Notes & Comments February 2023
Paul Johnson, 1928–2023
On the late historian & journalist.
Roger Kimball writes: What follows is a brief personal reflection about my friend Paul Johnson, the English journalist and historian who died last month at ninety-four. I do not recall when we first met, or even whether it was on this or that side of the Atlantic. Probably, it was in the late 1980s. I do know, however, when I had my last glimpse of him. It was just a few weeks ago, near Christmas, when we received, as we have for a couple of decades, a card filled out by Marigold, Paul’s wife of more than sixty years. Marigold’s cards were usually upbeat. The first I recall was accompanied by a little red hat in the form of a strawberry for our then-infant son. That was more than twenty years past. This year, the card was accompanied by a photograph of Marigold and Paul, she smiling, sitting next to Paul who was lying propped up in bed, a sort of half-smile playing about his lips and a wandering glance emanating from his half-open eyes.
Alas, Paul had been ill for several years. Time was, no trip to London was complete without a stop at the Johnsons’ house on Newton Road (how perfect that this great man lived on a road named for England’s greatest mathematician). Marigold, an excellent cook, introduced me to salmon coulibiac, now one of my favorite dishes, and, on that same occasion, perhaps the best summer pudding I have ever tasted.
Those were marvelous visits, sometimes for lunch, sometimes dinner, sometimes Mass followed by lunch. At one, I met the great Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey (The Tyranny of Distance) and his wife Ann, the biographer of the nineteenth-century actress, writer, and abolitionist Fanny Kemble and her opera-singer sister Adelaide. Both Blaineys became friends. It was always a special treat when Paul took me out to his painting studio in the backyard. His father was an artist and the head of an art school. Paul, an accomplished watercolorist himself, had contemplated a career as a painter. His father, though he acknowledged Paul’s skill as a draftsman, put him off art as a career. “I can see bad times coming for art,” he told his son: “Frauds like Picasso will rule the roost for the next half-century. Do something else for a living.” Paul took the advice to heart in two senses. In his professional life, he exchanged paintbrush for pen (or typewriter), and he nurtured his father’s animus against Picasso. Many readers will recall that there was a period when Evelyn Waugh ended his letters with the cheery valedictory, “Death to Picasso!” Paul came from a kindred school, as the title of his 1996 collection To Hell with Picasso and Other Essays reminds us. In his book on the history of art, Picasso emerges as an archetype of what he called “fashion art, as opposed to fine art”—that is, art as a species of hucksterism.
Paul’s view of Picasso (who died, he tells us, “the richest artist in history”) is one of the things that furrowed the brows of his critics. But it is worth noting that while he was hostile to Picasso, he was not cavalier. Picasso, he acknowledged, raised unique problems in the history of art, so “it is important that everyone should make up [his] own mind about him.”
Paul’s rejection of Picasso had less to do with Picasso’s deplorable character—he was, quite simply, a swine—than with Picasso’s attitude towards his own art. Paul was quite tolerant about the foibles of artists, Picasso’s and others. What he objected to was not so much Picasso’s exploitation of people as his exploitation of his talent to gratify the demands of his ego (and that reliable appendage of ego, the pocketbook). If Paul was right, Picasso helped to license the attitude that Marshall McLuhan summed up when he said that “art is anything you can get away with”—the attitude that prevails in many of the most respected quarters of the art world today. In any event, I was pleased indeed that over the years Paul gave me several of his watercolors. At least two occupy honored spots on the walls chez Kimball.
My diary tells me that my last visit with the Johnsons was in 2014 for tea. By then, Paul’s acuity was already somewhat dimmed. He knew who I was and even, when I got up to leave, insisted on accompanying me outside to find a cab. But the ferocious, rubicund intellect that had always issued from him was clearly beginning to falter.
How different things had been. For decade after decade, Paul had been a prodigy of articulate, often polemical industry. His writing was sinewy and seductive. Paul was the master of the engaging anecdote, the memorable tidbit. You know what “shrapnel” is. But did you know it was named for Henry Shrapnel, the British lieutenant general who, in the 1780s, invented the hollow-case shot of the shell that today bears his name? And speaking of detonations, Paul also regularly dispensed little morsels of common sense that were sure to raise the hackles of the politically correct. “One reason why garages tend to cheat customers today over repairs,” he explained, “is that they had their origin in horse-mongering, thus preserving an unbroken tradition of fraud.” We may not have known the connection to horse trading, but we all recognize the truth of the observation, even if we are not supposed to admit it.
Paul’s literary output was breathtaking. He wrote regular columns for—well, for everyone, it seemed. Over the years, he wrote several pieces for The New Criterion. The first, a tart review of Barbara Tuchman’s March of Folly, appeared nearly forty years ago, in 1984. His last, an essay called “The human race: success or failure?,” appeared in our twenty-fifth-anniversary season of 2006.
But Paul’s prodigious journalism was just the watercress around the feast of his many books. The obituaries tell us that he wrote more than fifty. Some, especially towards the end of his career, were short biographical sketches. But several were thousand-page panoramas. His History of the American People (1997) clocks in at 1,088 pages, The Birth of the Modern: World Society 1815–1830 (1991) at 1,095 pages. I believe the first of his books that I read was Modern Times, first published in 1983 and then revised and expanded in 1991. That book (a mere 870 pages) cemented Paul’s reputation as an impressive popular historian and a social commentator of the first order. Its opening sentence captures his bravura: “The modern world began on 29 May 1919 when photographs of a solar eclipse . . . confirmed the truth of a new theory of the universe.”
That theory was Einstein’s special theory of relativity, which first shook and then toppled the seemingly impregnable fortress of Newtonian physics. At the beginning of the 1920s, Paul argued, the belief began to circulate that there were no absolutes—of time or space any more than of morals: “Mistakenly but perhaps inevitably, relativity became confused with relativism.” It is easy to object that “relativism” is not the same as “relativity” in Einstein’s sense. But I have come to believe that Paul was right. The ideas of scientific innovators often have a dual effect. Not only do they change our understanding of the physical world, “they also change our ideas. The second effect is often more radical than the first.”
Most notices of Paul’s death—and there have been many—focus at least briefly on his political journey from Left to Right. It is true that he cut his teeth at the reliably left-wing New Statesman, where he rose from leader writer to editor in the late 1960s. It is also true that he later became a friend and admirer of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan and the worldview they espoused. I am reminded, though, of William Blake’s remark that an honest man may change his opinions but not his principles. This, I believe, is a good description of Paul’s political evolution. At some point in the mid- to late 1970s, he realized that the politicians with whom he entrusted his enthusiasm were working to undermine rather than realize his ideals.
That recognition was part of a more general disillusionment with a certain type of charismatic leader, political or intellectual. “The experience of the twentieth century,” he wrote in Modern Times, “shows emphatically” that “Utopianism is never far from gangsterism.” A revulsion at the totalitarian impulse was a constant in Paul’s thinking and writing. It stands behind his caustic analysis in Intellectuals (1988), one of his most popular books, of twelve gurus from Rousseau, Shelley, and Marx through Sartre, Bertrand Russell, and Lillian Hellman. “The worst of all despotisms,” he concludes, “is the heartless tyranny of ideas.” Thus he identified in Modern Times the twentieth century’s “most radical vice” as the triumph of “social engineering—the notion that human beings can be shoveled around like concrete.” The mandarins in the corridors of power, from Washington to Davos (not to mention Beijing), have apparently not received this memo.
Paul divided revolutionaries into two groups, the Clerical and the Romantic. Lenin and Stalin were conspicuous examples of the former: ascetic, implacable, monstrously humanitarian. About Lenin, Paul perceptively noted that we
have to assume that what drove Lenin on to do what he did was a burning humanitarianism, akin to the love of the saints for God, for he had none of the customary blemishes of the politically ambitious: no vanity, no self-consciousness . . . . But his humanitarianism was a very abstract passion. It embraced humanity in general but he seems to have had little love for, or even interest in, humanity in particular. He saw the people with whom he dealt, his comrades, not as individuals but as receptacles for his ideas.
Paul’s rejection of the totalitarian impulse in all its many allotropes was closely connected with the metabolism of his religious life. Paul was a devout Catholic, a near-daily churchgoer for most of his years. But his religion was experiential, not theological. As he put it in “Why I believe in God,” a beautiful essay he wrote for The Spectator in 2012, his belief in God was “not philosophical. It is not rooted in metaphysics or reason. It springs from the heart and the senses.”
In Modern Times, Paul noted that what “is important in history is not only the events that occur but the events that obstinately do not occur.” He went on to argue that the “outstanding event of modern times was the failure of religious belief to disappear.” True, among the educated in “the advanced races,” an encroaching secularism did go hand in hand with an eclipse of religious belief. Indeed, Paul notes that “the decline and ultimately the collapse of the religious impulse would leave a huge vacuum. The history of modern times is in great part the history of how that vacuum has been filled.” How much of modern times is a chronicle of the rise and dissemination of substitutes for traditional religious faith, such as Marxism, environmentalism, and other “luxury beliefs”? Still, Paul was right: notwithstanding the situation in affluent societies, “for the overwhelming majority of the human race . . . religion continue[s] to be a huge dimension in their lives.”
We have all missed the clarion call of Paul’s bristling, omnivorous intelligence these past several years. Now we bid the man himself farewell. RIP.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 41 Number 6, on page 1
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