Notes on Samuel Johnson’s “On Fiction” (Rambler #4)
Johnson is responding to the rise of the middle-class public; he wants to articulate its demands and needs. In spite of his Platonic fear of art’s power to contaminate young minds, Johnson believes that art, because it now deals with realistic characters with whom the middle-class audience can identify, affects the reader powerfully and teaches him how to behave in the various situations that modern Britain throws at its citizenry. Ultimately, though, it is important to state that for Johnson the neoclassicist, “the universe is a moral order structured by rational principles, and the aim of art is to reproduce and reaffirm that order” (Adams, Critical Theory since Plato). The critic may only judge how well nature—human nature—has been methodized. Middle-class complexity and urbanity should not be allowed to obscure this. We can find in the “Preface to Shakespeare” certain romanticist-tending ideas. Johnson pays a lot of attention to the poet in this preface, and he speaks well of the particularity and variety that romantics will valorize. All in all, there are a few too many “streaks” in Johnson’s criticism for him to fit perfectly in the neoclassical camp.
Johnson believes poets should understand the middle-class society they depict. They must know its habits and mores. He assumes that city life and commerce have created a more or less common set of demands on artistic work, or at least that such a standard is crystallizing as he writes. The rise of the “public” subjects the realist poet, novelist, or dramatist to stringent requirements in copying and selecting from human manners, but this change in expectations alone is no guaranty that art will serve the moral purpose Johnson and many other critics want it to serve. We see Johnson trying to harness the identificatory, affective power of realistic fiction. (In the nineteenth century, by the way, critics like Thomas Carlyle, J.S. Mill and Matthew Arnold will lament advancing middle-class conformism in the arts and general culture.) In sum, aesthetic demands are shifting in Johnson’s time, and his goal as a critic is to respond to and, perhaps, to shape those demands toward suitably moral ends. Let novelists take care: the very fact that their young middle-class readers can identify with the main character could be disastrous. Realistic art has great affective power, so writers must select their objects carefully.
Johnson holds a traditionally Christian view of humanity’s fallen tendencies. He insists that men are often “discolored by passion, or deformed by wickedness.” Behind the figures of deformation lies the idea that human life is always in flux, especially in the city. The old Christian idea about the variability of human passions is evident here, but added onto it is a wariness about the variableness of situations in eighteenth-century urban life. The old and allegedly stable aristocratic order is giving way to bourgeois anxiety. The point of art, for Johnson, is to teach people (especially young people) about all the snares that lie in wait “out there” in the real world and to show them how they might avoid those snares.
Notes on Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas
According to Imlac, the poet must be skillful in bringing to the average reader’s mind an idea of the tulip (or anything else) that will not conflict with the idea of a tulip in other readers’ minds. The point is to achieve identity of ideas. What the poet gives us is not the particular tulip with its particular number of streaks; he gives us instead a general tulip with just enough streaks to remind us that tulips generally have them. John Locke says that while “mere words” may have caused the medieval scholastic philosophers infinitely many headaches, the most troubling cause of confusion is dissimilar ideas. Johnson follows this basic Lockean epistemological scheme. (Epistemology is the term for “theory of knowledge”—an epistemologist inquires into the grounds of acquiring knowledge.) Getting men to recall identical ideas would be important to Johnson’s moral scheme. How, in other words, can the artist or critic reinforce a universal, rational, moral order if our ideas about virtue descend into mere temporality, diversity, and particularity? We should then be always quibbling over the number of streaks on our moral tulip, and obviously this quibbling can lead to no universal assent about morality. And there is, for Johnson, a stable moral order to reinforce in the midst of middle-class, urban English life. The average person must not let life’s modern complexities lead him or her astray from this eternal order.
Imlac says that the poet must observe all aspects of the human condition and passions, all “changes of the human mind as they are modified by various institutions and accidental influences of climate or custom.” This is to some extent a very modern claim in favor of diversity, but it’s well to keep in mind that Johnson’s neoclassical poet is expected to find a rational order underlying surface diversity.
Samuel Johnson’s “Preface to Shakespeare”
Johnson’s point is rather similar to that of David Hume in “Of the Standard of Taste.” I don’t mean to make any close philosophical connection; it’s just that Johnson, like nearly all his contemporaries, must have been influenced both by the empirical tradition of England dating from Bacon and Locke to his own contemporaries Edmund Burke and David Hume. Hume makes much the same point in “Of the Standard of Taste” that Johnson makes: “But though all the general rules of art are founded only on experience and on the observation of the common sentiments of human nature, we must not imagine, that, on every occasion, the feelings of men will be conformable to these rules . . . . A perfect serenity of mind, a recollection of thought, a due attention to the object; if any of these circumstances be wanting, our experiment will be fallacious, and we shall be unable to judge of the catholic and universal beauty. The relation, which nature has placed between the form and the sentiment, will at least be more obscure; and it will require greater accuracy to trace and discern it. We shall be able to ascertain its influence not so much from the operation of each particular beauty, as from the durable admiration, which attends those works, that have survived all the caprices of mode and fashion, all the mistakes of ignorance and envy. The same Homer, who pleased at Athens and Rome two thousand years ago, is still admired at Paris and at London . All the changes of climate, government, religion, and language, have not been able to obscure his glory.”
Hume’s individual critic needs to practice his craft, temper his state of mind, before he can make true judgments about what pleases or ought to please in art. The same goes for Hume’s society ( Scotland and England ) as well—time alone will tell if a work is truly great. Similarly, while Johnson has recourse to the idea that there is truly some “universal human nature” behind all the variables in life, he pays due attention to the supposed distorting effect of these variables upon artistic judgment. Art, says Johnson, is inherently subject to the variables that cause the mind to be pleased or displeased with what it beholds. Poetry and drama are simply not “raised upon principles demonstrative and scientific”; we are not dealing with the Pythagorean theorem here but with a product whose purpose is to “teach by delighting.” Inconstant creatures that fallen humans are, what ought to give them pleasure may not do so when it is first presented to them, and what at first pleases them may, in a hundred years’ time, have passed out of fashion. In sum, says Johnson, “works tentative and experimental must be estimated by their proportion to the general and collective ability of man, as it is discovered in a long succession of endeavors.” The empirical bent of that statement needs no explaining. Neither does the remark that, “what has been longest known has been most considered, and what is most considered is best understood.”
But back to Shakespeare specifically. Since “human judgment, though it be gradually gaining upon certainty, never becomes infallible; and approbation, though long continued, may yet be only the approbation of prejudice or fashion,” says Johnson, we must ask why Shakespeare still delights his audiences. For Johnson, there is a bedrock “human nature” that transcends time and place; the universal order is essentially a moral order, one which art can reinforce and the good critic discern. Evidently, there is a “standard of taste” in Johnson’s view, and Shakespeare satisfies its demands. Shakespeare captures the variety, the mixed modes, of life. He knows that there are more passions than love; he is able to approximate the remote and familiarize the wonderful. His comedies and tragedies capture human experience in all its confusion, and yet we derive intelligible meanings from our reading experience. In scenes such as the “drunken porter” episode in Macbeth or the twinning of the Fool with King Lear, we are forced to see events from more than one perspective. We never get to exclaim arrogantly, “what a piece of work is man!” but instead must confront our own intellectual and moral complexities.
Finally, I believe that behind Johnson’s maxim lies basic Lockean psychology and epistemology. In spite of all the vicissitudes in judging art that both Johnson and David Hume emphasize, there is still some kind of common experience to be arrived at, even if it takes a hundred years. Let’s examine Hazard Adams’ concise account of Lockean epistemology on page 252:
For Locke, words are signs of ideas, always based on experience, that precede them. Their relation to these ideas is purely arbitrary, though after repeated use they seem natural. Except for proper names, words are general and do not refer to specific objects. Rather, they signify abstract ideas built up from combinations of simple ones. These ideas are the “nominal” essences of genera and species, there being no “real” essences hidden and unknown to us.
Adams goes on to say that Locke prioritizes Ideas over words, leading him to condemn rhetoric as a means to use words to deceive and mislead men about their ideas. Adams also points out that “Locke locates truth in the empirically derived ideas.” We may not know the “real essence” of particular things, but it is good enough, thinks Locke, that the ideas arising from sensory perceptions can be combined to form abstract “genera and species” that allow us to make our experience intelligible and classifiable. Here is a passage from Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding:
6. It is true I have often mentioned a real essence, distinct in substances from those abstract ideas of them, which I call their “nominal essence.” By this “real essence,” I mean that real constitution of any thing which is the foundation of all those properties that are combined in, and are constantly found to coexist with, the nominal essence; that particular constitution which every thing has within itself, without any relation to any thing without it. But essence, even in this sense, relates to a sort, and supposes a species: for, being that real constitution on which the properties depend, it necessarily supposes a sort of things, properties belonging only to species, and not to individuals; v.g., supposing the nominal essence of gold to be body of such a peculiar colour and weight, with malleability and fusibility, the real essence is that constitution of the parts of matter on which these qualities and their union depend; and is also the foundation of its solubility in aqua regia, and other properties accompanying that complex idea. Here are essences and properties, but all upon supposition of a sort, or general abstract idea, which is considered as immutable; but there is no individual parcel of matter to which any of these qualities are so annexed as to be essential to it or inseparable from it. That which is essential belongs to it as a condition, whereby it is of this or that sort: but take away the consideration of its being ranked under the name of some abstract idea, and then there is nothing necessary to it, nothing inseparable from it. Indeed, as to the real essences of substances, we only suppose their being, without precisely knowing what they are: but that which annexes them still to the species is the nominal essence, of which they are the supposed foundation and cause.
7. The nominal essence bounds the species.—The next thing to be considered is, by which of those essences it is that substances are determined into sorts or species; and that, it is evident, is by the nominal essence. For it is that alone that the name, which is the mark of the sort, signifies. It is impossible therefore that any thing should determine the sorts of things which we rank under general names, but that idea which that name is designed as a mark for; which is that, as has been shown, which we call the “nominal essence.” Why do we say, “This is a horse, and that a mule; this is an animal, that an herb?” How comes any particular thing to be of this or that sort, but because it has that nominal essence, or, which is all one, agrees to that abstract idea that name is annexed to? . . .
9. Not the real essence, which we know not.—Nor, indeed, can we rank and sort things, and consequently (which is the end of sorting) denominate them, by their real essences, because we know them not. Our faculties carry us no farther towards the knowledge and distinction of substances than a collection of those sensible ideas which we observe in them. . . . The workmanship of that all-wise and powerful God, in the great fabric of the universe and every part thereof, farther exceeds the capacity and comprehension of the most inquisitive and intelligent man, than the best contrivance of the most ingenious man doth the conceptions of the most ignorant of rational creatures. Therefore we in vain pretend to range things into sorts, and dispose them into certain classes, under names, by their real essences, that are so far from our discovery or comprehension. ( Amherst : Prometheus, 1995. pp. 359-360)
Though the analogy is rough, we might say that “morality” somewhat resembles a Lockean “simple idea” for Johnson—though it may be covered up by the arbitrary, decaying language of fashion and politics, etc., time will wipe away these obstructions and allow us to understand one another’s “ideas”—or universal morality, or aesthetic taste, in this case. We all have a common sensibility and a common capacity to discern these things. They are founded upon something valid.
Johnson slides smoothly into his rather strong condemnation of certain faults in Shakespeare. It is clear that Johnson’s priority is moral improvement, though it is true enough that pleasure is the necessary means to moral ends. Other, lesser faults than the main one Johnson cites are that Shakespeare’s plots are loose, his plays rife with anachronisms, and his attention always prone to be led astray by a quibble.
As for his criticism of strict neoclassicism, Johnson links Corneille and Dryden to the same naive mimetic view of art that Plato’s Socrates held. As Professor Michael Clark of UC Irvine has said in a lecture, the empiricist tradition in England posits that “language parallels, and even replicates, natural processes and that we may, therefore, arrive at an exact correspondence between one word and one thing. If language can replicate natural processes, art can replicate nature. . . . If one word can mean (i.e. “represent”) one thing, the interpreter can analyze language and thereby learn about the relationship between things themselves . . . . ‘It is unnatural not to obey the unity of time,’ says Dryden. Unity of place must also be observed, and the stage is only one place. In this instance, Dryden implies that there is a direct correspondence between nature and that which imitates it. While the Augustinian sign refers to something beyond itself, the neoclassical sign corresponds strictly to its referent.” Furthermore, Clark says that “for the French rationalists, the locus of Being is rational thought processes, which themselves underlie natural processes . . . . For Pope and Johnson, to study nature is to study human nature, so two separate theories have been fused—that of inductive study of nature and that of rationalist psychology.”
I would add to Clark ’s exposition that as far as I can see, for the British, rationalism and empiricism are not entirely separate doctrines. Continental rationalists imply that the universe operates along the lines of reason and mathematics. Writing just before Locke, the British scientist Isaac Newton makes it tenable to marry mathematics and empirical study of the universe. After all, the universe operates along the principles of something quite mathematical—gravity; we can see these laws at work in physical nature. We can go to nature itself and validate our theory that the universe operates along rational principles.
Language theory aside, Johnson says that there is nothing sacred about the unities of time and place. Thanks to plain common sense, he will not hear of the idea that the spectators are fooled into believing what they see on the stage. As Prof. Clark says, Johnson is a lot less interested in any theory of strict mimesis than he is in the psychology of artistic representation. For Johnson, art does not represent nature directly; it only moves us to think of reality. Notice that Johnson turns Corneille’s and Dryden’s alleged audience of true believers into a pack of deluded fools; “mass delusion” would be our term for it today. Their naiveté creates a scene no less than “fantastic.” As Johnson says, “Delusion, if delusion be admitted, has no certain limitation.” If we listen to Dryden, we shall slide right off the verge of the inane and absurd; we shall be unable to tell the difference between illusion and reality. But if I read Johnson correctly, he implies that sanity and moral soundness depend upon just this sense of balance. It is vital to retain the ability to see a fiction for what it is while comparing it to “real life” and drawing a moral lesson therefrom.
With regard to mimetic theory, Johnson values not so much “imitation of nature” as the effecting of an identification between the middle-class spectator and the “unheroic” character. This is an emotional identification. Fictions bring realities to life. We credit or rather value (note my shift in terms) fictions because they bring realities, possibilities, “moral landscapes” to mind.
Notes from English 491 at CSUF
Page-by Page Notes on Johnson’s “The Rambler, No. 4.”
Johnson remains interesting partly because he writes at the point where neoclassical precepts are about to be challenged by romantic practice and theory. One the whole, however, he is a fine example of the best sort of neoclassical “pragmatic” criticism—perceptive, flexible, and sound in his comments. His defense of Shakespeare, for instance, still rings true today.
Discussing the relatively new and popular genre, the novel, leads Johnson to lay bare his mimetic and pragmatic theories in combination. As with Aristotle and Corneille and Dryden and Pope, the poet’s task is to imitate nature. But as with the same critics, that doesn’t mean simple-minded copying of the environment, human characteristics and habits, or social conventions. It involves SELECTION and arrangement with a PURPOSE—in Johnson’s case a directly moral purpose.
463-65. Johnson was called “the last great critic who understood absolutely nothing about art” because he is straightforwardly didactic in his demands of artists. He is especially worried about the novel in this regard—it reaches a broad audience of semi-educated people. Johnson isn’t as cynical about this new kind of relationship between authors and readership as, say, the late Victorian George Gissing in New Grub Street, one of whose characters refers to the reading public as "quarter-educated," but he is determined to lay down some moral rules that the novelist ought to follow.
Novelists are usually realists—”they are engaged in portraits of which every one knows the original” (463). Novelists write for an audience that knows the world they are evoking with the stroke of a pen. So they can judge a novelist's mimetic performance, but they can also be morally corrupted by a book whose author doesn’t select carefully what ought and ought not be shown to the reading public. After all, the novel in Johnson’s day probably had about as much impact, comparatively, as film today. Tody, we sometimes hear arguments about how corruptive the internet can be to people’s sense of fact, and perhaps to their sense of right and wrong. Culture critics still complain sometimes that there’s no “moderator” for internet information—that is, no authority figures step in to make appropriate selections. This argument has something of the flavor of Johnson's moral concerns about art’s power to corrupt the ignorant by appealing to their basest passions.
464. SELECTIVE IMITATION based upon sound moral principles is the key to good art. Johnson is very blunt on this point, more so than previous critics we have read.
465. Literature, says Johnson, should be uplifting. That was the idea during the Renaissance as well: as Sidney wrote, the poet should “lead and draw us to as high a perfection as our degenerate souls, made worse by their clayey lodgings, can be capable of” (333). But now novelists (not the poet) is the “right popular philosopher[s],” and they reach bigger audiences than ever. There is some danger that the moral stuffing will go out of the genre and authors will simply give the public what it wants: mere titillation, entertainment without further value. Such entertainment would amount to pandering, not instruction from a position of cultural authority. We might illustrate Johnson’s concern by referring to a diagram in terms of the novel. One might draw it as follows: Work | Critic | Public—as if they’re all on the same level, rather than there being an hierarchical relationship with the work at the highest level, the public at the bottom, and the critic mediating between the two.
Page-by Page Notes on Johnson’s Rasselas
466. “It is commonly observed that the early writers are in possession of nature, and their followers of art....” Johnson makes the same point as Alexander Pope—Homer knows best. But again, that is true of Homer only because he first looked to “nature and life.” Johnson’s philosopher Imlac does the same.
466-67. “To a poet nothing can be useless. Whatever is beautiful, and whatever is dreadful, must be familiar to his imagination....” A fair amount of Johnson’s phrasing shows up in the work of subsequent authors. If we didn’t know better, we would think Johnson was Shelley with that phrase “legislator of mankind.” This is probably where Shelley got the phrase, though he added “unacknowledged” as a qualifier, thus signaling a fundamental temporal and spiritual split between poetic imaginative vision and the utilitarian, bourgeois public of early C19 Britain. Shelley says that the poet is “superior to time and place.” The romantics borrow the rhetoric of universality, but the universal passions are what they emphasize, and there is less emphasis on reason. Oscar Wilde and the modernists will also borrow the idea that nothing is useless to the artistic consciousness.
When Johnson says the poet must not streak the tulip or color his work with the “prejudices of his age or country,” he is making a broad point, not painting pictures of nightingales singing to please themselves, in total isolation from their fellows. Rather, poets themselves should skillfully select from, abstract from, their own age’s customs and manners to present an ideal moral vision that will shore up the moral consensus amongst their contemporaries. This “superiority,” therefore, has to do with the smooth transmission of cultural values based upon a sound hierarchy of education and rank—not with romantic self-isolation and exaltation.
467. “The business of a poet, said Imlac, is to examine, not the individual, but the species: to remark general properties and large appearances: he does not number the streaks of the tulip, or describe the different shades in the verdure of the forest. He is to exhibit in his portraits of nature such prominent and striking features, as recall the original to every mind....” This passage does not mean that Johnson ignores the need for close empirical observation of manners, customs, nature, etc. In fact, close observation is required as the raw material for proper selection. Still, I wouldn’t make a romantic of Johnson—there’s a big difference between most of his statements about “just representations of general nature” and Walter Pater’s claim that “it is only the roughness of the eye that ever makes two things appear alike.” Johnson might say, “you may be right, but who cares about the streaks on the tulip? We want an idea of the tulip, an image we can all recognize—that idea is vital to the reaffirmative function of art.” I believe Johnson would be fully capable of appreciating streaked tulips in nature, but when he writes about art (i.e. representations that send us back to nature armed with an intelligible scheme for comprehending it), such inexhaustible variety isn’t to the point. The phrase “interpreters of nature” clues us in to the element of good Baconian empiricism in Johnson’s pragmatic theory of art. Johnson betrays a certain distrust of particularity at this point—like many 18th-century philosophers, he distrusts words, images, representations that might come at us as if they were the thing itself. A representation that tries so hard to rival physical nature (or human nature, for that matter) that it displaces it might succeed in averting our gaze from “things themselves.”
The poet should bring out what is universal about nature and humanity. Johnson’s poetics are deeply social and pragmatic. Selection is the lifeblood of civilized society. As Oscar Wilde says later, “it is a mark of the civilized man to be profoundly moved by statistics.” That is very different from romanticism—Blake says, “to generalize is to be an idiot.” Of course, that statement is itself a generalization.
Page-by-Page Notes on Johnson’s “Preface to Shakespeare”
468. “To works... of which the excellence is not absolute and definite... no other test can be applied than length of duration and continuance of esteem.” Johnson says only time can test poetic value. Obviously, he projects his culture’s values to an infinite point in the future and links them back to the ancients. Continuity is central to him—we might compare his ideas in this regard to T. S. Eliot’s claims in “Tradition and the Individual Talent.”
469. “Nothing can please many, and please long, but just representations of general nature.” Shakespeare has stood the test of time because he offers “just representations of general nature.” He offers us common humanity, the “general passions and principles by which all minds are agitated.” We may be surprised to find Wordsworth using much the same language to describe the poet’s subject matter. He, too, believes that certain “passions” are universal to all humankind, though of course he favors the natural environment and rural speech as the best means of digging down to this bedrock of general human nature. Johnson calls Shakespeare’s characters “species,” not mere individuals. (Don’t we get the sense that Shakespeare’s characters are individuals? What would Johnson say to that? Well, probably that they seem so “lifelike” precisely because we recognize elements of our own common nature, not because Shakespeare’s characters are unique.)
470-71. “But love is only one of many passions....” Shakespeare’s universalism does not come at the price of unrealistic ideals—we see human beings on the stage, not heroes. “Shakespeare has no heroes; his scenes are occupied only by men....” No matter what the Beatles say, love is not all you need. Other strong passions may exert just as great an influence upon us. (Madame de Staël makes the same point, by the way.)
471. “Shakespeare approximates the remote, and familiarizes the wonderful....” Shakespeare “mirrors” life—but again, Johnson’s notion of imitation isn’t narrow copying. Shakespeare’s Romans don’t look like Romans. (See Thomas Love Peacock’s hilarious send-up, “The Four Ages of Poetry,” 690 near bottom.) He draws the universal principle from close scrutiny of the accidentals and particulars. So who says he had insufficient Greek? He’s a good Aristotelian natural scientist. We might also say that Shakespeare is the master of metaphor—Johnson’s description of Shakespeare’s ability to make remote things feel close and wonderful things familiar is a pre-romantic way of saying that Shakespeare “strips away the film of familiarity” or, as Shelley writes, that art should teach us to “imagine that which we know.”
472. “All pleasure consists in variety.” Robust appreciation of Shakespeare lifts Dr. Johnson out of the run of neoclassical critics here—the bard’s drama embraces the high and the low, and Johnson, in spite of his moral quibbling, refuses to condemn its variety.
473. “Shakespeare engaged in dramatic poetry with the world open before him; the rules of the ancients were yet known to few....” Shakespeare was a genre-buster. Maybe he wasn’t a follower of strict rules formulated by critics, but he understood human nature so well that at times he is effectually a law unto himself. But he’s really just a good observer of humankind. So it’s okay to have a gravedigger scene in Hamlet: that’s the way life is, the tragic is always next to the comic and ridiculous. King Lear mustn’t be allowed to stray too far from his Fool. Coleridge and others will take this notion much farther, since of course they’re interested in Shakespeare as a sublime example of genius, a capacity that generates its own laws in the process of artistic creation.
But do you agree that Shakespeare put only his skill into tragedy, and his genius or instinct into comedy? Could that be because tragedy is Dionysian, and requires surrender of identity? Or because tragedy requires more stylistic rigor? I don’t know. At any rate, Johnson says Shakespeare is universal, a poet for all ages. Well, so far I’d have to say he’s making good on that claim. Still, forever is a long time.
474-76. Shakespeare’s faults: 1) he sacrifices virtue for the sake of convenience, and generally fails to keep good and evil apart, so sometimes we get too attractive a portrait of vice; 2) he is loose in his plots, as in King Lear’s letter-plot hatched by Edmund; 3) he does not observe the niceties of history—see Thomas Peacock’s satire in “The Four Ages of Poetry” about Elizabethan dealings with history; 4) there are too many faults in his diction—he would give up the world for a quibble, and has tried every style except simplicity (“Tis scarce two hours since the worshipped sun peered forth the golden window of the east,” etc.); 6) he does not observe the unities.
476. “I shall... adventure to try how I can defend him. His histories, being neither tragedies nor comedies are not subject to any of their laws....” Johnson’s defense of Shakespearean poetry involves him in a discussion of neoclassical verisimilitude.
477-78. “The necessity of observing the unities of time and place arises from the supposed necessity of making the drama credible.” The upshot is that we are not fooled into taking the performance on the stage for reality; rather, it calls to mind reality. As Johnson says on 478, “The reflection that strikes the heart is not, that the evils before us are real evils, but that they are evils to which we ourselves may be exposed. If there be any fallacy, it is not that we fancy the players, but that we fancy ourselves unhappy for a moment.” We know the difference between reality and representation. Imitations “bring realities to mind.” In such and such a way might we feel or act in such and such a well-played situation. The emotion that arises when a mother reflects upon the possibility that death might snatch her child away is real and true to life. We fancy ourselves happy or unhappy—but such a fancy is still an authentic feeling.
It simply isn’t the case that we get so drawn into the whole affair that we feel for the characters themselves or absolutely identify with them. There’s more critical distance here than some neoclassical theorists—especially bad ones—allow. We appreciate fiction as fiction, and we don’t mistake it for life. It is arguable whether or not this kind of claim is fully compatible with Aristotelian catharsis, which some theorists who really like the Dionysian background of tragedy find has a lot to do with genuine emotion getting stirred up in spectators for the characters. But Johnson clearly doesn’t see drama as an opportunity to stir up communal frenzy in the name of Dionysus.
And of course modern dramatic theory like that of Artaud in The Theater and Its Double wouldn’t accept the way Johnson treats engagement with a work of art as something neatly delimitable and reflective, in a kind of mirror relation with real life. For Artaud, we have lost the ability to experience anything in real life or at least to appreciate its full power; the point is to make theater a genuinely unsettling experience, to immerse us in it, stripping us of the everyday ego that helps us make the kinds of firm separations and distinctions Johnson thinks necessary. We must stage events, says Artaud, not petty men wrapped up in themselves. So Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty isn’t like life, it is life. It doesn’t abstractly instruct us about life, it is life.
Edition: Leitch, Vincent B., ed. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 1st edition. New York: Norton, 2001. ISBN: 0393974294.