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Johnson--On Fiction, Rasselas, & Preface to Shakespeare

        Damn, I like Johnson! even though I disagree with him when he insists that art serve a morally uplifting purpose, I just like his style: learned without being pedantic, and pleasantly curmudgeonly.
        Johnson's general ideas on art's moral function are summed up in this statement: "It is therefore to be steadily inculcated, that virtue is the highest proof of understanding, and the only solid basis of greatness; and that vice is the natural consequence of narrow thoughts, that it begins in mistake, and ends in ignominy." Art is to function, almost in a Skinnerian sense, as a continual psychological conditioning program--positively reinforcing desired behaviors, while negatively reinforcing undesirable behaviors. Virtue must always be portrayed as receiving its just rewards, and Vice must always be portrayed as receiving its just punishments.
        After he gets away from the "Family Values" pulpit, Johnson becomes much more to my liking. He considers the "business of the poet" to be the examination "not [of] the individual, but [of] the species" (a position which Blake--normally a kind of idol for me--will describe as foolishness). By capturing the general truth--that of the species--rather than the more limited particular truth--that of the individual--the poet's work will have (all other things being equal--and they never really are, are they?) a greater chance at achieving universality and timelessness than it would were the emphasis reversed.
        Johnson illustrates both his preference for morally uplifting art and for art with universal, general aims in his Preface to Shakespeare: "Nothing can please many, and please long, but just representatives of general nature." Shakespeare embodies this principle in his work; he is "above all writers . . . the poet of nature; the poet that holds up to his readers a faithful mirror of manners and of life . . . . In the writings of other poets a character is too often an individual; in those of Shakespeare it is commonly a species." Shakespeare's great strength is his ability to show life as it is, yet somehow in larger and less time- and culture-bound terms than an absolutely mimetic realism would allow.
        His weakness, according to Johnson, begins with the fact that he does not always hold strictly to Johnson's ideas about the moral functions of literature: "He sacrifices virtue to convenience, and is so much more careful to please than to instruct, that he seems to write without any moral purpose." Johnson also finds fault with what he considers the too hasty endings of Shakespeare's plays, the sloppiness in the use of time and place which resulted in Hector quoting the much-later Aristotle in Troilus and Cressida, and Shakespeare's fondness for punning and wordplay.
        Johnson also uses his Preface to pronounce an harrumphing end to the wearisome debates over the classical unities. Rubbish, says Johnson. The audience knows it is sitting in a theater, and not in a Venetian town or a French court, so fastidious concerns over whether the audience will "believe" changes of scene are simply silly. Similarly, the audience is perfectly well aware of the fact that it is watching a fiction, one that will pleasantly spin away two or three hours with "a certain number of lines recited with just gesture and elegant moderation." The action presented and narrated may easily be imagined by the audience to take place over a long period of time; audiences are not so gullible as to think that the rise and fall of Henry V actually took place over a period of three hours, yet they may enjoy such a dramatic presentation precisely because of the artful compression of the events of decades into the hours of a play. The only one of the classical unities which Johnson values is that of the unity of action; this is, with the exception of certain high modernist and postmodernist works, still the primary unity we observe in drama today.