The great Paul Johnson, RIP
There's no thinker more valuable than a good historian and nothing reminds us more of that than the passing of the great historian, Paul Johnson, who died on January 12. Johnson did so much to define history as we know it and love it.
Oh, that's so grand sounding, though -- Paul Johnson's histories were utterly delicious to read, better than movies or other things billed as entertainment. You read one and just wanted to go buy another. I read many of them, and still want to read them again.
I never met him but I never wanted him to die, not ever, I always wanted him to live forever, so he could still keep writing more books.
Johnson's histories of western civilization, of art, of Judaism and Christianity, of wars and revolutions, of intellectuals, fed the mind and created a sense of place and belonging in a bewildering world. This is why my finding his histories as a student in the 1980s, effectively promoted through the pages of National Review and the American Spectator at the time, was so very valuable. Paul Johnson was just so wonderful to read.
I loved his incisive observations, so many and so memorable. I don't have his books in front of me, but I recall so many passages so vividly, perhaps because I read them again and again.
His characterization of the greatness of France, for instance, that its contributions were uniquely broad but curiously never the pinnacles of human achievement -- was amazing. France, he wrote, could be ranked at second place by all measures of national greatness, but in pretty much every field there is -- in art, literature, music, sculpture, et al., making its national greatness "uniquely broad" among nations. (First place, however, in interior design, Johnson noted at the end of his list.) I remember recounting that very characterization to the French ambassador to the U.S. in a conversation once -- he was taken aback for a minute, and then said, by golly, that was absolutely right.
Johnson's work on art was amazing, devoting whole chapters to the importance of art restoration, art curation, art history and art criticism in addition to the art itself (and he couldn't stand junk art) was illuminating and enlightening.
In his more direct histories, I loved his characterization of Augusto Pinochet as "the most misunderstood man of the 20th century." Pinochet is one of the left's biggest boogiemen, the evil right-wing dicatator. But I spent time studying him and his Chicago Boys' revolution, which transformed Chile from a typical third world socialist hellhole to a sleek, modern, capitalist, prosperous, corruption-free democracy, reading the seminal history of Chile during that era, Out of the Ashes by James Whelan, and reading the actual memoirs of Pinochet himself and some of his Chicago Boys, reading even leftist histories and making friends with Chileans left and right, and Johnson's summary is the only summary that can be made about the man who did so much good for Chile and wasn't nearly the tyrant going after the innocent he was portrayed as on the left. Pinochet in fact was a victim of the Castroite propaganda machine's "black legend," demonized outside the context of his time, history and geography into a monster while all of his transformations of the country into a free market democracy went ignored. The Pinochet haters out there hated Pinochet in fact, for that, because they always hated the prosperity of the West. Johnson grasped this sorry distortion of history to perfection.
Meanwhile, Johnson could be entertaining as heck. Me and my young adult post-college era girlfriends passed around Johnson's short history called "Intellectuals" about the disgusting personal lives of a great number of leftists thinkers who have been held up as paragon intellectuals. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was skewered, as was Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Karl Marx and a host of others. Who was the worst? Who was the one you wouldn't want to live with, who was the most disgusting of all of them? Oh, there were debates, but Marx usually came out on top. What an a****.
Histories like that are the kind of histories that should be written. Theodore Dalrymple has a far more scholarly and moving tribute to Johnson and his greatness in City Journal this morning, a tribute well worth reading.
But Johnson's work affected so many lives, brought to life so much of where we came from to us, and his conservative voice was unique as well as critical and necessary.
It's sad for us that we won't have more Paul Johnson histories coming. We could use so many more, as his interpretations were so on the mark.
But what he left us was a great gift we can still take in.
There will never be another like him.
Paul Johnson, RIP.
Image: U.S. government, via Wikipedia / public domain image