No man loved better than Johnson to overwhelm his friends in a spate of rhetoric. Like other good talkers, he had the defects of his qualities. He made people pay for the performances which he so generously provided; he had a passion for getting things quite clear, but he was more interested in making his own meaning clear to others than in understanding what others were vainly trying to make clear to him. Like other quick thinkers, he often knew what slow thinkers were trying to say long before they had said it, and he could never resist the temptation of completing their sentences for them as a preliminary to exposing the imbecility of what they had never been allowed to say. No man was more fortunate in his biographer. Boswell winced and wilted, but revelled in Johnson’s mastery of the lash. He was immensely vain, and suffered agonies from the public humiliations which Johnson inflicted on him; but because he was a supreme artist, his creative genius forced him to record with immortal candour his moments of acutest abasement.
Once when Boswell so far forgot himself as to laugh at Johnson and not with Johnson, the old lion wheeled round in his chair and roared. He “instantly retaliated with such keen sarcastik wit, and such a variety of degrading images, of every one of which I was the object, that, though I can bear such attacks as well as most men, I yet found myself so much the sport of the company that I would gladly expunge from my mind every memory of this severe retort.” Instead of expunging it from his mind, he ensured that his humiliation should be remembered by posterity. Once again the artist had triumphed over the man.
“May there not be very good conversation,” Boswell asked, “without a contest of superiority?”
“Not animated conversation,” replied Dr. Johnson.
But Johnson was not always aggressive. “That is the happiest conversation,” he mused, “where there is no competition, no vanity, but a calm interchange of sentiments.”
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