STOIC POETRY | Dr. Johnson sights The Great Indifference
Updated: Sep 25, 2021
I am always on the lookout in my reading for evidence of others who have spotted and reported on the quality of nature which I found in the desert and described in my book Going Alone. Namely, the apprehension of a great universal empty which I call The Great Indifference, which is the background and inspiration for development of a set of objectives and principles which I call The Good Life. The following quoted passages of author Samuel Johnson are from his 1773 account of a 100-day journey which he took with his friend, James Boswell, which began in Edinburgh and continued right across the Scottish Highlands and out onto the Hebrides Islands. Dr. Johnson's observations cited below are remarkable as they capture the sense of what can be perceived, as well as the quality and character of the thoughts which may be promoted, when we encounter or enter truly wild places. At the time when Johnson noted his impressions, he, and Boswell, along with their two Highlander guides, a servant, and the party's horses, had left earlier that same day from Fort Augustus at the south end of Loch Ness, and had just arrived at the edge of a great moorland. The group had stopped for an hour of rest after the guides suggested the horses could graze on grass at that spot before the group crossed up onto the moorlands where grass might be more difficult to find. Stopping to rest at that place, Johnson had dismounted from his horse in order to sit alone beside a small stream where his observations begin as follows:
"I sat down on the bank, such as a writer of Romance might have delighted to feign. I had indeed no trees to whisper over my head, but a clear rivulet streamed at my feet. The day was calm, the air soft, and all was rudeness, silence and solitude. Before me, and on either side, were high hills, which by hindering the eye from ranging, forced the mind to find entertainment for itself. Whether I spent the hour well I know not, for here I first conceived the thought for this narration."
I imagine Johnson settling down beside the small stream with a sore and aching body; the result of a long day's ride; stretching his legs and perhaps massaging a sore back. Maybe he pulled a crust of hard bread from his pack or took a long drink of water while scanning the rising landscape ahead. What follows are Dr. Johnson's preamble about his thoughts of the wild scene which he beheld, followed by an account of his direct observation. In fact, Dr. Johnson described this exact scene and moment twice; first, in the paragraph above which he included in his published essay A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland as well as again in a letter which he wrote to his friend, the Welsh diarist Hester Thrale. In this second description, Johnson notes his surprise that his muse of inspiration seems absent in such a setting, as though such a wild place should naturally foster creative inspiration.
"I sat down to make notes on a green bank, with a small stream running at my feet, in the midst of savage solitude, with Mountains before me, and on either hand covered with heath. I looked round me, and wondered that I was not more affected, but the mind is not at all time equally ready to be put into motion."
I've, in fact, had the same experience in such settings where at times the writer's inspiration - the Muse - arrives to push words from my pen as if I were channeling some spirit, while at other times I've found I have nothing to say or pen, though I know the circumstances are equally ripe for inspired words and writing.
After settling down in his wild circumstance, Johnson makes the following observation which resonated deeply with my own experience, and, as stated above, was the centerpiece experience of my own book.
"The imaginations excited by the view of an unknown and untraveled wilderness are not such as arise in the artificial solitude of parks and gardens, a flattering notion of self-sufficiency, a placid indulgence of voluntary delusions, a secure expansion of the fancy, or a cool concentration of the mental powers. The phantoms which haunt a desert are want, and misery, and danger; the evils of dereliction rush upon the thoughts; man is made unwillingly acquainted with his own weakness, and meditation shews him only how little he can sustain, and how little he can perform."
Clearly, Dr. Johnson has perceived the circumstance, if not the sense itself, which I call The Great Indifference. It is that hollow crater of emptiness descending away from where - and what - we are when we come face-to-face with a truly wild setting. The sense is more distinct and unsettling if we are at some distance from the artifacts of our species, such as homes, businesses, roads, trails, paths, etc. And of course, for best results we must always go alone. It is interesting to me how Johnson contrasts his sensations in this spot with the more civilized and seemingly tamer musings which he might have in the "artificial solitude of parks and gardens" which is an angle of thought I had not previously considered. But I can see it now. indeed, I can understand how the cultivated "wild" of a large parkland in the midst of a bustling metropolis might suggest more "flattering" thoughts of "self-sufficiency" as well as "a placid indulgence of voluntary delusions." I wonder what Dr. Johnson's impressions at the edge of the moor might have been had he come to that place alone, on foot, without any map, and with little rations and while the sun dipped low into the western horizon, threatening abandonment, and becoming lost and alone at night? Might the good doctor have then perceived the deep and yawning immensity of nothing fronting nature and everywhere just behind the veneer of what we cherish as life? Could he then have seen The Great Indifference? And if so, what words might he have used to describe it? What might the good Dr. have called something which threatens so clearly with its absence the strong certitude which may provide the foundation of our very purpose and meaning in life?
My name is Kurt Bell.
You can learn more about The Good Life in my book Going Alone.
Be safe... But not too safe.