Sunday, November 09, 2008

Johnson and Boswell

There are quite a few people who can write well, even in this age of maleducation and popular subliteracy. There are some who think well, although not all can express their thoughts smoothly and invitingly. Some people converse well, with words fitting the purpose and sentences constructed imaginatively, ideas that are more than clich├ęs, and a ready store of knowledge and examples -- such conversationalists are more rare than good writers or even good thinkers. But it is almost unheard of for one person to combine all those qualities.

Samuel Johnson, the great 18th century English literary giant, did. It's no wonder that he made a lasting impression on almost everyone who met him. Without his biographer James Boswell, Johnson would live on among literary scholars and a few people with a taste for period essays. But thanks to Boswell, who was in his company off and on for three decades or so, we can know Johnson as a man -- his habits, his manner, and most of all his conversation, which has probably never been equaled.

Samuel Johnson, by Sir Joshua Reynolds

I've just finished reading Boswell's Life of Johnson. And, since you didn't ask: the unabridged edition (Oxford University Press, Chapman and Fleeman, eds.). Vastly rewarding as it was, taking on the whole thing -- 1,402 pages, not counting the index, the longest book I've ever read cover-to-cover -- felt like something of an achievement. Boswell's work in writing it is scarcely conceivable.


Most people today read a condensed version, which heavily overweights the conversations so carefully written down by Boswell and others who provided him with transcripts. A shorter version is certainly a reasonable compromise, one I availed myself of years ago. You can get the flavor of the whole in a good shortened edition, and most of the famous quips and sayings Johnson is best known for now.

Still, if you can muster up the time, there are benefits to the complete book that you won't get from a selection, and you don't have to be a scholar to appreciate them. Boswell himself, like all lawyers, was a careful man with words, but his precision in language served a higher purpose than contracts or legal argument. Boswell was understandably gobsmacked at Johnson's powers of argument, of wit, of learning -- not to mention his prodigious literary gifts. He understood that he was privileged to be a firsthand witness to one of the great geniuses of his time, or any time, and was determined to preserve for posterity what he was in a unique position to see and hear.


There are a handful of dull and overly minute patches in Boswell's full account, but remarkably few. For the most part, everything he records is worth recording, as an account of an extraordinary personality and of the age in which he lived. It's the background, the context, that is part of the virtue of the unabridged Life. It is a clear and detailed record of how people in upper-class, literary, and artistic circles in London (mostly) behaved, what they thought and talked about, how they expressed themselves, what assumptions they held in common and what divided them. Besides Johnson, you get to know many others: some still famous, like Sir Joshua Reynolds, David Garrick, and Oliver Goldsmith, others that would have been long forgotten had not some of Johnson's immortality rubbed off on them through Boswell's narrative.

And those conversations, recorded by Boswell in a format almost like a film script:
BOSWELL. 'Pray, Sir, do you not suppose that there are fifty women in the world, with any one of whom a man may be as happy, as with any one woman in particular?' JOHNSON. 'Ay, Sir, fifty thousand.' BOSWELL. 'Then, Sir, you are not of opinion with some who imagine that certain men and certain women are made for each other; and that they cannot be happy if they miss their counterparts?' JOHNSON. 'To be sure not, Sir. I believe marriages would in general be as happy, and as often more so, if they were all made by the Lord Chancellor, upon a due consideration of characters and circumstances, without the parties having any choice in the matter.'
Then as now, it was fashionable to imagine that civilization destroyed some inherent virtue in the human race, and that those who have not tasted the material benefits of modern life enjoy a truer appreciation of the natural joys of existence.
... A learned gentleman who holds a considerable office in the law, expatiated on the happiness of a savage life; and mentioned an instance of an officer who had actually lived for some time in the wilds of America, of whom, when in that state, he quoted this reflection with an air of admiration, as if it had been deeply philosophical: 'Here am I, free and unrestrained, amidst the rude magnificence of Nature, with this Indian woman by my side, and this gun with which I can procure food when I want it: what more can be desired for human happiness?'

It did not require much sagacity to foresee that such a sentiment would not be permitted to pass without due animadversion. JOHNSON. 'Do not allow yourself, Sir, to be imposed upon by such gross absurdity. It is sad stuff; it is brutish. If a bull could speak, he might as well exclaim, Here am I with this cow and this grass; what being can enjoy greater felicity?'
But as delightful as Johnson's verbal fencing is, there is so much more to be wondered at. (Uh-oh, I'm starting to pick up some of Johnson's style.) His learning was stupendous, his curiosity insatiable. It ranged over the whole field of human knowledge of his time. He was extremely well read in the classic authors, and frequently quoted them in the original Latin and sometimes Greek. (Boswell doesn't bother to translate or cite sources, although the editors have done so; well-educated gentlemen of the time would not have needed any translation or explanation.)

All this knowledge was well and good, but part of what made Johnson so extraordinary a talker was that he seemed to have it all at the tip of his tongue, ready to use to provide an example or a metaphor. He was willing to expound on the trivial and ephemeral, but just as keen to debate the great issues of life and death, religion and philosophy. Boswell writes:
I talked to him of misery being 'the doom of man' in this life, as displayed in his Vanity of Human Wishes. Yet I observed that things were done upon the supposition of happiness; grand houses were built, fine gardens were made, splendid places of publick amusement were contrived, and crowded with company. JOHNSON. 'Alas, Sir, these are all only struggles for happiness. When I first entered Ranelagh [a public "pleasure garden" in London], it gave an expansion and gay sensation to my mind, such as I never experienced any where else. But, as Xerxes wept when he viewed his immense army, and considered that not one of that great multitude would be alive a hundred years afterwards, so it went to my heart to consider that there was not one in all that brilliant circle, that was not afraid to go home and think; but that the thoughts of each individual there, would be distressing when alone.'
An extreme Tory (conservative in his politics) and profoundly Church of England (in his faith), he preferred to talk of weighty matters in matter-of-fact, jesting terms rather than the language of philosophy or theology.
The General asked him, what he thought of the spirit of infidelity [meaning unbelief in religion] which was so prevalent. JOHNSON. 'Sir, this gloom of infidelity, I hope, is only a transient cloud passing through the hemisphere, which will soon be dissipated, and the sun break forth with his usual splendour.' 'You think then, (said the General,) that they will change their principles like their clothes.' JOHNSON. 'Why, Sir, if they bestow no more thought on principles than on dress, it must be so.' The General said, that 'a great part of the fashionable infidelity was owing to a desire of shewing courage. Men who have no opportunity of shewing it as to things in this life, take death and futurity as objects on which to display it.' JOHNSON. 'That is mighty foolish affectation. Fear is one of the passions of human nature, of which it is impossible to divest it. You remember that the Emperour Charles V, when he read upon the tomb-stone of a Spanish nobleman, "Here lies one who never knew fear," wittily said, "Then he never snuffed a candle with his fingers."'
To read Boswell's biography of his friend in its full length and depth is to appreciate all the more Johnson's qualities of character, which are less usual than those of intellect. Johnson suffered all his life from "melancholia" -- we would surely today say he was depressed, and a doctor prescribe meds for him. Yet unlike so many depressives before the age of psychiatry, and some today, he did not drown himself in alcohol, and even gave up the comfort of wine in his later years. Almost blind in one eye, beset with physical ailments that were constantly troubling him, Johnson paid his own brilliance the tribute of refusing to let anything get in the way of his dedication to literature. He was grumpy but didn't harbor grudges, and had his prejudices, but his intense dislike of Scotsmen and things Scottish didn't get in the way of his friendship with Boswell, who was from north of the border.


The biographer concludes his long book: "Exulting in his intellectual strength and dexterity, he could, when he pleased, be the greatest sophist that ever contended in the lists of declamation; and, from a spirit of contradiction and a delight in shewing his powers, he would often maintain the wrong side with equal warmth and ingenuity; so that, when there was an audience, his real opinions could seldom be gathered from his talk; though when he was in company with a single friend, he would discuss a subject with genuine fairness: but he was too conscientious to make errour permanent and pernicious, by deliberately writing it; and, in all his numerous works, he earnestly inculcated what appeared to him to be the truth; his piety being constant, and the ruling principle of all his conduct."



Dennis Mangan said...

Rick: Boswell's "Life" is indeed one of the greatest things in literature. Looks like you must have read the Oxford edition, which from my copy I see has 1402 pages, not including the index.

I can't add much, except that Johnson is one of the great characters in literature too, thanks to Boswell. As my brother once said, if after finishing Boswell, you don't love Johnson the man, you don't have any humanity. He's just about the only person from so long ago that today actually has fans.

That being said, I believe that I've outdone you in the reading of long books sweepstakes. Besides Boswell, there's Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy at 1382 pages including notes, which is well worth the effort, though half the time you wonder where Burton is going with it, and he never really gets anywhere. But for lovers of language, it doesn't get much better than Burton.

Schopenhauer's The World As Will and Representation is another, at around 1300 pages or so, well worth the journey.

Last, there's Frederick Copleston, S.J., and his 10 volume A History of Philosophy of Lord knows how many pages. A bit dry at times, and with a Catholic bias lightly-applied, when you get through it you'll have a thorough grounding in philosophy.

Jaz said...

Well, I've read War and Peace, Les Miserables, and The Karamazov Brothers, all unabridged.

zazie said...

After reading the story of that gentlemen enjoyingthe wilderness with his Indian wife, I could not resist....I had to check Johnson's opinion of Rousseau...Thanks for reminding me of a very good moment of my life as a student ; my French literature (?) teacher loved Rousseau, and obviously thought me too young to contradict her ; I brought Johnson's words (translated) into the dispute, asking her whether he was old enough for her ; I was nearly turned out of the school for my insolence, but at seventeen you don't care, you are just happy to have scored a point! And what a victory : the headmistress said I was right!

Rick Darby said...


Yes, it was the O.U.P edition. And in addition to the 1,402 pp., there was an introduction of about 20 pages, which I didn't count because it was numbered in Roman numerals.

I've heard of Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, of course. I gather most people have the same reaction as you, that it goes all over the place without really adding up to much, but is fascinating anyway.

Jaz, I commend your diligence and devotion to literary classics. Once I started Anna Karenina and found it intermittently impressive, but after 200 pages, realizing there were another 600 or something to go, I decided I'd allow myself to be shallow and put it aside.

Zazie, I remember Johnson made stinging comments about Rousseau, as he did about "infidels" like David Hume and (unfairly, I think) Voltaire. I'll have to look in the index of the Life of Johnson to see his exact words concerning Rousseau.

Jaz said...

If it sounded like I was boasting, I was, it's not often I get the chance to bring up my exploits in the literary death marches.

After a while in War and Peace, I determined that I was going to finish it just so I could brag about it.

Actually, the story is pretty good. Tolstoy's many long historical digressions are the killer parts. He's very interested in debunking Napoleon's greatness and praising the Russian peasantry.

Les Miserables is a great story, too, but you have to suffer Hugo's many long, arcane historical digressions/backgrounding, or preaching about the glories of Revolution.