The Definition Of Futility

Kate Chisholm reviews two new books about Samuel Johnson, beginning her essay with this charming description of the idiosyncratic writer:

There is a particular challenge in trying to pin down, quantify, assess the literary achievement of a dictionary-maker who has spent years searching for the elusive, chameleon-like meanings of even the most mundane of words. Samuel Johnson, though, offers his own validation for such an enterprise in the preface to his great Dictionary of 1755, in which he confesses that he set out to codify the language only to realize before he was even halfway through that no such thing is possible. Instead of giving up, Johnson persisted, even while recognizing the futility of his ambition, and understanding too well that “one enquiry only gave occasion to another, that book referred to book, that to search was not always to find, and to find was not always to be informed; and that thus to pursue perfection, was, like the first inhabitants of Arcadia, to chase the sun, which, when they had reached the hill where he seemed to rest, was still beheld at the same distance from them”.

Who could fail to admire the frank, unvarnished modesty of such a man? Yet such parings have their critics. Not everyone wants to admit a world in which there is so much futile industry, pained creation, and in which nothing can be concluded.