven as difficult to explain in a postmodern context as it was in earlier twentieth-century criticism. Nevertheless, in this essay, I suggest another way, in the wake of postmodernism, to contextualize Johnson's double focus on order and disorder, on universal global norms and localized deviance-at least with particular regard to his literary criticism and lexicography, wherein we find his most lucid discussion of an uncertainty principle informing his epistemology and aesthetics. Within the context of eighteenth-century and postmodern conceptions of complex dynamic systems, we can see that Johnson is neither a dogmatist nor a nihilist, but is instead an early modern chaologist, a student of chaos whose response to the perturbations introduced by science and philosophy in the eighteenth century lead him to describe in his aesthetics a complex mimetic system tracing emergent structures in the field of literary criticism implicated by the interplay between classical tradition and the new empirical skepticism. Thus, Johnson emerges as a writer and a thinker whose significance as a major figure of the eighteenth century and as a contributor to modern discourse on aesthetics and chaos, demonstrates how Johnson's extraordinary grasp of the intimate relation between order and disorder in complex systems of literature as described in his literary criticism prefigures current developments in critical theory and the study of chaos or complex dynamics. …

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