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Only Organized Dust: On Samuel Johnson

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The man is long gone. Perhaps some grains of his dust (def: Earth or other matter reduced to small particles. The grave; the state of dissolution. Mean and dejected fate) lurk in the less accessible corners of the house: ‘For dust thou art, and shalt to dust return’ - Milton, Paradise Lost. But most is long swept away. The grate cleared. The brume of spoken words floating between rooms and through the cracks in the floorboards is silenced. The only articulacy left is that of death: ‘O death! all eloquent, you only prove What dust we dote on, when ‘tis man we love’ - Pope. The books gather dust in the library – devoid of all but the most basic of protective jackets, for these books pre-date that practice of wrapping (which was really a form of marketing, not protection – commodity status is no amulet). Into Samuel Johnson’s library dust encroaches (def: to creep on gradually without right; to pass bounds), settling atop the text block, encouraged by their upright standing, spines outwards, a mode of storage only half a century old. The books in their boards, their pages uncut and ragged, or the books in their bindings, perhaps embellished by a local tradesman who powders the now trimmed edges with the finest dust, of gold. But grey dust descends and sullies the pages. Dust smudges when the book is opened and it drops from the top edge to the page and the reader’s thumb presses the dirt (def: Mud; filth; mire; any thing that sticks to the clothes or body. Meanness; sordidness) in to the paper. Johnson expelled the dust, beating his books forcefully, his hands clad in big gloves, such that darkling (def: Being in the dark; being without light: a word merely poetical) clouds of dust billowed up into the atmosphere, mingling with commaterials (def: Consisting of the same matter with another thing), and with the piles of book dust, left behind by the worms of words who chomp text into morsels, and with the smoke and ash of pipes, with the powder (def: Dust; any body commuted. Gunpowder. Sweet dust for the hair) of wigs, with the collying soot rising from the fires of the kitchen and the airborne cinders of extinguished hearths. The books’ dust admixed with the outside dust of pollution, now come in to the rooms, along with all the scatterlings (def: A vagabond; one that has no home or settled habitation) and strays (def: Any creature wandering beyond its limits; anything lost by wandering) seeking company [compagnie, Fr.; either from con and pagus one of the same town; or con and panis one that eats of the same mess], desirous of the conviviality and conversations of the home. Or the dust wafts out into the city, floating free or captured by the Ashes and Dustman (def: One whose employment is to carry away the dust) called on to help sanitize the city. Inside and outside, outside and inside: the dustman displaces the residue and muck, much like the lexicographer, notes Johnson, ‘doomed only to remove the rubbish and clear obstructions from the paths of Learning and Genius’.

Downstairs in the north room is a powder closet. Before leaving the house for the tangled streets - where booksellers, printers, engravers, stationers, pencil-makers and paper merchants are snug by periwig makers, barbers, wax and tallow chandlers, coal and oil merchants, and the rest - the house inhabitants had their wigs dusted in starch from wheat or rotten or worm-eaten wood or bones powderised and whitened through calcination (def: Such a management of bodies by fire, as renders them reducible to powder; chymical pulverization). The little room should trap the wig powder’s scudding clouds, in order to avoid luring mice and rats inside to munch: ‘Say, sweet love, what thou desir’st to eat? – Truly, a peck of provender; I could munch you good dry oats’ – Shakespeare, Midsummer’s Night Dream. Those puffs of powder fogged up the closet. The speckles and motes (def: A small particle of matter; a thing proverbially little) diffused only slowly into the room beyond, while outside the black grime (def: Dirt deeply insinuated; sullying blackness not easily cleansed) of the city gradually coated the walls, which were for that reason kept painted in a muddy brown. The dust kept in, the dust escaping, the dust crept in, the dust applied, the dust swept out. One word gathering two opposed meanings: To dust – def: To free from dust. To sprinkle with dust. Those twenty four windows, those walls, those sliding partitions, those closets: all mechanisms for containing or repelling particles (def: A small proportion of a great substance. A word unvaried by inflexion) of various types - particles of matter, particles of speech and other words …..

Words, in the house, in the books, on the breath, scribbled on slips: they pile up like dust, residues of thoughts formed and unformed: just see the pile of powdery words: pulverable, pulverate, pulverization, to pulverize, pulverulence, pulvil, and those that suffuse (def: To spread over with something expansible, as with a vapour or colour) the dictionary: empasm (def: A powder to correct the bad scent of the body), pomander (def: A sweet ball, a perfumed ball or powder), snuff (def: Powdered tobacco taken by the nose), powderbox (def: A box in which powder for the hair is kept), powderhorn (def: A horn case in which powder is kept for guns) rasp (def: To rub to powder with a very large file) and powdermills and powder-rooms and powder-chests and powdering-tubs, and powdery (def: Dusty; friable), and trituration (def: Reduction of substances to powder upon a stone with a muller, as colours) etc. And powder itself crumbles in meaning: As verb, it has two separate entries in the dictionary: To powder – (def: To reduce to dust; to comminute; to pound or grind small. To sprinkle, as with dust. To salt; to sprinkle with salt) and To powder (def: To come tumultuously and violently). From powder to gunpowder, from powder to fire: the house holds and does not hold all this – the house that was built in 1700 after the Great Fire and hoped to withstand the next: ‘Powder thy radiant hair, which if without such ashes thou would’st wear, thou who, to all which come to look upon, wert meant for Phoebus, would’st be Phaeton’ – Donne.

Powder and dust and ashes and cinders, airborne or layering the shelves, clogging and obscuring – and the wig is the place where all intermingles. The wig was de rigeur: In 1748, the year that Johnson occupied 17 Gough Square, the Finnish-Swede Pehr Kalm observed that the wig was ubiquitous in England: ‘Farm-servants, clodhoppers, day-labourers, Farmers, in a word, all labouring-folk go through their usual every-day duties with all Peruques on the head. Few, yea, very few, were those who only wore their own hair’. In a hundred years the wigs would be flogged off in street markets for sixpence a piece to be used as dustmops. The wig on Johnson’s head is ill-fitting, because too small - shrivelled and unpowdered, is how Boswell describes one atop his head in May 1763. White enough perhaps if he would sit in the closet for dusting, and yet its middle part is all singed, turning dust into ashes, for Johnson’s weak eyesight meant he had to hover close to the guttering candle to read his books and jot down his scribblings and underlinings, in pursuit of meanings, fixed meanings, against the scattering and dissipation of definition (def: A short description of a thing by its properties. Decision; determination. [in logick] The explication of the essence of a thing by its kind and difference). Johnson’s task in compiling the dictionary is to work against the mincing (def: To cut into very small parts. To mention any thing scrupulously, by a little at a time; to palliate) of words. And all this done – not least – to convert the shabby rubble of language into gleaming self-constant gold. He makes a stand for vernacular constancy, much as coinage should be reliably fixed, not debased, so the coining (def: To mint or stamp metals for money. To forge any thing, in an ill sense) of new words distrusted, in opposition to the pollution of the language, its wearing away, the tongue’s linguistic corruption (def: The principles by which bodies tend to the separation of their parts. Wickedness; perversion of principles. Putrescence. Matter or pus in a sore. The means by which any thing is vitiated; depravation) by foreign, commercial and republican jargon (def: Unintelligible talk; gabble; gibberish), attendant upon innovation and ‘frequent intercourse with strangers’. But words that are archived gather dust and words that are used become a mishmash (def: A low word. A mingle or hotchpotch) of new meanings, little by little. And words are in worlds and worlds turn to dust or light up anew and need new words and new meanings. And so the whole is ever polluted and ever shaken out. A swirl of world and words.

And the ashes return. In the infernal days of the Blitz 17 Gough Square was bombed several times by airborne Nazi weapons. The garret where the dictionary was assembled was burned out, its roof ripped off, exposing the inside to the outside. Parts of the house, like the City of London surrounding it, were reduced to piles of dust and soot. Might it be imagined that the Auxiliary Fire Service’s wartime occupation of the building, when they used it as a rest centre (place of conviviality) and an arts club (place of cultured civilization) was an effort to extinguish (def: To put out; to quench. To suppress; to destroy. To cloud; to obscure) those malevolent forces that were then busy warping word and world alike, and extinguishing all that is true and meaningful – ‘Then rose the seed of chaos and of night, To blot out order and extinguish light’ – Pope.

John Barrel, The Spirit of Despotism: Invasions of Privacy in the 1790s, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2006
James Boswell, Life of Johnson [1791], Oxford University Press, Oxford 1970
Richard Corson, Fashions in Hair: The First Five Thousand Years, Peter Owen, London 2000
Lynn M. Festa, ‘Personal Effects: Wigs and Possessive Individualism in the Long Eighteenth Century’ in Eighteenth-Century Life, Volume 29, Number 2, Spring 2005, 47-90
Samuel Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language [1755], J. and G. Offor, London 1825
Hesther Lynch Piozzi, Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson LL.D., during the last twenty years of his life [1786], Cassell And Company, Limited, London 1901
Edward Newton, Men and Ghosts of Gough Square, Doctor Johnson House Trustees, London 1995
Mary Wollstonecraft, Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark [1795], University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln 1976


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