Bumblebees Play With Toys
Dr. Johnson announced a lifelong theme when, at age sixteen, he wrote “An Ode on Friendship,” which begins: “Friendship, peculiar gift of heav’n, / The noble mind’s delight and pride, / To men and angels only giv’n, / To all the lower world deny’d.” This suggests there’s nothing casual about friendship. It’s a privileged, dignified state: “When virtues kindred virtues meet.” We take friendship (and everything else) more casually: “You know, I like to be around the guy. He’s funny.” We think of it as fondness and compatibility short of romance, though one can certainly befriend a lover. The more you try to define and taxonomize degrees of friendship, the slipperier it becomes.
Johnson’s first major work, “Life of Mr Richard Savage” (1744), is largely the chronicle of a friendship. In his Dictionary (1755), he formulates six definitions of friend, the first being “one joined to another in mutual benevolence and intimacy: opposed to foe or enemy.” A quarter-century later, on October 27, 1750, dedicated a Rambler essay to the subject. This is thirteen years before he met Boswell and initiated the best-known, most documented friendship in history. As usual, Johnson is a realist:
“So many qualities are indeed requisite to the possibility of friendship, and so many accidents must concur to its rise and continuance, that the greatest part of mankind content themselves without it, and supply its place as they can, with interest and dependence [sic].”
That final, qualifying phrase I take to mean something like superficial commonality and necessity, respectively. In the first case, the attraction may be soccer or The Sopranos, but it seldom goes deeper. In the latter, one becomes dependent on the aid of another. Such a relationship is likely benevolent, rooted in compassion and a good heart, but it isn’t necessarily friendship. Because of geography, many of my friendships are remote, dependent on email, texts and the telephone. I’ve lived in five states and not in Ohio, my birthplace, since 1983. My closest friend in Houston and I share some “interests” in the Johnsonian sense, mostly kids and music. But he’s not a reader. He’s an enthusiastic surfer and fisherman. I’m neither. And yet we converse almost daily, we make each other laugh and we are reliable. Friendship is multiform and remains another baffling thing humans do. More realism from Johnson’s Rambler essay:
“He cannot properly be chosen for a friend, whose kindness is exhaled by his own warmth, or frozen by the first blast of slander; he cannot be a useful counsellor, who will hear no opinion but his own; he will not much invite confidence whose principal maxim is to suspect; nor can the candour and frankness of that man be much esteemed, who spreads his arms to humankind, and makes every man, without distinction, a denizen of his bosom.”
Some of us are blessed or cursed with a ready stock of useless information. It came in handy in the nineteen-eighties when the board game Trivial Pursuit was the rage. Once during a Caribbean cruise, my younger sons and I creamed the competition in a shipboard trivia contest ("What is the capital of Rumania?"). Such are life’s hollow victories.
In a column headlined “Ignorant College Men,”published November 1, 1910 in the Baltimore Evening Sun, H.L. Mencken asks, “How much is education worth? To what extent does it fit a man to grapple with his environment? How much that is really worth knowing does a three-year college course add to the average man’s stock of knowledge?”
Mencken assembles a list of seventy-four general knowledge questions – in effect, the trivia of 1910. Some read like reports from a long-lost world, and can be ignored. For instance, “Is Hawaii a territory or a colony?” and “What is the tax rate in Baltimore for 1910?” Others remain pertinent:
“What is pragmatism?” (William James had died just two months earlier.) “What is a writ of mandamus?” “The Nicene Creed?” “What is glucose?” “By what process does vaccination produce immunity to smallpox?”
Like many of our best writers, Mencken never attended university. Neither did Herman Melville,who has Ishmael boast that “a whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard.” Mencken’s higher academia was a newspaper city room. He was never the most modest of men but his intent with the list of questions is not to show off his own command of trivia. He admits: “Altogether I have found myself able to answer 18 with reasonable lucidity. The rest baffle.” It takes brains and a dash of humility to ask questions you are unable to answer.
Some of us enjoy the company of people with well-stocked brains. The risk, of course, is tedium, but assuming they don’t batter you with cascades of useless information, issued solely to makes themselves sound intelligent, they tend to be more interesting than their empty-headed cousins.
In an entry titled “The Burden” in Trivia (1917), Logan Pearsall Smith writes:
“I know too much; I have stuffed too many of the facts of History and Science into my intellectuals. My eyes have grown dim over books; believing in geological periods, cave-dwellers, Chinese Dynasties, and the fixed stars has prematurely aged me."