Great writers are not necessarily great people in the integrity of their characters, which perhaps most of us know, and yet cannot help but associate the excellence in letters with the personal attributes of the writers simply because we are enchanted and gobsmacked by the mind. Samuel Johnson, an eminent English cultural critic of the 18th century, also knew about these somewhat restively volatile facts about famous writers and poets of his time. The result was these entertaining and informative composite biographies of the poets of his time with his trenchantly honest eyes and esteemed erudition to disembarrass the person of the poet from the genius of the poetry.
Originally written as a referencing preamble to an edition of The Poets of Great Britain complete from Chaucer to Churchill, Johnson’s supplementary prefaces became so popular that the booksellers decided they were worthy of separate publication under the subject title of this review. And there were reasons that make Johnson’s biographies of the eminent poets attractive among the insipid panegyrics to the famous. A good bio is read in a way a good novel or short story is enjoyed with characters that are differentiated from the common because of their recalcitrant individualism that gets away with the intellectual attraction and personal flairs despite their flaws. In this regard, Johnson’s wit and sagacity play an essential role in being an objective judge of the characters and their works to the extent that none of his subjective poets could escape from his hawk-eyed criticism, be that ever great or small. Johnson’s biography resembles Herodotus’ parataxis in narrating the accounts of people and events. It consists of a summary of the subject’s life; accounts of their personalities and analyses of their works. The individual narrative account became a history of the poet, which showed something about his work and indicated the person himself.
For example, Johnson’s take on John Milton was so freshly revealing that it upended my view on the creator of The Paradise Lost. I used to think of Milton as a benevolent-looking wise poet whose blindness didn’t stun his will to knowledge and creativity and whose fatherly tenderness toward his daughters encouraged them to be his eyes and hands when the visions of the world became blackout totally for the poet. Instead, Milton was one of those who clamored for the liberty of others but did not grant liberty to others. He was an arrogant intellectual who disparaged the works of others whom he regarded as less intellectually esteemed than his standard, which was despotically biased in terms of impressive academic credentials. Milton’s poetry was intrinsically intellectual and not for the light-hearted pleasure of the heart roving through the meanders of fairyland. His elevated soul ascended in the sphere of the Form, the perfect beauty that was unattainable in this real world.
Johnson also cast somewhat contradicting masks on the creator of Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift. Like Ben Jonson’s iconic characters in his plays, Johnson’s Swift appeared to be both miserly and munificent, flaunting and humble, aloof and social. I particularly liked Swift because, unlike other writers of his time and of our time, he was not an ace student with flying colors on academic subjects. Swift was, however, a great student of learning, always pursuing and laboring to learn however long it might take. He was a man of industry and diligence, which made him all the more human and imitable because his genius was hard-won, not easy born. Methinks that Swift’s resilient spirit tinged with feistiness for an Anglican Church priest had to do with his Irishness. He was an Irish man at heart, in nature and soul. Johnson also attributed the protean imaginativeness and admiring independence of ideas to his Irishness that resulted in wondrous creatures during Gulliver’s travels.
There are other poets than Milton and Swift in the book, and you do not have to read about them all if you are unfamiliar with them or their works because that would go against Johnson’s purpose of the writing. Or you can read the book as an admirer of Johnson’s signatory witty and erudite writings from which you can learn a lot about his subjects and himself. The book serves as an eighteenth-century intriguing exclusive close-up documentary. It is about celebrity poets whom someone like Johnson, who was something of Roger Ebert in the criticism of the art of literature, could unpick and reconstruct as they might have been sans the mindless blinded paeans to their works without even being read. Undoubtedly, Johnson’s views on the poets have been and will be subject to criticism too, but his writings piled with a bonfire of splendidly sparkling expressions and apposite vocabulary drawn on his natural faculty of mind are nonetheless worthwhile to spend your time reading.
I remember watching the cat guru Jackson Galaxy’s post on YouTube about a prison where a group of inmates is assigned each cat for mental and a behavioral correctional program. The inmates seemed calm and content just as their foster feline friends reflected and talked of the amazing effects on their hearts hardened by the world never kind to them. The images of a condemned man in a cell and a homeless cat from a shelter became a beautiful impressionist painting with an air of serenity wrapped up in the soft sweet twilight colored by the warm hues of pleasantness that filled the canvass and stayed in the heart of the beholder – forever. The loneliness cut in halves transformed into togetherness, and there was nothing else but the mutual need for love and care. With the picturesque imagery engraved in my heart’s shrine, I cannot help but question the generic prerequisites for being an ideal cat owner indoctrinated by those professing to know things about pets. The doctrines of a perfect cat owner are as follows: you have to live in a space wide enough for her to exercise her natural hunting instinct, to have another cat to prevent anxiety, aggression, and loneliness, and most of all, to be a near-perfect human full of love and understanding blessed with material means to satisfy the need of a cat to the extent possible. The protocols remind me of eugenics elements by which only the best males and females can produce offspring desirable for humankind. Only the superhuman race can fall in love, beget children, and raise them to be perfect in physical and mental attributes to continue the Superhumanity. On the same token, being an ideal cat owner is to be an ideal person who deserves love from nature because of his ideally perfect being—quite the Nietzschean idea of Superhumanity.
An ideal cat owner’s doctrines align against the condemned man’s images and the homeless cat in a cell. Then I also look at my 4-month old tabby cat Toro, whom I adopted from a shelter three months ago. Is he unhappy with me in this tiny apartment room? Is it because of boredom and separation anxiety doubled with a significant change of environment from pastoral life to city life that has driven him to a sudden pulsing and biting my hands and feet? Does he hate me because I leave him at home all day long with a mother who hates him when I go to work? Does he want to leave me and be adopted to a loving, perfect new owner because of my imperfection? Am I less qualified than the inmate to have a cat altogether? The thoughts smothered under the ineffective veil of forced positivism have reached the point where they can no more bear the suffocation and begun to erupt the lavas in the fiery magnitude.
As a first-time pet owner, I like to think that it is not a coincidence but Providence that Toro has come to my life because he was the only kitten who came to me and my brother bunting his little flurry head against our hands through the cold metals of the cage in the shelter. Toro and I are much alike in many aspects: leisured time in seclusion, uncompromising individuality, insatiable curiosity, innate sensitivity, and unfailing feistiness. We also instinctively know each other’s mood because when I am dejected, Toro studies my facial movements and comes nearer to me with those adorable eyes filled with liquid warmth. Then I look at the cute little Toro before me and think that genuine love and care transcends the high walls of a grim prison and eclipses the roof of a perfect happy house. There is a home sweet home for me and Toro in my tiny apartment.
Some say animals do not have a faculty of mind that translates the sense into meaning. I always find it ironic that educated people can sometimes be heartlessly benighted, belittling a simplicity of nature. That they do not have the emotional spectrums, ranging from guilty to remorseful, and to resentful, gives free rein on arbitrarily judging animal behaviors according to human rational thinking that supersedes instincts common to all living creatures. Nor does it sound sane to cosset pets with outpourings of maudlin sentiments out of anthropomorphism for our convenience. We are fortunate to live in the age of the Brilliance of Science. Still, the overflux of information sometimes begets counterproductive results. Amid the deluge of information on animal behaviorism available on the Internet, I am often doubtful, if not fearful, of the way I am raising my cat.
I observe how my 14-week old tabby Toro behaves from defecating in the litterbox to drinking from the water fountain, playing with his toys, and to watching his new finned friend, Hope, a Betta fish. Although they do not have the faculty to produce physiologically-driven emotional effects as complex as humans, my observation has yielded that cats exhibit a feline version of a continuum from pleasantness to unpleasantness. For instance, when I discipline Toro for not behaving, he does about-face and hides under the bed or goes to a corner of the room, sitting there like a mini sphinx statue, sulking and avoiding my eyes. Then in about 10 minutes or so, he slowly (and stealthily) approaches where I am while still keeping his feline pride in a way he doesn’t want to ingratiate himself with my favor. When finally arriving at his destination of Me, he announces his arrival with the unmissable “Meow,” with his eyes pleading for my petting. Cats may not have the same kind of grudge that we humans secretly harbor as in William Blakes’ ‘Poison Tree.” Yet, they possess the tactile feelings at the primary level, which can be akin to those exhibited by infants. Also, I don’t think raising a single cat will prevent her from socialization or emotional well-being. Most cats do not like to be with other cats unless they are littermates from birth.
My a posteriori opinion about a myriad of scientific theories and expert dos and dont’s about raising cats happy and healthy is an intelligent hypothesis of feline nature. It attempts to explain why they act the way they do so that we, as caretakers, should take care of them better and more effectively. From my personal experience thus far, it is really up to individuals’ discretion to respond to their cats (or other pets) because each animal has different characters with particular likes and dislikes. So I try not to read more than I need in terms of feline care. (i.g., Toro likes no cat tree, no chasing ball but likes to climb on chairs, shelves, and tables that humans use.) Cats are solitary and egoistic, but that is why they are so affectionate toward us. As the Victorian British writer George Eliot said, “Animals are such agreeable friends, they ask no questions, pass no criticisms.” Therefore, I would treat my furry little friend as he is, rather than turn him into an obsequious, listless pet whose existence depends on the mercy of his master.
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