Roving thoughts and provocations

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A Lecture on Johnson and Boswell

Thomas Rowlandson: Walking up the High Street, 1786

Dr. Johnson was already fifty years old. He had published his dictionary, for which he was paid 1,500 pounds sterling—which became 1,600 when his publishers decided to give him one hundred more—when he finished. He was slowing down. He then published his edition of Shakespeare, which he finished only because his publishers had received payments from subscribers, so it had to be done. Otherwise, Dr. Johnson spent his time engaged in conversation.

….The truth is, in spite of his numerous accomplishments, he had a natural tendency toward idleness. He preferred to talk rather than write. So, he worked only on that edition of Shakespeare, which was one of his last works, for he received complaints, and satirical responses, and this made him decide to finish the work, because the subscribers had already paid.

Johnson had a peculiar temperament. For a time he was extremely interested in the subject of ghosts. He was so interested in them that he spent several nights in an abandoned house to see if he could meet one. Apparently, he didn’t. There’s a famous passage by the Scottish writer, Thomas Carlyle, I think it is in his Sartor Resartus—which means “The Tailor Retailored,” or “The Mended Tailor,” and we’ll soon see why—in which he talks about Johnson, saying that Johnson wanted to see a ghost. And Carlyle wonders: “What is a ghost? A ghost is a spirit that has taken corporal form and appears for a while among men.” Then Carlyle adds, “How could Johnson not have thought of this when faced with the spectacle of the human multitudes he loved so much in the streets of London, for if a ghost were a spirit that has taken a corporal form for a brief interval, why did it not occur to him that the London multitudes were ghosts, that he himself was a ghost? What is each man but a spirit that has taken corporal form briefly and then disappears? What are men if not ghosts?”

….Johnson was in a bookstore when he met a young man named James Boswell. This young man was born in Edinburgh in 1740 and died in the year 1795. He was the son of a judge. In Scotland, judges were given the title of Lord and could choose the place they wanted to be lord of. Boswell’s father had a small castle that was in ruins. Scotland is full of castles in ruins, poor castles in the Highlands of Scotland, and as opposed to the castles of the Rhine, which suggest an opulent life with small but more or less lavish courts, these don’t, they give the impression of a life of battle, of difficult battles against the English. The castle was called Auchinleck. Boswell’s father, then, was Lord Auchinleck and so was his son. But this wasn’t, let us say, a native title, from birth, but rather a judicial title. Now, even though Boswell showed an interest in letters, his parents wanted him to go into law. He studied in Edinburgh and then for more than two years at Utretcht University in Holland. This was customary at that time: to study at several universities, in the British Isles and on the continent.

It could be said that Boswell had a premonition of his destiny. Like Milton knew that he would be a poet before he had written a single line, Boswell always felt he would be the biographer of a great man of his era. So he visited Voltaire; he tried to approach the great men of his time. He visited Voltaire in Berne, in Switzerland, and he made friends with Jean-Jacques Rousseau—they were friends for only fifteen or twenty days, because Rousseau was a very ill-tempered man—and then he became friends with an Italian general, Paoli, from Corsica. And when he returned to England, he wrote a book about Corsica, and at a party given in Stratford-upon-Avon to celebrate the birth of Shakespeare, he showed up dressed as a Corsican villager. So that people would recognize him as the author of the book about Corsica, he carried a sign on his hat, on which he had written “Corsica’s Boswell,” and we know this because of his own testimony and that of his contemporaries.

There is something very strange about Boswell, something that has been interpreted in two different ways. I’m going to look at the two extreme views: the one of the English essayist and historian Macaulay, who wrote around the middle of the nineteenth century, and that of Bernard Shaw, written, I believe, around 1915, or something like that. Then there is a whole range of judgments between those two. Macaulay says that the preeminence of Homer as an epic poet, of Shakespeare as a dramatic poet, of Demosthenes as an orator, and of Cervantes as a novelist is no less indisputable than the preeminence of Boswell as a biographer. And then he says that all those eminent names owed their preeminence to their talent and brilliance, and that the odd thing about Boswell is that he owes his preeminence as a biographer to his foolishness, his inconsistency, his vanity, and his imbecility.

He then recounts a series of instances in which Boswell appears as a ridiculous character. He says that if these things that happened to Boswell had happened to anybody else, that person would have wanted the earth to swallow him up. Boswell, however, dedicated himself to publicizing them. For example, there’s the scorn shown to him by an English duchess, and the fact that members of the club he managed to join thought there could not be a person less intelligent than Boswell. But Macaulay forgets that we owe the narration of almost all those facts to Boswell himself. Now… in the case of a short composition a fool can utter a brilliant sentence but it seems quite rare for a fool to be able to write an admirable biography of seven or eight hundred pages in spite of being a fool or, according to Macaulay, because he was a fool.

Now, let us take a look at the opposite opinion, that of Bernard Shaw. Bernard Shaw, in one of his long and incisive prologues, says that he is the heir to an apostolic succession of dramatists, that this succession comes from the Greek tragedians—from Aeschylus, Sophocles, through Euripides—and then passes through Shakespeare, through Marlowe. He says that he is not, in fact, better than Shakespeare, that if he had lived in Shakespeare’s century he would not have written works better than Hamlet or Macbeth; but now he can, for he cannot stand Shakespeare, because he has read authors who are better than him. Before, he mentioned other dramatists, names that are somewhat surprising for such a list. He says we have the four Evangelists, those four great dramatists who created the character Christ. Before, we had Plato, who created the character Socrates.

Then we have Boswell, who created the character Johnson. “And now, we have me, who has created so many characters it is not worth listing them, the list would be almost infinite as well as being well known.” “Finally,” he says, “I am heir to the apostolic succession that begins with Aeschylus and ends in me and that undoubtedly will continue.” So here we have these two extreme opinions: one, that Boswell was an idiot who had the good fortune to meet Johnson and write his biography—that’s Macaulay’s—and the other, the opposite, of Bernard Shaw, who says that Johnson was, among his other literary merits, a dramatic character created by Boswell.

….So, now we will return to the relationship between Boswell and Johnson. Johnson was a famous man, a dictator in the world of English letters (at the same time he was a man who suffered from loneliness, as do many famous men). Boswell was a young man, in his twenties. Johnson was from a humble background; his father was a bookseller in a small town in Staffordshire. And the other was a young aristocrat. In other words, it is well known that men of a certain age are rejuvenated by the company of the young. Johnson was, moreover, an extremely unkempt person: he paid no attention to what he wore; he had a gluttonous appetite. When he ate, the veins on his forehead swelled, he emitted all kinds of grunts, and he didn’t respond if somebody asked him a question; he pushed away—like so, with his hands—a woman who asked him something, and grunted at the same time, or he’d start praying right in the middle of a meeting. But he knew that everything would be tolerated because he was an important figure. In spite of all this, Boswell became friends with him. Boswell did not contradict him; he listened to his opinions with reverence.

It is true that at times Boswell annoyed him with questions that were difficult to answer. He asked him, for example—just to know what Dr. Johnson would answer—“What would you do if you were locked in a tower with a newborn baby?” Of course, Johnson answered, “I have no intention of answering such an inept question.” And Boswell jotted down this answer, went to his house, and wrote it up. But after two or three months of friendship, Boswell decided to go to Holland to continue his legal studies, and Johnson, who was very attached to London … Johnson said, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.” Johnson accompanied Boswell to the boat. I think it is many miles south of London. That is, he diligently tolerated the long and—at the time—difficult trip, and Boswell says he stood at the port watching the boat sail away, waving goodbye. They wouldn’t see each other for two or three years. Then, after his failure with Voltaire, his failure with Rousseau, his success with Paoli—which might not have been difficult because Paoli was not a very important person—Boswell decided to dedicate himself to being Johnson’s biographer.

Boswell conceived of the idea of an extensive biography, one that included his conversations with Johnson, whom he saw several times a week, sometimes more. The Life of Samuel Johnson, by Boswell, has often been compared to Conversations of Goethe, by Eckermann, a book that in my opinion is in no way comparable, even though it was praised by Nietzsche as the best book ever written in German. Because Eckermann was a man of limited intelligence who greatly revered Goethe, who spoke with him ex cathedra. Eckermann very rarely dared to contradict Goethe. Then he’d go home and write it all down. The book has something of catechism about it. In other words: Eckermann asks, Goethe answers, the first writes down what Goethe has said…. Eckermann almost doesn’t exist except as a kind of machine that records Goethe’s words. We know nothing about Eckermann, nothing about his character—he undoubtedly had one, but this cannot be deduced from the book, cannot be inferred from it.

On the other hand, what Boswell planned, or in any case what he carried out, was completely different: to make Johnson’s biography a drama, with several characters. There is [Sir Joshua] Reynolds, there is [Oliver] Goldsmith, sometimes the members of the circle, or how would we call it, the salon, of which Johnson was the leader. And they appear and behave like the characters in a play. Indeed, each has his own personality—above all, Dr. Johnson, who is presented sometimes as ridiculous but always as lovable. This is what happens with Cervantes’s character, Don Quixote, especially in the second part, when the author has learned to know his character and has forgotten his initial goal of parodying novels of chivalry. This is true, because the more writers develop their characters, the better they get to know them. So, that’s how we have a character who is sometimes ridiculous, but who can be serious and have profound thoughts, and above all is one of the most beloved characters in all of history. And we can say “of history” because Don Quixote is more real to us than Cervantes himself, as Unamuno and others have maintained. …. And at the end, Don Quixote is a slightly ridiculous character, but he is also a gentleman worthy of our respect, and sometimes our pity, but he is always lovable. And this is the same sensation we get from the image of Dr. Johnson, given to us by Boswell, with his grotesque appearance, his long arms, his slovenly appearance. But he is lovable.

….Now, in the same way that we have seen how Johnson is similar to Don Quixote, we have to think that just as Sancho is the companion Quixote sometimes treats badly, we see Boswell in that same relation to Dr. Johnson: a sometimes stupid and loyal companion. There are characters whose role is to bring out the hero’s personality. In other words, often authors need a character who serves as a framework for and a contrast to the deeds of his hero. This is Sancho, and that character in Boswell’s work is Boswell himself. That is, Boswell appears as a despicable character. But it seems impossible to me that Boswell didn’t realize this. And this shows that Boswell positioned himself in contrast to Johnson. The fact that Boswell himself tells anecdotes in which he appears ridiculous makes him not seem ridiculous at all, for if he wrote them down, he did it because he saw that the purpose of the anecdote was to make Johnson stand out.

There is a Hindu school of philosophy that says that we are not the actors in our lives, but rather the spectators, and this is illustrated using the metaphor of a dancer. These days, maybe it would be better to say an actor. A spectator sees a dancer or an actor, or, if you prefer, reads a novel, and ends up identifying with one of the characters who is there in front of him. This is what those Hindu thinkers before the fifth century said. And the same thing happens with us. I, for example, was born the same day as Jorge Luis Borges, exactly the same day. I have seen him be ridiculous in some situations, pathetic in others. And, as I have always had him in front of me, I have ended up identifying with him. According to this theory, in other words, the I would be double: there is a profound I, and this I is identified with—though separate from—the other. Now, I don’t know what experiences you might have had, but sometimes this happens to me: usually at two particular kinds of moments—at moments when something very good has happened, and, above all, at moments when something very bad has happened to me. And for a few seconds, I have felt: “But, what do I care about all this? It is as if all of this is happening to somebody else.” That is, I have felt that there is something deep down inside me that remains separate.

And this, surely, is what Shakespeare also felt, because in one of his comedies there is a soldier, a cowardly soldier, the Miles Gloriosus of the Latin comedy. The man is a show-off, he makes people believe that he has acted bravely, and they promote him and he becomes a captain. Then they discover his trick, and in front of the entire troop they pull off his medals; they humiliate him. And then he is left alone and says: “Captain I’ll be no more; / But I will eat and drink, and sleep as soft / As captain shall: simply the thing I am / Shall make me live.” “No seré capitán.” He says simply, “the thing I am shall make me live.” That is, he feels that above and beyond the circumstances, beyond his cowardice, his humiliation, he is something else, a kind of strength we all have within us, what Spinoza called “God,” what Schopenhauer called “will,” what Bernard Shaw called “life force,” and Bergson called “vital impulse.” I think this is also what was going on with Boswell.

Perhaps Boswell simply felt it as an aesthetic necessity that to better showcase Johnson, there should be a very different character alongside him. Something like in the novels of Conan Doyle: the mediocre Dr. Watson makes the brilliant Sherlock Holmes stand out even more. And Boswell gives himself the role of the ridiculous one, and he maintains it throughout the entire book. Yet, we feel a sincere friendship between the two in the same way we feel it when we read Conan Doyle’s novels. It is natural, as I have said, that this would be so; for Johnson was a famous man and alone, and of course he liked to feel by his side the friendship of a much younger man, who so obviously admired him.

There is another problem that comes up here, I don’t remember if I have already mentioned it, and this is what led Johnson to devote his last years almost exclusively to conversation. Johnson almost stopped writing, besides the edition of Shakespeare, which he had to do because the publishers were demanding it. Now, this can be explained in a certain way. It can be explained because Johnson knew he liked to converse, and he knew that the gems of his conversation would be recorded by Boswell. At the same time, if it appears that Boswell had shown Johnson the manuscript, then the work would have lost a lot. We have to accept the fact, true or false, that Johnson was unaware of what it contained. But this would explain Johnson’s silence, the fact that Johnson knew that what he said would not be lost. Now, [Joseph] Wood Krutch, an American critic, has wondered if Boswell’s book reproduces Johnson’s conversations exactly, and he reaches the conclusion, in a very believable way, that Boswell does not reproduce Johnson’s conversation as a stenographer would have done, or a recording, or anything like that, rather that he produces the effect of Johnson’s conversation. In other words, it is very possible that Johnson was not always as epigrammatic nor as ingenious as he is presented in the work, though undoubtedly, after meetings at his club, his interlocutors retain memories much like that. There are sentences, in any case, that seem to be coined by Johnson.

Somebody said to Johnson that he could not imagine a more miserable life than a sailor’s, that to see a warship, to see the sailors crowded together, sometimes whipped, was to see the nadir, the lowest depths of the human condition. And Johnson answered, “The profession of sailors and soldiers has the dignity of danger. All men feel ashamed at not having been at sea or in battle.” This is in tune with the courage we feel in Dr. Johnson.


Excerpted from “Class 10: Samuel Johnson as Seen by Boswell. The Art of Biography. Johnson and His Critics. Monday, November 7, 1966,” in Professor Borges: A Course on English Literature, a compilation of twenty-five lectures Borges gave in 1966 that has been translated into English for the first time by Katherine Silver. It will be published by New Directions on July 31.

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