Thursday, February 17, 2011

Sage hack

"The eccentricity of Johnson's writing is that of a resoundingly public discourse which is nevertheless profoundly self-involved … Johnson is both grandly generalizing sage and ‘proletarianized’ hack; and it is the dialectical relation between these incongruous aspects of his work which is most striking. The social alienations of the latter can be found in displaced form in the involuted meditations of the former; and not only in displaced form, for one of Johnson’s recurrent motifs is precisely the hazards and frustrations of authorship in a literary mode of production ruled by the commodity. Stripped of material security, the hack critic compensates for and avenges such ignominy in the sententious authority of his flamboyantly individualist style. Moralistic, melancholic and metaphysical, Johnson’s writing addresses itself to the social world (he had, Boswell reports, ‘a great deference for the general opinion’) in the very moment of spurning it; he is, as Leslie Stephen notes, the moralist who ‘looks indeed at actual life, but stands well apart and knows many hours of melancholy.’ The sage has not yet been driven to renounce social reality altogether; but there are in Johnson ominous symptoms, for all his personal sociability, of a growing dissociation between the literary intellectual and the material mode of production he occupies.”

— Terry Eagleton, The Function of Criticism, 32