Johnson and nature
[L] iterary commentary may cross the line and become as demanding as literature: it is an unpredictable or unstable genre that cannot be subordinated, a priori, to its referential or commentating function. 1
One of the arguments of this book is that memory is a structuring principle of the Lives of the Poets. Yet how it operates is problematic. Though distinctive in Johnson's œuvre, the Lives are continuous with his earlier critical practice and with other eighteenth-century texts, and any attempt to argue for a newly conceived structure in the later work needs to demonstrate the connections between Johnson's understanding of memory and his key critical terms – such as nature, wit, and attentiveness – and with his engagement with texts.
Many have written on the formal aesthetic traditions of the neoclassical concept of nature, and it is not my brief here to join that discussion. Although some of what follows addresses the critical and even theoretical sophistication of Johnson's reading, my concern is not to adduce a Johnsonian theory of criticism or of literature, or to classify Johnson within any of the historical or critical categories to which he might now conceivably belong. Just as memory is aporetic in Johnson's moral essays, operating as the framework within as well as the object of historical thinking, so, I would propose, the related term “nature” is a hybrid entity in Johnson's hands, porous and changing according to critical context and rhetorical intention. As a critical concept, nature in Johnson's writing is less positivistic, rational, and legalistic than the scholarship would have us believe, or that we automatically accept as obvious for Johnson. Like “memory” and the “present” that attends upon it, “nature” is textually mediated and created. Yet, like other key Johnsonian terms, rather than diminishing its importance, the textuality of “nature” makes it more significant, imbuing it with a power that is not merely relative, or devoid of truth-making properties.