Category Archives: James Boswell

Words Wrought From Melancholia

Are you familiar with melancholia? Is she your dearest friend, who keeps you company through the wee hours of the night or early morning, before the sun has yet risen, and the air is silent and cold–when the entire world, or your small part of it, holds its chill breath before it restarts its mechanistic daily processes? That’s all right, then. You’re in good company with my dear friends from the 18th C, those men and women with whom I idly chat at my chilling early-morning tea parties. Melancholy’s in the pot, and the ghosts and I drink it together.

Samuel Johnson was a classic melancholic, who sighed deeply and claimed, “I write therefore I am alive.” He wrote. He did. And so do I. Together, we make good company. Adam Sisman, a historical biographer, makes my good friend out to be a rock star, however: “His powerful personality, his manifest integrity, his distinctive style, his penetrating intellect, his original ideas, his prodigious learning, his extraordinary versatility, and his imposing figure combined to make him a dominant literary presence” (21). Great! What was in that tea again, the pot Johnson and I were sharing? At least I choose my tea-friends wisely.

By the way, it’s important to note that the above quote can be found in Boswell’s Presumptuous Task: The Making of the Life of Dr. Johnson. Essentially, Sisman waxed all poetic about Johnson in his biography of James Boswell, which is extraordinary that a biographer such as Adam Sisman is able to fill in these details 250 years after Johnson lived. The fact that Sisman wrote such a detailed and personal biography is telling; what is even more telling is that Sisman wrote a biography of a biographer who, in his turn, wrote a biography of a biographer. Fill my cup again, won’t you? I’m feeling a little jittery.

Samuel Johnson advised his friend Mr. Boswell, the Scotsman who really couldn’t help being Scottish, thank you Mr. Johnson, to keep a detailed journal of his life. Due to Boswell’s own intensive melancholic state, he followed Johnson’s advice to the letter, scratching out on paper what no one should have ever known about his life and the lives of others, until, of course, those scratchings were published, thereby giving want-to-know to delicate ladies who otherwise conduct proper, if not delusional, tea parties in the dark hours of dawn. These detailed writings of Boswell, scandalous or not, aided him when he listened far too closely to Johnson’s many opinions, one of which was that biographies should be personal rather than formal. Biographies of famous people ought to only be written by those who had shared a table with the famed person. This personal touch would avoid a distanced chronology of events, instead engaging the reader with the minutia of daily life.

I’m so grateful that Boswell took Johnson’s words to heart–deeply–especially considering their first meeting, which went about like this: “I do indeed come from Scotland,” said Boswell, “but I cannot help it.” Johnson replied, “That, Sir, I find, is what a very great many of your countrymen cannot help” (22). Johnson, to put it mildly, wasn’t altogether fond of the Scots. And, yet, it was a Scotsman who wrote Johnson’s biography. Johnson, ironically, was a biographer, himself, one who didn’t take his own advice in sharing a meal with the men he wrote about–most likely because he wasn’t quite as delusional as I am, believing dead people to still live in some sense of the word. It was a little too late for him to drop his card by, say, Milton’s house, in hopes of gaining an invite to supper. But Johnson probably wouldn’t have liked Milton much, anyway. Isn’t it far better to remain detached, in order not to know? That’s, after all, why I drink tea with ghosts.

“I write therefore I am alive,” Johnson said. Are you so sure about that? It seems I know you, your dress and habits and manners of speech, because another man wrote to expel his own gloom, to rid himself of the destruction wrought by deep thought and philosophy in the scaffolding of his mind. I know you, Mr. Johnson, because of another man’s melancholy. Huh. I wonder what that says about melancholy. Maybe it would be better to take my teapot and brew it in the land of the living, where I might find true respite by jotting down details of this time and place. Or maybe I should just go to bed.

All quotes taken from Adam Sisman’s Boswell’s Presumptuous Task: The Making of the Life of Dr. Johnson (Farrar, Straus and Giroux New York, 2000)


A Blazing New World

There’s nothing that says “culture” like Facebook. Facebook is the epitome of twenty-first century American aesthetic. It’s a place where we can manufacture ourselves by updates: honest, exaggerated, or false. We are our Facebook creations. Accept this universal truth.

I suspect my profile is something akin to the chaos theory, but with a pessimistic twist on it of predictable results. No amount of force I exert changes these expected results. I simply push more objects into motion. Because the results of the chaos are predictable, order does inhabit my chaos theory, even if the order is a simple lack of irony. The expected will occur. That is order. That is good. That is ironic.

On a serious note, an old college friend—we’ll call her Camilla—typed out a frantic list of all the things she had to do this week, which included, but was not limited to a dance performance plus rehearsals, reading through hundreds of essays, and a load  of scholarly studying on obscure historical subjects. I immediately commented, “Let’s switch schedules.”

Camilla’s update reminded me of a truth not so universal, but still harsh. My schedule wasn’t so different from hers on the outside, but was diametrically opposed on the inside. Hers was a reflection of her personal dreams and goals, while mine mirrored a loss of myself–dance performances for my daughters–essays I read as a homeschool mom. Any other studying I might engage in is done surreptitiously and applied haphazardly to my sense of well-being, as if tacked on to mask my blank wall with ornaments and images. Recently, for example, I hung an avant-garde canvas covered in topological mixing (see above) and called it “Self Confidence”.

I sneaked out today to avoid staring at my blank wall, as well as my Facebook page. I tucked my computer inside its bag and left my house to haunt the corridors of the local college library. My plan was a pretense, of course. It was a pretense to scholarly achievement where none existed, and this pretense included having to request a guest ID to enter the scholarly databases. Then, after coming up blank yet again with my search terms, I typed utter nonsense in the parameters, such as “James Boswell, you’re a dirty old goat, and you’re no longer my favorite animus.” Then the library shunted me, the fake scholar, from their system. I sat at the table and felt sorry for myself, just as Boswell might have done nearly 300 years ago. I don’t know how anyone can beg a question, or conversely how a question can beg, but the circumstances implored, “Why is a dead man part of your psyche, anyway?”

I looked up blearily from my computer screen, and I saw him—not James Boswell, but a man whose presence in the library chilled me to the deepest place of my heart. I won’t name names, but ten years ago, we occasionally allowed this man to sleep on our floor because he was homeless and had been for years. He still is.

And he, too, haunts the libraries in town. With his 160 IQ (I made that number up), he searches for truth and gathers knowledge and works it all into loony 500 page dissertations on alien spacecraft technology. Really, nobody with an IQ of less than 160 could entertain the kind of technology he writes of—it wouldn’t occur to somebody with less intelligence, better social acumen, and a few more doses of sanity antidote.

Back then, when I was still in my twenties, and he in his forties or fifties, I knew we were alike. I sensed it and, therefore, wasn’t put off by him as another young person might have been. Unfortunately, my acceptance of him gave him the wrong impression, which ended in general embarrassment for all parties. This also meant he no longer felt welcome to sleep on our floor and moved his sleeping bag back into his van. To this day, he spends his nights by the river. And by day, he haunts the corridors of the libraries, searching for more information, for that crucial understanding of life, the universe, and everything that will allow him to reenter the world of men.

I saw my sad face reflected in his trifocals today. No, he wouldn’t look back at me. He quickly lowered his head to the large volume he held in his hands. But that didn’t matter because I witnessed in him what I needed to apprehend. I saw with blazing clarity what happens to fake scholars who wait and wait for understanding before they reenter the world. I know what you’re thinking (not really). I know that exiting the real world worked for Isaac Newton. Whenever he felt threatened by life, he retreated, and through his retreats he wrote his masterwork. But most men aren’t Newton. And aside from that, Newton wasn’t a fake. Newton was the real deal, a genius of the first order.

Now it’s time for me to acknowledge this most universal of truths and reenter the world. I’m also considering a change to my Facebook profile.


Pleased With His Ingenuous, Open Way

Here is one of my favorite pieces of James Boswell’s London Journal 1762-1763: 

I then told my history to Mr. Johnson, which he listened to with attention. I told him how I was a very strict Christian, and was turned from that to infidelity. But that now I had got back to a very agreeable way of thinking. That I believed the Christian religion; though I might not be clear in many particulars. He was very much pleased with my ingenuous open way, and he cried, “Give me your hand. I have taken a liking to you.” He then confirmed me in my belief by showing the force of testimony, and how little we could know of final causes; so that the objections of why was it so? or why was it not so? can avail little; and that for his part he thought all Christians, whether Papists or Protestants, agreed in the essential articles, and their differences were trivial, or were rather political than religious.

One of the most famous parts of this journal, or of any of Boswell’s journals, is his initial meeting with Samuel Johnson, who would become a great friend and mentor to Boswell. This particular journal also happens to be the one that is most widely available. Many of his more than thirty years worth of diaries are available only if you hunt for them, or are willing to pay a high price (Abe Books is the place for used volumes no longer in print). I’m slowly, but surely collecting all of Boswell’s writings (B&N has several free e-texts, happily, though only of his travel journals and the Life of Johnson).

What fascinates me about this exchange with Samuel Johnson is the way Boswell reveals his heart for Christianity, as well as his willingness to question his faith. In his journal at large, he also reveals his failure to adhere to any moral convictions. Boswell regularly falls into fits of melancholy, picks up prostitutes in back alleys, and then ends his weeks of despondency and hedonism by sitting in church pews or having meals with the stalwart Johnson.

My obsession with James Boswell is difficult to explain, but it has something to do with his paradoxes, which get at the heart of the human condition. Boswell defines himself as an outsider, even while supping with numerous friends and literary acquaintances. Boswell tells the truth about himself, even when the truth is repulsive. But mostly, I appreciate him because he’s the embodiment of the Bible verse, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41). For that, Johnson, who was no less human than Boswell, but was more mature, was a stable influence in Boswell’s intellectual world.

And–as an image of Johnson’s maturity–I’d like to highlight this sentiment of his: for his part he thought all Christians, whether Papists or Protestants, agreed in the essential articles, and their differences were trivial, or were rather political than religious. Thank you, Mr. Johnson. I find the unity movement of Christianity to be a tiresome affair–a tiresome, political affair. I’m frustrated when those involved in this movement highlight the differences between denominations and desire to bring all Christians together under one banner. The differences, according to Johnson, are trivial. They’re trivial enough that the gospel continues to go forth, despite the lack of unity.

As far as Boswell’s soul, I can’t make any claims about it. I can only read his words and surmise and feel wretchedly bad at his depravity, his honesty, and his continuous attempts at bravado, despite his overarching humility and lack of confidence.


Boswell Research: His Letter to Hume–Grovelling Apology or All In Jest?

James Boswell and his young prankster friends published a derogatory critique of the playwright David Malloch’s Elvira (premiered in 1763), in which they added words spoken in a private conversation between Boswell and David Hume. According to Boswell and his friends, George Dempster and Andrew Erskine, Hume accused Malloch of being “destitute of the pathetic”. The term pathetic, used in this way, would hearken back to its original meaning–that is, able to arouse compassion. This would have been a devastating critique to an author of tragedies, and not one that Hume would have wanted published if he wished to remain friends with Malloch. Hume, in fact, sent a letter to Boswell expressing his irritation. Boswell returned the favor with a letter of apology to Hume, but I’m afraid the tone comes across as yet another joke. You be the judge:

(This is from Boswell’s London Journal 1762-1763, dated Tuesday 1 March.)

At night I wrote to David Hume as follows:

My Dear Sir,–The heavy charge which you have given us demands a a reply of proportionate weight of mettle. We are equally surprised and afflicted at your imagining that we meant you when we mentioned David Hume, Esq. To be sure, Sir, you are the David Hume, Esq., but you are not the sole one. He whose authority we have made bold to quote is a bookseller at Glasgow, who from his employment must be supposed to be well known in the world of letters. He is a man of very good understanding and more genius than most of his brethren, but his contempt for Mr. Malloch’s abilities as a tragic poet almost exceed belief. He will not so much as allow his works to stand in his shop, and he constantly affirms that he is destitute of the Pathetic.

Now, Sir, we shall suppose that we really meant you; and in that case we are ready to make oath either before Sir John Fielding or Mr. Saunders Welch (justices of the peace) that we heard you utter that very expression. As to the consequences of this affair: we are very sorry that you live in good terms with Mr. Malloch, and if we can make a quarrel between you, it will give us infinite pleasure. We shall glory in being the instruments of dissolving so heterogeneous an alliance; of separating the mild from the irascible, and the divine from the bestial.

We know very well how sore every author is when sharply touched in his works. We are pleased with giving acute pain to Mr. Malloch. We have vast satisfaction in making him smart by the rod of criticism, as much as many a tender bum has smarted by his barbarous birch when he was janitor of the High School at Edinburgh.

As to the giving you satisfaction for the offence, you may receive full gratification by reading the Reviews on our performance. You will there find us held forth both as fools and as knaves; and if you will give us any other abusive appellations, we shall most submissively acquiesce. I hope this affair is now perfectly settled. I insist upon your writing to me in your usual humane style, and I assure you most sincerely that I am, my dear Sir, your most obedient humble servant*,

Boswell & Co.

*In Hume’s letter, the text of which can also be found in Boswell’s journal, he ended with “I am not, Sir, your most obedient and most humble servant”.

p.s. Image is of David Hume, the philosopher who received Boswell’s letter.

p.p.s. More on these matters can be found in Boswell’s London Journal 1762-1763, published by McGraw-Hill Book Company: 1950. Here is also a great site resource: James Boswell Info.


Nighty Supper Special: Nightgown of the Sullen Moon

Yesterday was one of those days. Maybe you don’t know about those. It wasn’t the type where everything goes wrong–it was the type that doesn’t seem to exist, at least not for me. I’m not connected to it–I might, due to a glitch in my atomic make-up, not exist. My spin might be wrong, my magnetic moment lacking. On days like these, I accomplish little and, if I try, my attempts are worthless. TMBG captured this feeling in their song Piece of Dirt, and because of that, I know I’m not the only person who feels this way: I find myself haunted by a spooky man named me. I wish that I could jump out of my skin.

Despite my disconnect, I took my first afternoon as an independent scholar at the local college library. My research, however, didn’t go very well. First of all, it was limited to a two-hour slot because I’m not officially a student or teacher. So, not only was I an independent scholar, but a temporary one, as well. And I didn’t feel like a scholar of any kind due to my lack of search term results on JSTOR. But that’s the way research goes; I already know this. James Boswell, my research subject, eluded me. I have an important quantum physics question: If my mind is not dwelling in my physical body, why can’t it time travel to 18th C England where I might meet Boswell at a coffeehouse? Then I could be done with JSTOR.

Before my two hours passed, I remembered I had to meet my husband at—to sign a plethora of paperwork. If affirming one’s existence by signatures doesn’t work, I don’t know what will. But who is that person with the bad handwriting, I ask? Who is she? I have no idea. After we were done, we collapsed across the street at the coffee shop over doppios. I wanted to continue with my failed research project, but my husband wanted to discuss my animus. I don’t know what he looks like, I admitted to him–he tends to wear many faces. I only know that, albeit a figment of my subconscious, he’s connected to his (non)physical form in a way I’ll never be.

At that point, I dashed off a quick blog post, only to have it disappear into my nether world of nonexistence. Either that, or the internet sucks at the coffee shop. Frustrated, I stared at my empty espresso cup before glancing at the wall-mounted menu for help. I needed something to tether me to earth. That’s when I noticed the coffeehouse was advertising a Nighty Supper Special. For some reason, imagining the young male baristas in Rainbow Brite nightgowns further distanced me from the day and the moment. And please don’t ask me what kind of nightgown my animus wears; he doesn’t wear one. Trust me.

I’m sure you can guess the rest: my husband and I split from that establishment. Boswell may have loved such a coffeehouse, but we weren’t so sure. Something about it being our eighteenth wedding anniversary cropped up in the conversation, and we ran home to care for our children before going out once again for a dinner date. It turned out to be open mic night at the plaza restaurant and, while listening to musicians sing and play instruments, I bemoaned my lack of an accordion.

“Someday,” I wistfully breathed, “you’ll have to buy me an accordion, Darling.”

He touched his magic phone. Yes, he has one of those. I think it might be called a smart phone, but let’s not wrangle over details. “Done,” he said. He held up his phone and showed me a picture of a Hohner diatonic.

I might have banged my head against the wall a few times to convince myself I was actually in that restaurant, actually drinking a glass of real wine, actually looking at an accordion on my husband’s phone face that would arrive via mail at my doorstep in a few weeks.

Although I firmly believe love tethers me back to earth, I didn’t feel back in my body again until later that night. This morning, I checked to make certain the previous night wasn’t an illusion propagated by a cracked mental state. My husband’s Facebook comment cemented its reality: “Well, I did promise to love and Hohner you till death do us part and I take my vows very seriously.” Yes, he’s that kind of husband. That kind.