Boswell's pleasures, the pleasures of Boswell

  • Published on

  • View

  • Download

Embed Size (px)


  • Boswells pleasures, the pleasures of Boswell


    Man is. in general. made up of contradictory qualities: and these will ever shew themselves in strange succession, where a consistency in appearance at least. if not in reality, has not been attained by long habits of philosophical discipline. In proportion to the native vigour of the mind. the contradictory qualities will be the more prominent

    In Boswells celebrated summation of the character of Johnson, the autobio- graphical confessions of the writing self are concealed, as perhaps they always must be. within the prose of the judicious biographer: here is a characteristic compound of personal apologia. self-advertisement, and admission of defeat. embodying the very contradictory qualities it describes. Boswells Journals are the long record of his unsuccessful struggle to subject the vagaries of his own character to a long habit of philosophical discipline, to impose unity and regularity on the wayward motions of his mind.

    In an era of Enlightenment, the project of self-improvement did not seem a priori either an impossible or an impious one; as a young man. Boswell notes optatively,

    I have begun to acquire a composed genteel character very different from a rattling uncultivated one which for some time past I have been fond or. I have discovered that we may be in some degree whatever character we choose. Besides, practice forms a man to anything2

    In fact, as we know. it is the extent to which this is not true that galvanises Boswells journals. at once driving them forward with plans for self-improvement and keeping them locked in the oscillatory momentum of his emotional pendu- lum. It is one of the things we read Boswell for, the naked candour with which his writing identifies, subscribes to. and repeatedly fails to enact, this power of choice and enlightened self-interest over behaviour. Dennis Porter has recently suggested that the pleasure in reading the journals lies in just this continuing struggle between his early moral education and his desire, between an alternating indulgence and abstinence that generate a series of self-reproaches and self- recriminations. This seems an accurate description of what goes on in the

    I . Boswells Life of lohnson. ed. G . U. Hill. revised and enlarged by I,. F. Powell. (7 vols (Oxford

    2 . Boswdls London journal ~ 7 6 2 - 1 7 6 3 . ed. Frederick A. Pottle (London 195ol. p.47 (Sunday 2 i

    3 . Haunted journegs: desire and traris~p~siori i r i Furopmn frnvrl writing (Princeton. New Jersey

    ryj4-1y64). iv.425.

    November I 762). Subsequent rerei-ences 10 this volume are identified as Lj in the text.

    1991). P . 3 8 .


    writing, but I find the logic of Porters conclusion troubling. A clinical interest in this spectacle might be appropriate, or perhaps a voyeuristic or even a sadistic one - but to what extent can we properly speak of a readerly pleasure in this melancholy record of a lifetimes desire for self-improvement thwarted by lifelong addiction to harmful excess! There are of course many straightforward pleasures in reading Boswell; these, for the moment, I want to take for granted, to focus instead on the least edifying pleasures of Boswell, which he strives to expunge from the consistent picture of a young fellow eagerly pushing through life (LJ , p. 206): the melancholy cycle of his repeated lapses into drunkenness and verbal and sexual incontinence, and the associated self-disgust and plans for reformation and future self-control. What emerges, I believe, is that these impermissible pleasures - the things which the journals attempt to write out of the existence of the composed character - do have a quite complex relationship with the pleasures of Boswells writing for the reader, but at the level of structure and style rather than of spectacle.

    A composed character is one in which order, method and choice have overruled the unruly; it is also, though. an aesthetically motivated idealisation rather than a reality, a notion of the self created for the page and for the reader. Like the eighteenth-century aesthetic theories with which Boswell was familiar, it stressed regularity, fitness and uniformity, excluding discordant features in favour of a pleasing harmony.4 The Inviolable plan Boswell wrote out to subdue the terrible bout of melancholy he suffered on arrival in Utrecht proceeds on this principle:

    Always try to attain tranquillity. Every time that you gain a n advantage over bad affections, youll be stronger. Write out Plan fully today for certain, and write obligation to Father with answers to all objections, and make him keep you to it [...I Learn retenue. Pray do. Dont forget in Plan: when once youre fairly at business, youll go on. / [...I Read your Plan every morning regularly at breakfast, and when you travel, carry it in trunk. Get commonplace book [...I The more and oftener the restraints, the better. Be steady.[ ...I

    After this let your mems give first a little sketch of the former day. Mark what was right and what wrong, and then give directions for the following day.[ ...I

    What may be innocent to others is a fault to you till you attain more command of yourself. Temperance is very necessary for you. so never indulge your appetites without restraint.7

    Learn retenue: hold yourself back. Get commonplace book: write yourself

    4. See, for example, Jonathan Richardson. A n essay on the theorg of painting. 2nd edn (London i p s ) : Francis Hutcheson. A n inyuirg into the originrils qf our idens of henutg and virtu(,. 3rd edn (London 17.59): and Eighteeiifh-century criticul c ~ s n y s . ed. S. Elledge. 2 vols (New York 1 9 6 1 ) .

    5 . Boswell in Hollaiid 1763-1764, ed. Frederick A. Pottle (New York/London 1952) . p.47. 49. .390. In addition. it seems clear that the routines Boswell subjected himself to during his Continental sojourn ~ the verse composition, the daily French themes. the strenuous programme of correspon- dence and journal-writing - made him feel that he was carrying out his Fathers instructions in completing his education and preparing himself Tor life. The projected dictionary of Scottish words which he began in Utrecht may have been a further manifestation of this rather desperate impulse to order. Subsequent references to this volume are identified in the text as BH.

  • Bosiwlls plrwsures. the pleasures of Boswell T 9

    into order. l h e precepts of the Plan. designed to stop the self from rioting in its own disorders, fill up all the potentially dangerous spaces in life: No neutral time, Boswell urges himself ( B H 175). The Inviolable Plan, and the later reiterated self-admonitions of his journals. attempt to plot the empty space of the day and days to come so that there will be no room for the lapses into the unscheduled and unmappable pleasure-pain region of his debauches?

    your point is to persevere and by keeping your mind contantly employed, to leave no room for gloomy thoughts entering your mind I...] Think of the thing you are about and of nothing else, and when you find your mind like to wander, write notes that will lix your attention, and if you be attentive to the thing you are about, there is no fear that anything will get access to disturb you. ( R H . 2 34)

    Boswells project as such was not a unique one in his time; Benjamin Franklin, another master of colloquial directness and informal prose, describes how in youth he also

    conceivd the bold and arduous Project of arriving at moral Perfection. I wishd to live without committing any Fault at any time: I would conquer all that either Natural Inclination, Custom, or Company might lead me into. As I knew, or thought I knew, what was right and wrong. I did not see why I might not always do the one and avoid the other. But I soon found I had undertaken a Task of more Difficulty than I had imagined. While my Attmtion was taken up in guarding against one Fault. 1 was often surprizd by another. Habit took the Advantage of Inattention. lnclination was sometimes too strong Tor Reason. 1 concluded at length, that the mere speculative Conviction that it was our Interest to be completely virtuous, was not suficient to prevent our Slipping. and that the contrary Habits must be broken and good ones acquired and established, before we can have any Dependence in a steady uniform Rectitude of Conduct. For this purpose I therefore contrivu the following Method.

    True to the character being written into existence as the representative American self at the dawn of the nations being, Franklin presupposes that willed moral progress is a rational possibility: having identified thirteen headings of virtuous conduct on which to work, he constructs a chart for each one (Figure I ) , and on it he marks the little black Spots which stain the page and his character with imperfection, to be successively eradicated as he completes his courses of training. The aim is to leave the recorder (who is also the reader) happy in viewing a clean Book after a thirteen Weeks daily Examination, the errata erased. Like Tristram Shandy, Franklin even gives the reader a graphic sample in his text of the black dots which bring the project for perfection to a full stop in the course of a week, identifying absolutely the creation of character with the writerly project. Here is the matrix of morality, reduced to a series of ciphers of progress or failure, the co-ordinates of conduct inscribed on the page

    6. Cf. W. R . Bion, Cogitations (London r c j q i ; rpt 1994). p.304: Inability to tolerate empty space

    7. The Autobiography of Bmjnniiri F r m t k l i f i . ed. 1.eonat-d W. Labaree. Ralph L. Ketcham. Helen C. limits the amount of spacc available.

    Boatfield and Helene H. Fineinan (New Havcn/l.ondon ~ 9 6 4 . 1976). p.148.


    as a calculation of addition and subtraction. In a very literal way, this is a 'syntax of sin', the grammar of a life ordered by its black spots, the dots which bring the structured march of progress to a full stop. The scheme of Franklin's day is brought into the realm of control, leaving no dangerously free spaces: 'The Precept of Order requiring that every Part 0s m y Business should have its allotted Time, one Page in my little Book contain'd the following Scheme of Employment for the Twenty-four Hours of a natural Day.' For satisfying neatness of composition, the plan is organised so that it can be gone through completely four times in a year (Figure 2).8

    Possible in theory, perfection (to the reader's relief) proves more elusive in practice: if the character the youthful Franklin had wished to build for himself was unattainable, the anecdote as described in the Autobiography serves to furnish the character of the wiser, recording Franklin with an attractively detached self-knowledge. The tension of failure relaxes into comic pleasure in a celebrated parable:

    Like the Man who in buying an Ax of a Smith my neighbour. desired to have the whole of its Surface as bright as the Edge; the Smith consented to grind it bright for him if he would turn the Wheel. He turn'd while the Smith press'd the broad face of the Ax hard and heavily on the Stone, which made the Turning of it very fatiguing. The Man came every now and then from the Wheel to see how the Work went on: and at length would take his Ax as it was without farther Grinding. No, says the Smith, Turn on. turn on; we shall have it bright by and by; as yet 'tis only speckled. Yes. says the Man; but - 1 think 1 like a speckled Ax best (p.15 5-56).

    It is because Franklin can tolerate, and even enjoy, the tarnishings on his own moral rectitude that he writes as he does: the pleasures of his writing for the reader frequently focus themselves in moments of self-directed irony like this one, and like the incident when he abandons his principled vegetarianism to the delicious aroma of frying fish, and then describes how he attempted to justify this capitulation to himself on rational grounds: 'So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable Creature, since it enables one to find or make a Reason for every thing one has a mind to do' (p.88). In the end, as Franklin describes it in his Autobiography, the project for Moral Perfection was abandoned simply because life took over: 'at length, I omitted [the courses of moral training] entirely, being employ'd in Voyages and Business abroad with a multiplicity of affairs' (p. I 5 5 ) . The perfect tense in which the episode is recounted fixes it as an aspect of his development, now gone beyond in the mature present of the writing moment.

    8 . Franklin, Autobiogrr~phy. p.r 5 2 . I 54. Comparison with another provincial American self- fashioner, William Byrd 11. suggests itself here. Unlike Franklin, but like Boswell. Byrd did not leave behind his self-accountings, but continued the practice throughout his life in a series of commonplace books whose shorthand notation at once reveals and conceals the obsessive repetition which marked his diurnal self-structuring. The relationship between the fully 'written out' self-examinations of Boswell's journals and the fragmentary compilations and exclusions of Byrd's commonplace books requires fuller exploration than I am able to give it here. Cf. Kenneth Lockridge. The Diary. and fife, of Williurn ByrdlI ofVirgirIiu, 16/14-1744 (Chapel Hill. North Carolina r987). and my essay 'Industry and idleness in colonial Virginia: a new approach to William Byrd 11'. in Iournal of American studies 2 8 . 2 (1994). p.169-90.

  • Form










    Eat n


    to D



    k not

    to L





    e M





    n, W


    Good s


    I do

    this D







    n, W



    d ha

    ve I


    to d











    l G








    d, o

    r ov


    ok my


    6 Pu

    t Things in


    r Pl


    , Su


    , M


    k, o

    r D


    - si

    on, o

    r C








    of t

    he D




    - II I Sleep.


    re I


    re 2


    The aspiration towards 'moral Perfection' is not negated, simply incorporated as a stage in the story of a self which has learned to live with its own imperfections:

    tho' I never arrived at the Perfection I had been so ambitious of obtaining, but Fell far short of it, yet I was by the Endeavour a better and a happier Man than I otherwise should have been. if I had not attempted it: As those who aim at perfect Writing by imitating the engraved Copies, tho' they never reach the wish'd for excellence of those Copies, their Hand is mended by the Endeavour, and is tolerable while it continues fair and legible' (p.156).

    Boswell, however, writing to the moment rather than retrospectively, could never consent to be a 'speckled Ax'; right to the end of his life his diaries record the constant skirmishes and wearinesses of a self divided against itself.9 Comic irony is not an option, when consciousness can claim no distance from its pr...