The 15th Seminar: Was Dr Johnson a Tourette’s sufferer?

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  • Post published:January 19, 2009
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Dr Simon Bower, a consultant neurologist, drew on his own clinical experience to address the issue of Tourette’s Syndrome, in his paper delivered at the JSA’s 15th Annual Seminar in June 2008 where about forty members and guests attended.

Tourette’s Syndrome has been suggested as an explanation for Johnson’s reported physical quirks and odd behaviour. Simon described the usual manifestations of the syndrome, namely motor tics and obsessive behaviours (of which Johnson had a number).

The usual onset of TS is in adolescence, which is not reported in Johnson – neither is coprolalia (making obscene utterances): though it was suggested that it may have gone unrecorded in more discreet times than our own.

On one of the rare occasions when Johnson was asked about his odd tics, he said they were a “bad habit” Whether habit suggests something voluntary or involuntary was enthusiastically pursued by the audience in the spirited discussion following Simon’s presentation.

Barrie Sheppard, JSA Treasurer and retired lecturer in English, who is interested in the philosophical underpinnings of Johnson’s critical opinions, discussed the theory of meaning derived from John Locke and current in Johnson’s day.

This was the “naming” theory; that is, that the knowledge of a thing was necessarily prior to the knowledge of the sign (word) signifying it. Barrie traced the theory from Aristotle through St Augustine to John Locke and the famous conception of the mind.

The difficulties he had in carrying out his original intention (expressed in the Plan of a Dictionary) to “fix” the language indicates a commitment to Locke’s theory.

Daniel Vuillermin, a tutor and postgraduate student at La Trobe University, is assisting JSA President John Wiltshire in a book-length publication entitled The Creation of Dr Johnson.

Daniel’s presentation, illustrated by slides, concerned Sir Joshua Reynolds’ three later portraits of Johnson: the 1775 “blinking Sam” portrait, the 1772-78 “Streatham” portrait, and the “last portrait” (circa 1784), painted for John Taylor, which shows a slightly haggard Johnson and may not be by Reynolds at all.

These images could be contrasted with the best-known portraits, the circa-1756 Reynolds’ works in which the artsts was attempting to convey Johnson’s physical conditions, such as tics and other gestures. The later portraits depict a figure in which activity, mental and physical, seems always implied.

Perth-based lawyer and book collector John Byrne brought to the Seminar a cache of “sentimental trifles” – mostly non-book objects with Johnsonian associations that he has collected over the years His first-acquired piece of Johnsoniana was an 1828 Rasselas, bought with a bundle of “gaudy prize bindings” in 1963-64.

He is now assiduously collecting Rasselas editions, aiming to have one for each year since the book was published, and has copies of the first ten editions. His collection also includes medals and coins, various ceramic commemorative items, cartoons, and items associated with other Johnsonians, such as the JSA’s two former Patrons, David Fleeman and Viscountess Eccles, and A Edward Newton.

It was a pleasure to welcome Nick Hudson for his eleventh presentation to the JSA, and his first since 2004. ck is a publisher and a grammarian himself, the author of the Oxford U.P. Modern Australian Usage This year, Nick examined Johnson’s views on grammar, as represented in the Dictionary and its preliminary and seldom-regarded “Grammar of the English Tongue.”

His provocative talk began with the “big bang” and a brief quirky history of grammar. Nick went on to suggest that the “rules” derived by medieval grammarians from Latin were of little use when it came to dealing with a language as uninflected as English. English, he said, either has no syntax, or else is all syntax, and he concluded that it is not so much that Johnson’s “Grammar” is rubbish as that grammar itself is rubbish

The day concluded with animated discussion over drinks in the lounge, accompanied by an excellent performance of baroque music by the young classical trio, Lucca Strings.