(For a PDF version of this essay, go to The Worldview Annex.)
De spe aspirationeque non dicendum sit:
Sollte ich zwei Bücher nennen, die, ohne der hohen Poesie anzugehören, eine wahre Unerschöpflichkeit des menschlichen Gehaltes aufweisen, so würde ich sagen: La Bruyères »Caractères« und Goethes Autobiographie. Ein drittes wäre der »Samuel Johnson« von Boswell.
If I had to name two books that, in the absence of any affiliation with great poetry, exhibited a true inexhaustibility of human energies, I would say: La Bruyère's Caractères and Goethe's autobiography. Boswell's [Life of] Samuel Johnson would be a third.
De spe aspirationeque non dicendum sit:
Istud verba obscena, hydoli artificiosi, esca lemmorum, est;
Sola vanitas aeternitas est;
Fuerit sola una aurora.
Dare to speak of hope and aspiration?
These are foul words, manufactured idols, and the bait of lemmings.
Only futility is eternity.
Only one sunrise will tell.
Sollte ich zwei Bücher nennen, die, ohne der hohen Poesie anzugehören, eine wahre Unerschöpflichkeit des menschlichen Gehaltes aufweisen, so würde ich sagen: La Bruyères »Caractères« und Goethes Autobiographie. Ein drittes wäre der »Samuel Johnson« von Boswell.
If I had to name two books that, in the absence of any affiliation with great poetry, exhibited a true inexhaustibility of human energies, I would say: La Bruyère's Caractères and Goethe's autobiography. Boswell's [Life of] Samuel Johnson would be a third.
The other week, I underwent an experience of a sort whose poignancy has, as far as I know, ever been registered only by the famous twentieth-century French literary critic Roland Barthes, the experience of reading “a cruel text that involved the execution of someone I loved by someone I admired” (see [not cf.], if you care to, Louis-Jean Calvet’s Roland Barthes [Bloomington, Indiana, 1994], p. 245). In Barthes’s case the text was an excoriating essay on Robert Schumann by Friedrich Nietzsche, in mine, there were actually two beloved convicts: Samuel Johnson and James Boswell; the admired hangman was Edmund Wilson; and the cruel text was a 1925 article, entitled “Boswell and Others,” originally published in the New Republic and reprinted—and encountered by me—in pp. 88-94 of From The Uncollected Edmund Wilson (Athens, Ohio, 1995). As executions go it’s particularly nasty—really one of those unimaginable pre-Enlightenment style affairs wherein the severest depredations are visited on the malefactor long after he is dead; for the opening sentence would certainly make a very serviceable coup de grace: “It has become a common delusion among Americans”—who “never tire of Johnson’s queer menage and his flat-footed contradictions” and are “delighted by his prejudices, his hypochondria, and the gravy stains on his vest”—“to mistake the enjoyment of Boswell’s Johnson for an interest in literature”; to “prefer Boswell’s gossip to the study of either art or ideas” (FUEW 88). What more disparaging thing, after all, can be said about a pair of established literary figures than that they are incapable of eliciting literary interest? And yet in the scant two-hundred or so words that follow, the Great Cham and Bozzie alike come in for a good deal of even rougher treatment. It is bad enough, Wilson writes, that Johnson was “prejudiced and provincial,” but on top of that his prejudices did “not have behind them quite enough of the force of the creative mind” (ibid). For a man of letters, he evinced remarkably little interest “in expressing himself through literature and even confesse[d] that he [could] not conceive anyone’s writing except for the purpose of making money” (FUEW 88-9). A “cripple,” “weighed down by an inescapable inertia,” he was at his best “when he [was] sounding his dull note of the burden of life—that condition ‘where much is to be suffered and little to be known’ [sic: Johnson’s actual words were “in which much is to be endured and little to be enjoyed”]” (FUEW 89). As for Boswell, although “he does to be sure write the most entertaining of literary day-books,” he has “little intellectual importance,” and his “incontestab[le] invent[ion]” of “the modern biography…is a thing one has sometimes wished away” (ibid.). On top of this, Boswell has performed the disservice of revealing “Johnson to be a man almost completely out of touch with the significant developments of his time,” a man who “scoff[ed] at Berkeley and Rousseau not merely [because] he [was] opposed to them but [because] he d[id] not even understand them” (ibid.). “[O]f all the circles of the eighteenth century,” Wilson perorates—in declarative echo of his earlier query “If [Americans] must have the eighteenth century why…do they not choose Swift for a hero?” (FUEW 88)— the Johnson circle was the “most monotonous and most stodgy,” the one “least alive to the intellectual currents of the world” (ibid.).
The cruelty of this text to Samuel Johnson and James Boswell is, I hope, obvious. Less obvious, I assume, are its cruelty to me and any non-sadistic interest this cruelty should pique in the reader. Thankfully from the reader’s point of view, the two obscurities can be elucidated at one go; for, you see, dear reader, I was wounded by the Wilson essay less as a fan of Johnson and Boswell than as an advocate for them, as a person who had spent a good portion of the previous twenty years trying with scant success to inculcate in others a conviction that was effectively the converse of the inverse of the one expressed by Wilson in the opening sentence of “Boswell and Others,” the conviction that if you had a genuine (as against a “delusional”) “interest in literature,” you could not fail to enjoy Boswell’s Johnson, that Boswell’s Johnson (i.e., the Life of) was indeed literature at its finest and greatest. And in this campaign I had regarded Edmund Wilson as a sorely-needed ally—on account not of anything laudatory he had written on Johnson or Boswell specifically, but of a certain idea of literature that I had taken him to have espoused throughout his half century-long stint as America’s leading literary critic—on the evidence not of any positive or explicit assertion about literature, but of the general character of his critical corpus, of which the uninitiated reader will get a rough-and-ready sense from the perpended list compiled at random from the tables of contents of a few of EW’s books:
John Peale Bishop
The Holmes-Laski Correspondence
Is it Possible to Pat Kingsely Amis?
Oh Those Awful Orcs
George F. Kennan
Michelet Discovers Vico
Decline of the Revolutionary Tradition: Anatole
Henry James and Auden in
I would wager that well before he reached the end of this list, the reader had already firmly settled on one adjective to describe the Wilsonian literary outlook, namely eclectic. And on the whole I am now inclined to approve of the reader’s choice, but if I had been asked to make the same choice before reading “Boswell and Others,” I think I would have selected—or rather coined—a different word, namely genre-blind. For you see, while eclecticism automatically precludes purism it certainly does not preclude snobbery. An eclectic reader is like a produce-shopper who makes a point of including in his basket at least one tomato, one onion, one carrot, one shallot, and so on. It is the diversity of names rather than flavors that matters to him, such that he would rather buy a spring onion paired with a shallot than a spring onion paired with a green onion, even though the spring onion and the shallot taste much more like each other than either tastes like the green onion. The eclectic reader is proud of reading many genres of books, but the genres in question matter very much to him eis ipsis. The sort of reader I had always taken EW to be before I read “B&O,” the genre-blind reader, on the other hand, is more like a (Gibt es keine Scheisse?) blindfolded produce shopper who picks out his veggies entirely by smell. The blindfolded produce shopper fancies a certain smell and buys every item in the aisle that exudes it; if, in consequence, he finds himself in possession of fifteen varieties of onion, fine; if instead he takes home four varieties of rutabaga, two of kale, and nine of kelp, that’s fine too. Correspondingly, the genre-blind reader is not going to wring his hands in panic about the “slipping of his standards” if, in following his readerly bliss, he discovers himself reading more biographies or histories than examples of such more centrally “literary” genres as novels and lyric poems.
Such, I say again, was the sort of reader for whom I took Edmund Wilson before my run-in with “Boswell and Others,” and simply knowing—excuse me, believing—that the leading American literary critic of a scant three-to-five decades earlier had publicly dared to be such a free-spirited egg had made it immeasurably easier for me to screw up the courage requisite to swooping down on every hapless cocktail-partier and Thanksgiving-diner I encountered between the early nineties and the late oughties, and after having proffered to him or her my always ready-to-hand copy of Chapman’s World Classics Edition of the Life, peremptorily, breathlessly, delivering to him or her the following sales pitch:
“Pick a topic, any topic, and—” “—literally any topic?” they would quizzically introject. “Any topic,” I would emphatically iterate: “barring, of course, things that hadn’t come into existence by 1784, like disposable razors and —” “—and freeze-dried soup?” they would re-introject in a jublilantly game “this goes without saying”-esque tone. “No, not at all like freeze-dried soup,” I would re-rejoin both emphatically and a smidge too stroppily for a salesman, “which under the name of ‘portable soup’ gets a mention in one of Boswell’s journals, if not in the Life itself. This is indeed one of the greatest delights that awaits you as a prospective Boswellian-cum-Johnsonian: the discovery of how very long so very many apparently newish things have been around. But for the nonce, just think of any subject of relatively timeless interest that you might imagine talking to anybody about, and the chances are pretty damn good to criminally excellent that you will find an entry for it in the index of the Life, and that upon reading the pages referenced in that entry, you will find yourself smiting your forehead and exclaiming ‘Ain’t that the truth,’ or slapping one of your thighs and guffawing ‘Ain’t that hilarious,’ or scratching your pate and muttering, ‘I ain’t never thunk about it that way’—in short, registering in some fashion a more than mild appreciation of Boswell’s treatment of that topic.”
For who, after all, but a genre-blind reader would be open-minded enough even to entertain the notion that a book that he or she had never seen—and in most cases had never heard of—would turn out to be as consistently amusing, engaging, or revealing as I represented the Life to be? Certainly no mere eclectic reader—even a fairly cultivated one—could be depended on to be so indulgent. However accommodating he or she might appear on the so-called outside, on the so-called inside he or she invariably needs must sniffily riposte to his or her favorite second wheel (a.k.a, the Proustian “internal interlocutor”) “Why the f***k would I read this tiresome old doorstop? After all, it’s just a biography—a stinkin’ biography, for f***sakes—of some dude whose greatest claim to fame was compiling a dictionary—a stinkin’ dictionary for f***sakes!” And such, I was bound to conclude after reading “Boswell and Others,” must have been the sentiments of even the most outwardly promising of my victims/prospective fellow Boswellians-cum-Johnsonians. Indeed, in post-“B&O”-ian hindsight, my entire Boswellian-cum-Johnsonian evangelical mission was bathed in a matte-filtered neon red glow of eclectic futility, as if I had squandered all twenty of those years on the equivalent of preaching the gospel in hell. Oh, sure, to its credit, in the so-called heat of the moment my pitch had seldom failed to elicit one of the above-described three types of response (most often—unsurprisingly, given the anacreontic setting of most of my deliveries—the second, guffawing-cum-thigh-slapping one). And there was even that one fellow who at our next meeting after his reception of the Pitch, told me that he had been reading the Life and gotten up to Aetat. 39 or thereabouts. But if I had really been dealing with an audience that had even been even one percent genre-blind; if I had been living in a world where true genre-blindness was at least as viable a lifestyle-choice as, say, coprophilia, I would have long since been beset, à la the dermatologist in the sitcom episode, by hoards of grateful Boswellians-cum-Johnsonians interrupting my dinner to thank me on bended knee for having “saved their lives.” For the Life, in my view, was indeed so life-savingly good, beautiful, rich, edifying, et multissima cetera that only a universal and indurate prejudice against the genre of biography could explain its failure to capture the imaginations, as they say, of a single one of the gross or so individuals to whom I had theretofore delivered the pitch. Clearly, then, a recasting of the Grundrisse, the basic schema, the fundamental conceptual parameters of the Pitch itself was in order; the Pitch needed to be transformed into a piece of rhetoric that would preemptively and ineluctably take account of and nullify the genre-genetic prejudice from the get-go.
One quite specious recasting stratagem suggested by “B&O” itself was that of re-presenting the Life as a novel with Samuel Johnson as its protagonist. For after all, Wilson’s principal grounds for dismissing Boswell as a man of “little intellectual importance” was that B. had been a purveyor of mere “gossip.” And what did this so-called gossip, according to
, consist of? Reportage on Johnson’s “queer menage,” his “vest[al] gravy stains,” his “prejudices,” his “flat-footed contradictions”—in short, the very sorts of quirks and quotidian paraphernalia that a reader delights in having retailed to him in connection with the hero of his favorite novel, inasmuch as they simultaneously characterize this particular personage and help to point up one or more of the text’s general themes (most often some truth(s) about the so-called human condition). Accordingly, if I could somehow prove that the Johnsoniana reported by Boswell both consistently and compellingly performed the same two functions, I would have as good as proven that the Life was the equal in literary merit of any great novel of comparable bulk—A la recherche, say, or The Brothers Karamazov. Again taking my cue from Wilson, I chose as my dual-valence Johnsonian litmus-strip the famous episode of his avowed “refutation” of Berkeley, an episode from which Wilson presumably drew his mis-conclusion that Johnson “did not understand” the Great Empiricist Episcope: Wilson
After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the non-existence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it, “I refute it thus” (Life, p. 333, Saturday, August 6, 1763).
The most obvious thing to say about this passage was that it was uproariously—indeed, thigh-splappingly—funny; and such had probably been the only thing I could have said about it the first time I read it—or, rather, heard it quoted—way back in 1989. If this funniness on its own sufficed to redeem the passage in point of characterization and thematicization, then there would be no need to ferret out any of its more latent qualities. “In what,” this sufficiency-hungry proof then gravely demanded, “does the funniness of the passage consist?” “Why,” I ebulliently rejoined, “in the inherently comically huge discrepancy between the challenge presented and the means used to oppose it—in the idea that you could refute a philosophical argument by attacking not the argument itself but a material object, and that you would attack that object not with your verbalized thoughts but with your mute foot.” “An idea that is prima facie extremely moronic, or, to put it more charitably, insane.” “Well, yes, I suppose.” [He, triumphant, impassably:]“Such that the main and indeed only thing it points up is that the person who availed himself of these moronically or insanely discrepant means was…?” [I, chastened, softly] “…a kind of moron or insane person.” Well, then: it was high time to unleash that ferret, which yielded up a veritable, erm, ferret’s nest of latent qualities that I had amassed in the intervening years. For one thing, there was this business of Johnson’s kicking the stone not merely once but “till he rebounded from it [presumably involuntarily, by reflex],” which conjured up figuratively hundreds and literally dozens of Johnsonian paraphrases and transpositions of Matthew 26:41, notably: “Custom [i.e., habit] is commonly too strong for the most resolute resolver, though furnished for the assault with all the weapons of philosophy” in No. 27 of Johnson’s late-1750s newspaper column The Idler. Behind or beneath this lay Johnson’s figuratively dozens and literally half-dozens of favorable comments on Berkeley, notably that contained in the proto-Emersonian conclusion of a 1780 letter to Hester Maria “Queeney” Thrale, wherein he adjured the seventeen-year-old lass to
keep your eyes and your ears open and enjoy as much of the intellectual world as you can. If Ideas are to us the measure of time, he that thinks most, lives longest.
says that one man lives more life in an hour, than another in a week; that you, my dearest, may in every sense live long, and in every sense live well is the desire of Berkley
Your humble servant
(Letters; Chapman, ed.; Vol. II, p. 339).
In this backlight of accumulated Johnsoniana, the stone-kicking gesture resonated with a positively cosmically ironic force that made one ashamed of having ever mistaken it for a mere bit of red-nosed, “oops, there went my trousers”-esque shtick. In this backlight, it was clear that Johnson had known as exactly what he was doing, as they say, in kicking that stone on August 6, 1763 A.D. as, say, Mark Antony (according to Shakespeare) had in calling Brutus an “honorable man” on ca. March 15, 44 B.C. In this accumulated backlight, it was impossible to see Johnson’s kicking of the stone as a pigheaded attempt at a literal refutation of Berkeley, and positively mandatory to see it as expressing something to the immeasurably more nuanced effect of “This talk about the ideal nature of the universe is certainly all fine and good—no, I kid you not: it is literally certainly fine and good, as in worth living and swearing by—but unfortunately the universe as we know it from time to time frowardly insists on presenting a material face to us, a face from which we are then powerless to avert our ideal eyes (or feet).” Altogether, it amounted to an exemplary gesture worthy of a Charles Swann or an Alyosha Karamazov. There was just one shortcoming of this gesture vis-à-vis the case for reading the Life as a great novel: the proofs of its exemplarity derived entirely from texts other than the Life itself.
So then: if the Life could not be defended as an autonomous quasi-novelistic masterpiece, it would have to be defended as the heteronomous transcription of the outpourings of a first-rate “artist” or “creative mind”—i.e., the very sort of person Wilson thought that Johnson had not been. In pursuit of this defense, I ran into even more apparently insuperable difficulties. Whatever one might think of Johnson as an artist-stroke-creative mind, Wilson’s deprec(i)ation of the Life as a “literary day-book” had a distinguished pedigree extending all the way back to Marcel Proust’s Contre Sainte-Beuve, wherein that magisterial critic asserted his dictum—now as much an idée reçue as Johnson’s rejection of the Aristotelian dramatic unities in the preface to his edition of Shakespeare—that “the ‘I’ that one encounters in the world is entirely separate from the ‘I’ that produces the work of art.” Rephrased as a prescription to the reader, this dictum essentially means, “Look for the meaning and the beauty of a writer’s works in his writings, not in his biography. If a text is truly a great work of art, its greatness will be apparent even to someone completely ignorant of the events and circumstances of the author’s life.” In a certain way or to a certain extent, for all my admiration of the Life, I had discovered Proust’s advice to be soundly applicable to Johnson’s works. My appreciation of the Rambler essays, for example, owed practically nothing to Boswell, except as an enthusiastic fellow-reader; and B.’s relation that Johnson had dashed off his narrative prose masterpiece Rasselas in less than a week “that with the profits he might defray the expence of his mother’s funeral” (Life 240; Aetat 50; April 1759) for me had always counted—much like the anecdote about Mozart’s composition of his D minor string quartet to the soundtrack of his wife’s labor pains—as a hefty strike against the Sainte-Beuveian view of art as a seismograph of the artist’s emotions. At the same time it seemed precious to the point of fatuity to describe the Johnson who had written these texts as a “different person” from the Johnson of the Life. The Johnson of the Life, to be sure, had more diverse means of expression at his disposal than the Johnson of Rasselas and the Rambler: he could not only discourse but also kick, grunt, twitch, wink, roll about, wear unfashionable clothing, and so on. But when he did choose to express himself verbally, he almost invariably said something that would have found a congruous place in some text penned by Samuel Johnson the writer.
Eventually, as a consequence of arriving at these two impasses, there dawned in sequence two disheartening realizations: 1) I was never going to get anywhere by presenting the Life in isolation from Johnson’s own oeuvre. A case for the Life’s autonomous greatness might have been makable, but I was not the person capable of making it; for I had been shuttling back and forth between the Life and the Johnsonian corpus proper for far too long to retain more than a few milliminute-sized slivers of recollection of what it had felt like to read Boswell as a pre-Johnsonian-lapsarian innocent. 2) I was never going to get anywhere by trying to explain anything having to do with Boswell or Johnson in terms of art or the novel because my long self-administered course of study in Boswell and Johnson-appreciation had also been—among many other things, of course—a course of study in the metaphysical depreciation of both art and the novel. Before reading Boswell and Johnson, I now realized, I had taken art and the novel as seriously as both the Proust of Contre Sainte-Beuve and the Edmund Wilson of “Boswell and Others” had done. Since reading them, I had come to take neither term seriously at all, and even—if I was to be frank with myself—to regard the most faintly reverential talk of art or the novel as an instance of what Johnson would have scornfully abjured as “cant.” Given that my so-called target audience consisted almost exclusively of people who took both art and the novel very seriously indeed (if my demographics elicit a skeptical sneer from you, I beg you to consider the balance of the present-day western world population: people wholly devoted to sports, pop music, or Twitter), my position was hardly more enviable than it had been before I had started rethinking the Pitch. This position reminded me very much of that of (go figure) Johnson’s bête noir David Hume at the end of the first book of his Treatise of Human Nature, where, after having effectively demolished the philosophical bases of most common mental operations, he “fanc[ied him]self some strange uncouth monster, who not being able to mingle and unite in society, has been expell’d all human commerce, and left utterly abandon’d and disconsolate.” But abandon’d and disconsolate though he felt, Hume nonetheless pressed on and added to the Treatise two more books, wherein upon the foundation of nothing he had produced in the first book he miraculously managed to erect a comprehensive and still-credible account of how and why people round the world and throughout history acted the way they did; and in all frankness and smugness, I now feel myself both compelled to erect and capable of erecting a structure of comparable comprehensiveness. In other words, I now feel myself compelled to persuade and capable of persuading the reader, via citations of the works of Boswell and Johnson alone, to abandon all fetishistic attachment he or she has to the novel and art for the sake of in turn persuading him to appreciate a corpus of writing—the Boswellian-Johnsonian corpus—that in its non-artistic non-novelistic way, is eloquent, profound, and cohesive enough to render the categories of art and the novel gratuitous, tautological, superfluous, pleonastic.
N. BBB., DGR: it is by no means my hope or my aim to persuade you to stop reading novels or reading/listening to/spectating upon/groping works of art, or even to demote your favorite novel or work of art (suffice it so say, the two may be one and the same) from the top position in your personal totem pole of things worth giving a toss about. My aim and hope is merely to persuade you to cease giving a toss about the novel and art as things in themselves (or, more likely, the exclusive constituents of the thing-in-itself); to stop caring, for example, about whether either of them is “dead” or “alive,” or whether you yourself are really an artist or will ever write the great American (or Sudanese or Kernevistani) novel. To put it another way, I am going to try to talk you into rejecting one aesthetic norm, a norm according to which the notions of the work of art and of artistic genre are indispensable, and into embracing another that renders both notions gratuitous and superfluous; and I am going to do so by proving to you that you have never believed in the one norm to begin with, that you have at your insu, as the kids say nowadays, been an adherent of the other norm all along. The bad, phony norm I have in mind, the prevailing one of the past century-and-a-half or so, is that of perfection, or more precisely, immutable perfection. Perfection denuded of the qualifying adjective will not do because the mere perfectionist holds only that the thing in question could not be improved by being changed, and hence is willing to entertain the possibility that it would not be less than perfect were it different in part from what it is at present; whereas the immutability-loyal perfectionist holds that the TiQ would necessarily be vitiated, made less than perfect, if it were altered in any way or to any extent. The present-day locus classicus of the apotheosization of the immutably perfective aesthetic norm—the moment in recent history in which that norm was most succinctly and most fatuously formulated—has got to be the scene in the movie Amadeus wherein the composeraster Salieri pores over a score by Mozart in an attitude of downright pornographic jouissance while his older self gushes in voiceover, “Music finished as no music is ever finished! Displace one note and there would be diminishment. Displace one phrase, and the structure would fall.” Suffice it say, I am to put it mildly rather inclined to doubt that such structurally exacting works as this, works which would essentially amount to glorified houses of cards, actually exist. But more to the point, I cannot believe that the reader is any more certain of their existence than I am; and even more to the point, I cannot believe that the reader goes on a house-of-cards search when he seeks out new aesthetic experiences, or that in returning to cherished works of what he regards as great art, he returns to the them for the sake of marveling at their house of card-iness. I cannot help believing that the reader is enough like me that he turns and returns to these objects, rather, mainly because they give him the sense of being addressed in some fashion by someone other than an imbecile or a robot, by someone who has something intelligent to say and at least tries unflaggingly to say it. If I am not mistaken in this belief, I shall have no trouble persuading the reader to reject the norm of perfection and embrace my alternative norm, the norm of Besonnenheit. Now, lest you think me so pretentious and, even worse, insecure about my intellectual virility as to resort to the gratuitous coining of a word in a foreign language to get (or pretend to get) my point across, let me just abjure right up front, as they say, all title to having invented Besonnenheit even in this specialized aesthetic sense. That claim to smugness goes to one Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann, who was indeed a foreigner (specifically a German, and even more specifically, I believe, a Prussian), and I have left Besonnenheit the way I found it in his writings because I am sensible that the translation of Besonnenheit that I have grudgingly settled for—namely, “presence of mind”—is not entirely satisfactory, and I hope someday to come up with a better one. You see, while for us Anglophones “presence of mind” is a ready-made phrase signifying the rather humdrum virtue of effective rationality in moments of potentially mentally incapacitating crisis, as in the sentence “Although the floor was giving way beneath my feet, I had sufficient presence of mind to look for something to grab hold of along the wall,” Hoffmann’s Besonnenheit denotes the presence of some specific, distinctive, individual mind merely qua mind in some specific place or set of places. The Hoffmannian mind is present and mobile within the work of art and among works of art as a high school student is present in class and mobile within classes over the course of a school day. For Hoffmann the most potent exponent of Besonnenheit was Ludwig van Beethoven, and the paragon of Beethovenian Besonnenheit was his still-wildly famous Fifth Symphony. In this work, according to Hoffmann, Beethoven’s mind presented itself principally through its treatment of the opening four-note Dah-dah-dah-DUMMMMM motif, “which we all heard as kids,” as Leonard Bernstein once said. The first time you heard the symphony, you noticed the motif only in those places—all of them in the first movement—that pretty much echoed its first appearance verbatim. A few hearings later, you detected it elsewhere in the movement—in the major mode, in inversion, and in numerous instrumental guises; and a few hearings later still, you noticed it turning up in later movements of the symphony; for example, in the main theme of the scherzo. With each new detection of the theme, your conviction that a single intelligence—one aware of where it was going and where it had been—was behind the whole thing, grew stronger, and your admiration of the work strengthened in tandem with this conviction. Now, it should go without saying that the ability to use a single musical idea in such a diversity of settings bespeaks consummate mastery of some sort of technique. But from the point of hearing of a listener with his ear cocked towards prospective Besonnenheit, the question of such mastery eo ipso is irrelevant to his appreciation of the work. For what it is worth, the high point of such a listener’s appreciation of such technical mastery tends to come earlier rather than later, when he but yet little suspects how besonnenheitsvoll the work in question is, and may indeed be inclined to dismiss at as facile, i.e. merely technically near-perfect; from this height it tends to fall off sharply with his first discovery of a besonnheitsvoll connection between two moments—for if (such a listener reasons) these two moments alone make sense to me, what am I to make of the other umpteen-hundred moments in the work? Before, they were 99-point-umpteen percent of a bland, facile, technically-accomplished Besonnenheitslos behemothically brainless monolith; now they seem to be a hundred percent of a bland, facile, technically-accomplished, behemothically brainless monolith grotesquely grafted on to a tiny, helpless budlet of Besonnenheit. But the listener “extends the composer a line of credit,” as Hans Keller once said; he trusts that more besonnenheitsvoll connections will emerge in the future, and that by and by every sector of this facile, brainless monolith will be transformed into an organic constituent of the composer’s plenipresent mind. And if a week from now, a year from now, ten years from now, some bits yet remain unassimilated, that is fine with him: after all, no mere mortal mind can be everywhere at once and at all times; to be at many places at many times is a remarkable enough achievement. In any case, in the view of the besonnenheitssuchtig listener (or reader or viewer) the work is but a medium for mind, not its raison d’être. He feels no Salieriesque trepidation about breathing on the blessed thing for fear of dislodging one of its billion-odd “indispensable” parts.
Apropos of the afore-delineated phenomenology, that of the besonnenheitssuchtig aesthetic appreciator, I hope, imprimis and SITS, that it rings true for you, DGR. If it does not—if you are indeed that most improbable creature, a dyed-in-the-wool perfection fetishist—well, then, you can go perform the biologically impossible act, for all I care. If it does ring true, though, then you will easily perceive how readily all my examples of appreciable Johnsonian moments may be redeemed by assimilation to the norm of Besonnenheit, and my mode of appreciation of these moments to the norm of Bessonenheitssuchtigkeit. Take, for instance, the two Berkeley-inspired gestures, Johnson’s kicking of the stone and his advising of Queeney Thrale. The advice may be seen as analogous to the appearance of the first-movement four-note motif in the scherzo of the Fifth Symphony, as a gesture that gives point to a much earlier gesture by employing the same material to prima facie—and only prima facie—radically different ends. The reader who knows Johnson’s disposition to Berkeley only from the stone-kicking episode is like the (all-too typical) listener who has never listened to the Fifth Symphony past the end of the first movement: he thinks of Johnson’s disposition to Berkeley as purely dismissive, just as the post-first movement Fifthian ignoramus thinks that the four-note motif of the Fifth can signify nothing beyond “fate knocking at the door.” The reader who has had the patience and good fortune to become acquainted with both Berkeleyan-Johnsonian moments, on the other hand, enjoys a depth and complexity of understanding analogous to that enjoyed by the listener who has had the patience to listen to the Fifth all the way through.
“Something too much of this.” Alors: Besonnenheit lets Samuel Johnson off the hook of aesthetic irredeemability. But what has it done for James Boswell lately? Is it possible, by means identical or at least similar to the ones that I have applied to Johnson, to prove that Boswell was as besonnenheitsvoll as Johnson in his own right? Is there, for example, by any chance, in something written by or about Boswell, a recorded gesture that is both as pithy as Johnson’s kicking of the stone and directed at a figure as intellectually illustrious as Berkeley?; and further (again, in something written by or about Boswell) is there some other gesture of a(n) (prima facie) entirely different character yet inspired by this same luminary? As a matter of fact there is, and there is. The illustrious figure in question is one whom I have already had occasion to mention once in these pages, David Hume. In our day, Hume is known simply as the greatest philosopher to have yet written in English, but in his own he was known principally as an historian and, more notoriously, on account of a handful of essays in which he had hinted at a belief in the secular provenance of divine revelation, as Britain’s leading “infidel” or atheist; and it is in this last capacity that he figures in both Boswellian Besonnenheit-certifying moments. The first (we’ll get to the second one in dew coarse) is an interview Boswell had with him just a few weeks before Hume’s death of bowel cancer in August 1776. Boswell visited him then for the express purpose of quizzing him on what it felt like to be so close to the end in the absence—supposing it was a real absence after all—of hope for redemption in the hereafter, and of recording his answer for posterity. The resulting 2000-word document, “An Account of my Last Interview with David Hume, Esq. [Partly Recorded in My Journal, partly enlarged from my memory, 3 March 1777]” is a brief masterpiece that defies classification in terms of any genre of its time or of today. It begins with a kind of verbal studio portrait of Hume, complete with ambient in-frame paraphernalia, as he appeared at the beginning of the interview:
I found him alone, in a reclining posture in his drawing-room. He was lean, ghastly, and quite of an earthy appearance. He was dressed in a suit of grey cloth with white metal buttons, and a kind of scratch wig. He was quite different from the plump figure which he used to present. He had before him Dr. [George]
’s Philosophy of Rhetoric. He seemed to be placid and even cheerful. (Boswell in Extremes, p. 11). Campbell
From here, via the most perfunctory of transitions (“I know not how I contrived to get the subject of immortality introduced”), the “Account” moves on to the official agenda of the meeting, and graciously cedes to Hume the first word: “He said he never had entertained any belief in religion since he began to read Locke and [Samuel] Clarke” (ibid.). But Boswell cannot help digressing. Hume’s first-tendered argument against immortality, that if it were really all that it purported to be, “the trash of every age”—infants that die “before being possessed of reason,” “a porter who gets drunk by ten o’ clock with gin,” and the like—“must [i.e., would have to] be preserved,” reminds Boswell of an earlier meeting with Hume in which the philosopher objected that under a consistently immortalizing dispensation even the rabble-rousing infidel John Wilkes “and his mob must be immortal”; and this recollection in turn reminds him of a meeting with Wilkes in which Boswell quoted to Wilkes Hume’s derisory damnation of his mob, and thereby prompted Wilkes to “grin…abashment, as a Negro grows whiter when he blushes (!)” (ibid., p. 12). Conscious of having strayed from his subject (“But to return to my last interview with Mr. Hume”), he immediately reverts to the Q&A format (“I asked him if the thought of annihilation gave him any uneasiness”), but thenceforth devotes at least as much discursive space to his own psychological state during the interrogation (“I…felt a degree of horror mixed with a sort of wild strange recollection of my excellent mother’s pious instructions, of Dr. Johnson’s noble lessons, and of my religious sentiments and affections during the course of my life. I was like a man in sudden danger eagerly seeking his defensive arms…”) and the incidental circumstances attending earlier ones (“He had once said to me, on a forenoon while the sun was shining bright…”) as to the substance of Hume’s utterances in the here and now. Boswell concludes the “Account” as he began it, with a physical description of Hume, one that both refines the description at the beginning and provides, as it were, a soundtrack to it: “He said this with his usual grunting pleasantry, with that thick breath which fatness had rendered habitual to him, and that smile of simplicity which his good humour constantly produced.” The second, Hume-centered, Boswellian Besonnenheit-certifying moment turns up in (“Surprise!” x ∞) the Life, specifically on
Tuesday, 16 September, 1777 (Aetat. 69), or a year-and-a-season after the interview recorded in the “Account.” Being much briefer than the “Account,” it can be quoted in full:
I mentioned to Dr. Johnson, that David Hume’s persisting in his infidelity, when he was dying, shocked me much. JOHNSON. 'Why should it shock you, Sir? Hume owned he had never read the New Testament with attention. Here then was a man, who had been at no pains to inquire into the truth of religion, and had continually turned his mind the other way. It was not to be expected that the prospect of death would alter his way of thinking, unless GOD should send an angel to set him right.' I said, I had reason to believe that the thought of annihilation gave Hume no pain. JOHNSON. 'It was not so, Sir. He had a vanity in being thought easy. It is more probable that he should assume an appearance of ease, than that so very improbable a thing should be, as a man not afraid of going (as, in spite of his delusive theory, he cannot be sure but he may go,) into an unknown state, and not being uneasy at leaving all he knew. And you are to consider, that upon his own principle of annihilation he had no motive to speak the truth.' The horrour of death which I had always observed in Dr. Johnson, appeared strong to-night. I ventured to tell him, that I had been, for moments in my life, not afraid of death; therefore I could suppose another man in that state of mind for a considerable space of time. He said, 'he never had a moment in which death was not terrible to him.' He added, that it had been observed, that scarce any man dies in publick, but with apparent resolution; from that desire of praise which never quits us. I said, Dr. Dodd [a clergyman recently sentenced to death and executed for having forged a nobleman’s signature on a check] seemed to be willing to die, and full of hopes of happiness. 'Sir, (said he,) Dr. Dodd would have given both his hands and both his legs to have lived. The better a man is, the more afraid he is of death, having a clearer view of infinite purity.' He owned, that our being in an unhappy uncertainty as to our salvation, was mysterious; and said, 'Ah! we must wait till we are in another state of being, to have many things explained to us.' Even the powerful mind of Johnson seemed foiled by futurity. But I thought, that the gloom of uncertainty in solemn religious speculation, being mingled with hope, was yet more consolatory than the emptiness of infidelity. A man can live in thick air, but perishes in an exhausted receiver (pp. 838-839 in Chapman).
Here, Boswell, himself a devout if insecure Christian, conducts a kind of talk-experiment (Gesprachexperiment), provocatively introducing a deathbed non-credo from
’s no-longer living greatest infidel into a conversation with Britain ’s greatest living lay champion of the Christian faith and the Church of England. Johnson’s response is to “deny Boswell’s major,” by simply asserting that despite appearances Hume must have been putting Boswell on out of vanity; and to support his assertion with a generalization: “Scarce any man dies in publick, but with apparent resolution, from that desire of praise which never quits us.” Boswell countercharges with another specific example of a man unafraid of the approach of death, Dr. Dodd, and Johnson responds in exact conformity with the same pattern as before: “Dr. Dodd” in particular “would have given both his hands and both his legs to have lived,” and “the better a man is,” i.e. men in general are, “the more afraid he is [/they are] of death, having a clearer view of infinite purity.” Boswell counter-countercharges—privately, to be sure, in relation to Dr. Johnson, but quite publicly in relation to his readers—with yet another particularization, one that in virtue of its referent encloses the entire conversation in Russian-doll fashion: “Even the powerful mind of Johnson seemed spoiled by futurity,” before doing a complete about-face for his peroration and ending on a generalization: “A man can live in thick air, but perishes in an exhausted receiver.” Britain
Now, vis-à-vis Besonnenheit, these two episodes demonstrate above all else Boswell’s dogged devotion to his combined proclivity and genius for particularization, by which I mean not only the ostension of particulars for its own sake, but also the purposive ostension of particulars towards the end of undermining, or at least complicating, generalizations. “In general,” the Boswell of, say, July 6, 1776 must have mused, “even infidels turn to religion as they draw within sight of death, but can this general truth remain a truth in face of a single infidel who goes to his grave a staunch unbeliever?” And so he looked up the moribund David Hume, and learned to his mingled horror and fascination that Hume was indeed very probably going to turn out to be that exceptional infidel who should make the rule of deathbed piety at minimum keep an eye out for challengers. And of course there is much more to Boswell’s report of Hume’s unregenerateness than a mere statement of refusal to recant. Every observable detail of Hume’s habitus contributes to Boswell’s (and our) sense of the oddity, the peculiarity, of his stance. Via the gray cloth, white metal buttons, and scratch wig of the opening passage we are presented with a virtual photographic negative of the most famous portrait of Hume, the one by Alan Ramsay in which the then palpably-obese philosopher placidly gawks at the viewer from beneath the powdered curls of an immaculate coif and within the folds of a magnificent coat of scarlet festooned with gold buttons and trimmed with gold brocade.
The concluding “audio” passage fittingly both complements the opening passage and undermines it in keeping with all that Boswell has learned in the interval, by pointing up the residues of the fat red healthy Hume of yore that linger on in the person of his gaunt, gray, sickly successor. And in these residues inheres something not merely incongruous, but positively uncanny. Being no longer fat or well, Hume should be not only disinclined to but positively, physiologically incapable of speaking with the “grunting pleasantry” and “thick breath” of a healthy, orotund human specimen, and yet “habit” somehow manages to overrule physiology here. A miracle? Perhaps, but in proof of what doctrine, and for whose benefit?
The concluding “audio” passage fittingly both complements the opening passage and undermines it in keeping with all that Boswell has learned in the interval, by pointing up the residues of the fat red healthy Hume of yore that linger on in the person of his gaunt, gray, sickly successor. And in these residues inheres something not merely incongruous, but positively uncanny. Being no longer fat or well, Hume should be not only disinclined to but positively, physiologically incapable of speaking with the “grunting pleasantry” and “thick breath” of a healthy, orotund human specimen, and yet “habit” somehow manages to overrule physiology here. A miracle? Perhaps, but in proof of what doctrine, and for whose benefit?
After the profusion of grisly descriptive detail in the “Account,” Boswell’s briefing, as it were, of Johnson on Hume’s death in the Life admittedly comes as a bit of an anticlimax. And yet, in the matter of demonstrating Boswell’s Besonnenheit, the “Account” is a mere propaedeutic to the “Briefing”; for while the “Account” allowed him to give his particularizing métier free rein, the debriefing shows him successfully sticking to his particularizing métier in the face of countervailing generalizations. And it is a marvel to observe with what diabolical subtlety and craftiness he pulls off this feat. He does not out himself, so to speak, as a particularizer up front: he tells Johnson nothing about Hume’s gray suit, scratch wig, physiologically impossible fat voice, etc.; rather, he condenses the entire “Account” into the curt biclausal admission that he was “shocked much” at Hume’s “persisting in his infidelity, when he was dying,” and thereby prepares for Johnson qua generalizer as smooth a path as he could wish for. Utterly ignorant as he is consequently left about the material circumstances attending Hume’s sang froid, Johnson has no trouble whatsoever chalking it up to a purely psychological cause—vanity—and lumping Hume in with all those other vain men who “die in public with apparent resolution from that desire of praise which never quits us.” But all the while, and little by little, like a marble polisher with his bladeless saw, Boswell wears away at the adamantine authority of Johnson’s generalizing spirit by interlarding the generalizing tenor of the record with observations about particular people—Boswell, Dr. Dodd, and finally, as the pièce de résistance, Johnson himself. A biographer with an entirely different aim, namely, the aim of making the Johnson of his biography mesh as seamlessly as possible with the Johnson of the Rambler essays—would have seen in the generalization about vanity the perfect note on which to end his record of this conversation. In the absence of any other survivors or witnesses, Boswell certainly could have gotten away with such a modus finendi. Instead, he muddied the pellucid waters of generalization with particular instance after particular instance. Why did he do so? The stock answer to this question, the answer mandated by the anti-hagiographical orthodoxy of our time, is that he wanted to “humanize” his biographical subject by making him look as cowardly and foolish as he could. But this answer ignores the facts that Johnson is only one of four particular individuals instanced in this episode, and that the upshot of the final clinching statement about Johnson is not that Johnson was weak but that futurity was (and is) strong. Boswell writes, “Even his powerful mind was foiled by futurity,” impelling us to surmise that feebler minds like Boswell’s and yours and mine would have been foiled and baked to a crisp like jacket potatoes by it. So then what is the point of all the particulars? What purpose do they serve? Perchance to prove that Johnson was of the Devil’s (i.e., infidel’s) party without knowing it (i.e., at his insu), and that therefore we should all make a beeline for our local Devil’s Party recruiting office? I think not. Indeed, it seems to me that we miss the point of the “Briefing”-cum-“Account,” if we attempt to reduce it to a kind of position paper on immortality, for what are in conflict in it are not two different and incommensurable opinions about a single subject but rather two different and incommensurable ways of gauging a single experience—an experience that merely has the potential to become a subject. Johnson’s generalization about gallows vanity, after all, could hold true regardless of whether immortality were a state that anybody believed in or aspired to. Any power to console it may possess it owes entirely to the mere fact that it is a generalization, that it puts all us wretched humans—Christians, Jews, Hindoos, Mohammedans, and infidels alike—in the same moral-cum-psychological boat, the boat of vanity and the fear of death. Boswell’s particularizations deprive us of even this consolation by breaking up the boat, by portraying death as a phenomenon in the face of which one cannot know whether it is more appropriate—or even at all possible—to be hopeful or fearful; first, because one cannot know whether death is “annihilation” (teste Hume) or “another state of being,” (teste Johnson), second because one cannot determine which of these two states is the more desirable (teste Hume and Johnson), and third because one cannot know whether others’ outward attitudes to death arise from immediate confrontation with it or from confrontation with some intermediate phenomenon (teste Johnson). Of all the nouns one might employ in collectively characterizing them, “gossip” is surely the least plausible in both tone and substance. Boswell is dealing with so-called serious issues, and dealing with these issues in a highly serious manner—that’s “serious” as in both “not jokey” and “thoughtful,” and “manner” as in both “comportment” and “technique or style.”
In proving that both Boswell and Johnson are besonnenheitsvoll I hope I have also implicitly demonstrated why it is especially fruitful to read the two of them in juxtaposition—namely, because their respective Besonnenheits together comprise a single Überbesonnenheit governed by the dialectic of generalization and particularization. I term it a “dialectic” not—or, at least not only—to be pretentious, but to emphasize both the non-exclusivity of each man’s residence on his side of the fence and the awareness on each man’s part of the ineluctable mutual dependency of the two sides. Johnson preferred to generalize, but he was sensible of the limits of generalization, and the abuses to which it was potentially subject. In his retrospective apologia for his contributions to the periodical essay series The Adventurer, he pondered the apparently irrefutable generalization “that books have no influence upon the public, that no age was ever made better by its authors, and that to call upon mankind to correct their manners, is, like Xerxes, to scourge the wind or shackle the torrent,” and ultimately concluded that “the difficulty of confuting this assertion, arises merely from its generality and comprehension: to overthrow it by a detail of distinct facts, requires a wider survey of the world than human eyes can take; the progress of reformation is gradual and silent, as the extension of evening shadows; we know that they were short at noon, and are long at sun-set, but our senses were not able to discern their increase; we know of every civil nation that it was once savage, and how was it reclaimed but by precept and admonition?” In a word, generalization—at least negative generalization—is epistemologically dangerous because it always punches above its intellectual weight, because argument by negative generalization always takes much less time, and requires much less attention, than argument by positive particularization. To uphold the de facto verity of the assertion that books have no influence on the public, etc. merely requires one to nip down to one’s local greasy spoon or sangriaria on the day after the publication of a given book and observe that everybody there is behaving in pretty much the same way he or she behaved two days earlier. To prove that books have any influence on the public, in contrast, would involve some sort of colossally expensive and time-consuming sociological experiment in which thousands of high-school students would be presented with bound copies of Johnson’s Adventurer essays, then surreptitiously followed around with a camera and microphone throughout their subsequent youths and middle ages, and finally—once they had either soared into Carnegien/Gatesian heights of philanthropic prodigality or plunged into (K.)Ricardian/(A.)Winehouseian depths of misanthropic sensuality—asked, “Was your resolution to become a world-class philanthropist/junkie by any chance at least partly inspired by something you read?”
Complementarily, while Boswell was downright maniacally enthusiastic about particularizing, to the extent of speculatively stipulating that “a man should not live more than he can record, as a farmer should not have a larger crop than he can gather in,” and regretting “that there is no invention for getting an immediate and exact transcript of the mind, like that instrument by which a copy of a letter is at once taken off [“First freeze-dried soup” the reader exclaims in admiring astonishment, “and now photocopiers? You build me a U-Haul that’ll move me to the eighteenth century and I’m there, dude.”]” in the same text (Hypochondriack No. LXVI, “On Diaries”) in which he vetted these characteristically box-exploding thoughts, he frankly acknowledged that “there are few writers who have gained any reputation by recording their own actions,” and that if such a writer “descends to the trivial circumstances of private life, he makes himself ridiculous by supposing that the world will concern itself with his domestick occurrences.”
And in having proved the existence of this single generalization/particularization- governed Boswellian-Johnsonian Überbesonnenheit I hope I have also at least hinted at the ghost of a case for devoting more of one’s reading-time to Boswell and Johnson than to any of their novelizing contemporaries and most of the novelists of succeeding ages. We are, after all, taught nonstop from our earliest infancy onwards by our nannies, schoolmarms, tutors, resource police officers, and Jujitsu instructors that this sort of besonnenheitsvoll management of the particularization/generalization dialectic is what novelists do best, that it’s their stock-in-trade, their thing. We are further taught that this novelistic concentration on exemplary particulars was caused by a phenomenon known as the rise of the bourgeoisie (a.k.a. the middle class), that simply having to write about everyday people like merchants and lawyers and barmaids and housewives instead of about kings and queens and warriors and sorcerers practically compelled the early novelists to record the quotidian surroundings and activities of these everyday people with minute and quasi-photographic precision of detail. But on reading even the most advanced and sophisticated of the eighteenth-century novels, the early twenty-first century reader is struck by how little their authors seemed to be either interested in such descriptive precision work or aware of its necessity. Take, for example, the book that is generally agreed to be the greatest eighteenth-century novel in English, Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones. Its central third recounts the eponymous hero’s journey—or, in early twenty first-century parlance, road trip—over a period of [several weeks], to
from his native London , some eighty miles to the west of the capital. Now the principal genre of quotidiana an early twenty-first century reader looks for in a road-trip novel is local color, or, to be more precise, a sort of kaleidoscopic succession of mutually immiscible local colors: he expects to read therein something along the lines of “On Tuesday the fourth, we stopped in Town X, where not a square of toilet paper was to be heard of, let alone had; on Wednesday the fifth we stopped in Town Y, where toilet paper was not only available for free by the hectare but worshiped as a civic god.” Now, southern England in the middle of the eighteenth century was certainly not wanting in such geographical diversity; indeed, even today, when Taunton is within (admittedly arduous) commuting distance of the Big Smoke, the native West Countryman can be distinguished from his Londinian neighbors by his American-style habit of pronouncing the letter “R” at the ends of words and before mid-word consonants. Aware as he is of this difference, and assuming as he does that in the eighteenth century it was accompanied by thousands of other Somerset/London contrasts, contrasts now long-since defunct but then still-flourishing thanks to the sluggishness of travel, the absence of electronic communications, and the greater heterogeneity of land-use, the early twentieth-first century reader not unreasonably expects those three-hundred middle pages of Tom Jones to constitute a well-nigh EPCOT-ian smorgasbord of local-coloristic splendor. On learning, for example, that Jones is to make a so-called pit stop at an inn in Upton, a mere stone’s throwlet from the port city of Bournemouth, he eagerly looks forward to meeting a landlady whose lexicon will be liberally impregnated with terms appropriated to the maritime arts (“Don’t be such a land-lubber,” enjoined this Uptonian Xantippe, as she looked on Jones making his first tentative incision into the fillet of haddock she had just set before him: “tack to starboard and flist the old sea-quail down the hatch”). How disappointed he is to discover that Fielding’s Cornwall-to-London road is more monotonous and homogeneous than the flattest, straightest, and most Cracker-Barrel and Motel 6-saturated thousand miles of Midwestern U.S. Interstate Highway; to find Mr. Jones and his entourage and stalkers checking into and out of a succession of mutually interchangeable inns staffed by a succession of mutually interchangeable landlords, landladies, ostlers, scullery maids, and porters. The only splash of human-geographical quirkiness in the whole trip is supplied by an import, an Irishman whose nationality is discernable only in his short temper (“Where,” the early twenty-first century reader wonders, “are all the ‘top o’ the morning’s,’ the leprechaun jokes, the great lashings of ‘whesky in the jar-o,’ the panegyrics to deodorant soap that leaves the bather ‘fresh and clean as a whestle?’”). And to add exasperation to boredom, on nearing the end of the journey the E21CR is flummoxed to find the author very condescendingly chastising him (or, at any rate, some “reptile” of a critic who has been bored in exactly the same way) for not appreciating what a bang-up job he, the author, has been doing at varying the scenery: county of Somerset
A…caution we would give thee, my good reptile, is that thou dost not find out too near a resemblance between certain characters here introduced: as for instance, between the landlady who appears in the seventh book, and her in the ninth. Thou art to know, friend, that there are certain characteristics, in which most individuals of every profession and occupation agree. To be able to preserve these characteristics, and at the same time to diversify their operations, is one talent of a good writer.
Still skeptical but ever sporting, the E21CR revisits the two books in question with a vigilant eye unflaggingly primed for a sighting of landladylike operational diversification. But the only difference between the seventh-book landlady and the tenth-book landlady (a.k.a. the Uptonian one) that ends up striking him is that while the seventh-book landlady is rather kindly disposed towards Tom Jones, the tenth-book landlady emphatically is not. Whence the E21CR concludes that this business about “diversifying operations” is but so much ass-covering of the most shameless and intelligence-insulting sort.
How much more successful at gratifying the E21CR’s local-coloristic cravings are those two other great pieces of eighteenth-century road-trip literature, Johnson’s Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland and Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides! It is hardly a stretch to say that from a combined reading of these separate accounts of a trip to
’s Scotland Inner Hebrides that the two friends undertook together in the summer of 1773, one comes to know the hinterland of eighteenth-century “more completely than any other region that has ever yet existed.” Here, one is presented with a description of a Highlander’s hut that is detailed enough to serve as the blueprint of a convincing replica of the edifice: Scotland
A hut is constructed with loose stones, ranged for the most part with some tendency to circularity. It must be placed where the wind cannot act upon it with violence, because it has no cement; and where the water will run easily away, because it has no floor but the naked ground. The wall, which is commonly about six feet high, declines from the perpendicular a little inward. Such rafters as can be procured are then raised for a roof, and covered with heath, which makes a strong and warm thatch, kept from flying off by ropes of twisted heath, of which the ends, reaching from the center of the thatch to the top of the wall, are held firm by the weight of a large stone. (Johnson)
Here, one is introduced to an assortment of unforgettable characters, each of whom embodies some essential and distinctive feature of
or Hebridean society. There are, for example, the clan chief Sir Alexander Macdonald and his wife Elizabeth, perhaps the least aristocratic pair of aristocrats in world literature; inhospitable to the point of callousness—Sir Alexander “lets” two late-arriving dinner guests “stand round the room instead of getting room made for them” (Boswell)—thrifty to the point of penuriousness—“at tea there were few cups and no tea-tongs or a supernumerary tea-spoon, so we used our fingers” (Boswell)—and insipid to the point of vegetativeness—“The difference between [Elizabeth Macdonald] when alive, and when she shall be dead, is only this. When alive she calls for beer. When dead she’ll call for beer no longer” (Johnson quoted by Boswell). Then, as a kind of foil to the Macdonalds, there is the young laird of Coll, Donald Maclean, a veritable incarnation of progressive noblesse oblige, so devoted to his agricultural vocation that he has spent “a considerable time among the farmers of Hertfordshire and Hampshire…working at the principal operations of agriculture with his own hands,” by way of gleaning techniques for the cultivation of his own estate; and yet so mindful of his duties as a host that he finds time to serve as Boswell and Johnson’s guide over a period of a fortnight. Highland
Here, one is apprised, at the resolution of individual families (the Macleans, Macleods, Macdonalds, et al.), of the history of the Hebrides, and of its bearing on the present; of the economic life of the country at the resolution of specific commodities (the brogue, peat moss, etc.), and of its potential bearing on the future—most especially on the ever-haunting question whether human life of any sort on the islands will survive the seemingly unstaunchable hemorrhaging of emigrants to the New World.
Naturally there are differences between the two accounts, but as elsewhere in the J-BCC, these differences complement each other even while contradicting each other, in conformity with the dictates of the particularization/generalization dialectic. Hence, Johnson’s particularizing observations of Caledonian quirks not infrequently abut on generalizations that only very infrequently fail to situate these quirks somewhere on the map of comprehensible, sympathy-meriting human conduct; hence, for example, while Johnson finds it worthwhile qua Englishman to register as an anomaly the fact that “[t]he vulgar inhabitants of Sky, I know not whether of the other islands, have not only eels, but pork and bacon in abhorrence, and accordingly I never saw a hog in the Hebrides, except
one at Dunvegan,” qua citizen of the world he finds it decorous to preface this remark with a reminder that “[i]t is not very easy to fix the principles upon which mankind have agreed to eat some animals, and reject others; and as the principle is not evident, it is not uniform,” and that “that which is selected as delicate in one country, is by its neighbours abhorred as loathsome.” Hence, while Boswell ostensibly conforms to the anthropological (hence generalization-amenable) tenor established by Johnson, he seldom fills a page without throwing in some curveball of a particular that fairly flaunts its unassimilability to the anthropological project; hence, while Johnson confines his account of their meeting with an elderly Highland peasant-woman to “her whole system of economy” (i.e., the number of goats she owned, the constitution of her diet, etc.), Boswell launches into his report of the same encounter thus: “Dr. Johnson was curious to know where she slept. I asked one of the guides, who questioned her in Erse [i.e., Scottish Gaelic]. She answered with a tone of emotion, saying, (as he told us,) she was afraid we wanted to go to bed to her. This coquetry, or whatever it may be called, of so wretched a being, was truly ludicrous.” There is apparently nothing idiosyncratically Highlandian about the old woman’s misinterpretation of Johnson’s query as an amorous proposition; neither Boswell nor Johnson reports elsewhere that
Highland women routinely confound “Where is the bedroom?” with the old “Voulez-vous coucher?”. Nor is there anything generalizably human about it; it emphatically is not one of those “touches of nature that make the whole world kin,” as would have been, say, a young and attractive highland lass’s identical response to the same question. It is, rather, as Boswell points out, quite simply ludicrous—i.e., inter alia, both unprecedented and unrepeatable—and worth recording on those grounds alone.
“But if,” the early 21st-century reader is perhaps by now wondering, “the elements of everything that we take for granted in novels came so naturally to Boswell and Johnson in their travel writings, why did these same elements elude the capacities—or at least the wish lists—of the eighteenth-century novelists themselves? And what—assuming it wasn’t mere ass-covering after all—in the world did Fielding think he was doing in diversifying the operations of his characters, since it is clearly a far cry from and faint echo of the genuine diversity of character that we get in the Hebridian Journey and Tour?” In order to answer this question, we must remember, or remind ourselves, that in the mid eighteenth-century Anglosphere the bar or high-water mark to be aimed at in any attempt at the “realistic” (for lack of a better word) portrayal of everyday life remained that set by Shakespeare a century-and-a-half earlier. For while it would be neither fair nor accurate to call Shakespeare “unrealistic” in his treatment of setting (at minimum, his scrupulosity in omitting references to Jesus and an uppercase God from Julius Caesar, King Lear, etc., bespeaks his commitment to a kind of negative realism), one cannot deny that he is hardly interested in the sorts of anthropological-cum-geographical minutiae that one finds in droves in the Journal and the Tour. However much one may be (and in fact is) dispirited by the drearily endless succession of Shakespeare productions set in prosaic twentieth and twenty first-century locales, one must concede that the instigators of these productions are hardly talking out of their asses, as they say, in maintaining that the plays “lend themselves” to such stagings. If Shakespeare identifies the setting of his play only as “Navarre” or “Elsinore”—i.e., without specifying a year—then the reader-director is perfectly within his rights to picture a mise-en-scène evocative of Navarre or Elsinore in 1991 or 2011 or even 2051. And if, within this play, Shakespeare identifies the setting of a given scene only as “a room in the castle,” then the R-D is perfectly within his rights to fill this Schlosszimmer with a pool table, a fifty-inch television screen, life-sized posters of various pop stars and athletes, and the like; for after all, this is the sort of bric-a-brac with which a typical room in any still-inhabited castle in present-day Navarre or Elsinore is presumably filled. “Fair enough,” the would-be defender of Shakesperean realism qua timeless realism concedes: “Idiosyncrasy of setting is of less than paramount importance to the Bard. What matters most to him is idiosyncrasy of character.” Fair enough, but is “idiosyncrasy” really the right word for it? Anybody who has read even a handful of Shakespeare plays—especially of the ones without Roman numerals in their titles—will have been struck by the rather limited and selective scope of the Bard’s arsenal (or wardrobe or palette) of character designations, by the fact that it is apparently rather hard to make the final cut of a Shakespearean dramatis personae without being a king, queen, duke, lord, clown, steward, bastard, gentleman, or lady. Such an anybody will also have been struck by how often specific designations are paired with a specific repertoire (or arsenal or wardrobe) of actions–by how often dukes pontificate and adjudicate, kings fight and woo, bastards steam and scheme, stewards warn and fuss , et-fudging-cetera. He will also, of course, be struck by each character’s distinctiveness, but this distinctiveness will become apparent against the background not of the hundred-odd other characters in Shakespeare he is acquainted with (as mandated by genuine idiosyncrasy), but of the small subset of this hundred who are designated by the same handle. Thus Flavius in Timon of Athens and Malvolio in Twelfth Night are both exemplary stewards in that each of them regards as the highest good the solvency and habitability of the household entrusted to his care. Both are confronted by a threat to this good—Flavius by the throng of parasites frequenting Timon’s dinner table, Malvolio by Olivia’s boisterous, hollow-legged uncle Sir Toby Belch. But they respond to this threat very differently: Flavius confronts it head-on, or at the root, as it were, by addressing himself to the only person who can stave it off—namely, Timon himself; whereas Malvolio contents himself with attacking the branch, with lecturing and threatening Sir Toby. And by way of this difference they naturally reveal themselves to be very different subspecies of stewards—the one brave, genuinely virtuous, and unafraid to turn tutor to his master; the other cowardly, merely sanctimonious, and amenable to picking only on people his own size or smaller. Now, to be sure, pace all that I have said about the determinative power of character-function designations in Shakespeare, this disjunction between the threat-addressing-styles of Flavius and Malvolio cannot be rendered intelligible within the domain of stewardhood alone: that Malvolio is much more loath than Flavius to read the riot act to his boss must in no small part be owing to the fact that his boss is an attractive single woman rather than a middle-aged man of unmentioned (and therefore by default negligible) personal charm. But note a singular feature of these supervening categories of youth, beauty, manhood, and womanhood: they are even more general than the category of stewardhood (or masterhood or mistresshood); hence, they contribute even less effectually to idiosyncrasization. And as for such idiosyncrasizing factors as the presumably vast difference between the fifth-century B. C. Athenian style of stewardhood and the ?th-century A.D Illyrian style, they come into play not at all. Stewardhood for Shakespeare is essentially a static and geographically-cum-historically portable function followable in any given time or place one cares to name or set a play. And the same, mutatis mutandis, goes for kinghood, queenhood, dukedom, gentlemanliness, ladylikeness, et-fudging-cetera.
Now I submit that it was in just such a geographically-cum-historically portable light that Fielding saw landladylikeness; and I corollarily submit that the “operational diversifications” of his two landladies, like (MM) Shakespeare’s ODs of Flavius and Malvoilio, were conceived and realized within this geographically-cum-historically portable schema. Accordingly, the two landladies “agree” in the “characteristic”ally landladylike desire to make the establishment in their charge seem to be a respectable house in face of the inevitably high deadbeat/floozy/libertine/rapscallion content of their contingency-allotted clientele; and they “diverge” in their reflexive affective disposition towards one of their clients, Mr. Thomas Jones. In our time, one often hears the characters in Shakespeare and in the early great novelists like Fielding praised for their “three-dimensionality,” for their not being mere “two-dimensional cardboard cutouts.” But this praise, while undoubtedly well-bestowed, is very ineptly worded. For as vivid, distinctive, and unforgettable as these personages undeniably are, they are perforce obliged to disport themselves within the confines of two dimensions, because their authors do not acknowledge any others as determinant of human character. Small wonder, then, that Fielding was so smugly self-congratulatory about his “operational diversification”; for in the Flatlandian terms of his own cosmology, his is indeed a remarkably diverse universe. In advance of an acquaintance with Tom Jones, one is hardly likely to imagine, for example, that two gentlemen answering to the common denomination of Country Squire have ever been as radically dissimilar as Allworthy and Western—the one edifyingly calm, prudent, silver-tongued, temperate, and cultivated; the other outrageously choleric, impulsive, potty-mouthed, crapulous, and illiterate. But to gratify one’s curiosity on the matter of how two such seemingly imcompossible individuals of the species Armiger ruralis could have simultaneously flourished in Somerset but not in, say, Yorkshire, or in the middle of the eighteenth century but not in the middle of, say, the seventeenth, one must turn to other texts—to parish and county council archives, and to the presumably non-existent West-Country equivalent of Johnson’s and Boswell’s Hebridean narratives.
The personages in Johnson’s and Boswell’s travel narratives, on the other hand, are not merely three but four dimensional in this technical sense: they are delineated not only along the axes of social role and individual temperament but also along the axes of geographical location and historical moment, with each dimension mediating and being mediated by the other three. Sir Alexander Macdonald is an aristocratic landowner in social function (or even “profession”) and a skinflint by temperament, but he is also the head of a very large family confined to a marginal part of
during a historical moment when this region’s fortunes are at an all-time low and show no prospect of improvement. Accordingly, there is a certain rationality—or, at any rate, rationalizability—to his n*****dliness. And yet again, this n****rdlines cannot be seen as completely determined by Sir Alexander’s historical and geographical situation, because after all, young Coll finds himself in pretty much the same predicament—socially, historically, and geographically speaking—and yet manages to behave with exemplary generosity and courtesy towards his guests and tenants; largely because in temperament he is much more of a nice guy than an asshole. Scotland
Of course, Fielding’s was not the last word on characterization in the novel; of course, gradually, over the course of the third third of the eighteenth century and the first third of the nineteenth, romanciers in
and elsewhere learned to incorporate the third and fourth dimensions into their physiognographies. The pioneer here was Laurence Sterne, who, with his hawkeyed descriptions of the clothing, architecture, and medical implements of the provincial Britain of his childhood, opened the novel proper up to history writ small and personal. But au fond Sterne was no more interested in history qua history than Fielding had been. From Sterne we learn—as we never could do from a thorough perusal of the combined corpora of Swift, Pope, and Gay (fl. omn. 1710-1740)—that “In the latter end of Queen Anne's reign, and in the beginning of the reign of King George”—sc., “the year one thousand seven hundred and eighteen” –“‘Coat pockets were cut very low down in the skirt.'” But he imparts to us this priceless morsel of historical specificity solely by way of refining the presentation of his characters as originals and adding another exemplum to his inductive stockpile of proofs of the timeless psychology of his beloved Locke. To be sure, it is most amusing to behold Walter Shandy’s fumbling,“zig-zag”ing attempts to retrieve his handkerchief from one of these selfsame trans-dynastic coat pockets, along with the precipitancy with which these attempts remind Toby Shandy of his own movements during the siege of Namur, but one can easily imagine a counterfactual Sterne of the year one thousand eight hundred and eighteen making equally hefty comic-cum-philosophical capital out of the rear pockets of the cutaway tailcoats of the Regency period; to say nothing of the wonders some year two thousand nought hundred and eleven-flourishing Sterne could work with the rear-pocketless slacks of the Second Elizabethan Age. Nor, although Tristram Shandy is chock full of minutiae that one assumes were imported directly from his quotidian experience as a parson in rural Yorkshire, is Sterne especially interested in geography qua geography; for his Yorkshire, no less than Fielding’s Somerset, essentially functions as a generic antipode to London rather than as a region likewise distinguishable from other non-metropolitan regions. But with the arrival on the scene in 1814 of Sir Walter Scott, we get for the very first time a novelist who is interested in history and geography qua both. By “qua both” I mean qua a collection of specific places on the map and specific pages of the ye olde calfskin chronicle whose distance from both the here and the now can be quantified along some plottable trajectory. Earlier fictioneers—N. B., F.F.R., the emphasis on fiction—had treated history as the contingently available arena for the beaux gestes of great men and women who presumably would have flourished at any point of time and in any corner of the globe. Scott was the first non-factually accountable registrar of past events to take the event itself as his starting point of s**t-giving-about-worthiness; and to alight upon the conceit—now admittedly a fossilized cliché—that “the past is a foreign country,” meaning not only that the past is in certain salient and un-gloss-overable respects different from the present but also that it can after a certain fashion be traveled to from the present—not, to be sure, by TARDIS or lightning-powered DeLorean [convertible] but by consultation of the intervening historical record. “One knows full well,” Scott must have said to himself, while meditatively chewing on the pleasure end of his quill-pen on that fateful 1805 day on which he embarked on the first draft of Waverley, “that the Jacobite rebellion of 1745 is the most significant event in British history of the past century, that it may fairly be nominated the Trojan War of our people; one assumes that an event of such magnitude could not have eventuated in the absence of characters as heroic after their own fashion as Achilles, Hector, and Andromache; if the chroniclers of the time were remiss in naming most of them, let alone recording their deeds, then it is up to us to invent these characters and assign deeds to them—and then we shall have a cracking first-rate ’45-centred yarn fit to rival the Iliad.” If Waverley—or any other of Scott’s fifty-gazillion historical novels—did not end up rivaling the Iliad in point of anything but short-term sales revenues and geographical namesakes (I would wager that for every U.S. town or neighborhood named Troy or Ilium there are five such entities styled Waverley), this was because Scott approached the representation of historically appropriate characters and settings in a top-down fashion from start to finish. In other words, invariably rather than describing people as they had actually dressed, talked, eaten, et(obligatorily naughty)c., and places as they had actually looked, smelled, et(obligatorily implausible)c., Scott (b. 1771) described them as the historians, painters, geographers, etc. recorded that they had dressed, etc. “But surely,” the reader exasperatedly remonstrates, with arms justifiably akimbo, “considering that Scott was born a full quarter-century after the centerpiece event of his narrative, it was hardly his fault that the touches of historical local color in Britain were derived entirely from secondary sources.” I agree. But it was fully his fault—and a damned egregious one—that he pressed ahead with the writing of Waverley in defiance of this epistemological handicap. “You can’t seriously be saying that novelists should never write about historical periods that they themselves have not personally lived through.” Indeed not, DGR: Seldom say “never” is practically my personal motto. Still, I find it at minimum highly suggestive that it was only after the Scottian conception of history was wedded to first-hand-acquired historical material a la Sterne that there finally appeared a poetics of novel-writing capable of producing texts that often rivaled and occasionally surpassed Boswell’s and Johnson’s integration of particularistic detail into a canvas of quadra-dimensionally general import. This wedding took place roundabout 1830, in Waverley , in the early installments of Honoré de Balzac’s mammoth seventeen-volume novel cycle The Human Comedy; and we see a fine, bouncing example of the newlyweds’ progeny in the passage below: France
Following the fashion of the transition period between the eighteenth century small clothes and the vulgar costume of the present day [i.e., A. D. 1843], he wore tight-fitting black trousers. Men still showed their figures in those days [i.e., A. D. 1822], to the utter despair of lean, clumsily-made mortals; and Lucien was an Apollo. The open-work gray silk stockings, the neat shoes, and the black satin waistcoat were scrupulously drawn over his person, and seemed to cling to him.
In one quite glaring trait-- viz. its detailed and historiographically punctilious description of men’s clothing--this passage takes strongly after the passage from Tristram Shandy referenced above. But in its emphasis in the contrast between two historical moments—as well as in the significance of the contrast—it equally glaringly betrays its familial debt to Scott. Sterne, it will be recalled, is mute on the matter of the height of men’s coat-pockets in his own time, because he is principally interested in making the Walter Shandy of some forty years earlier look ridiculous, and any dwelling on the ergonomic superiority of George III-vintage men’s coats would only detract from that particularistic ridiculizing effect. Balzac, on the other hand, is not principally interested in making this Lucien person of twenty-one years ago look like “an Apollo.” He is principally interested, rather, in making his “clumsily made” sub-Apollonian “mortal” male contemporaries feel like a pack of ungracious usurpers who, being now both more numerous and more powerful than the Apollos, have imposed their baggy, proto-Emmett Kellyesque “vulgar costume” on the entire contemporary manscape and thereby condemned every born Apollo unlucky enough to come of age in 1843 to languish in artificial shapelessness. And so the star of the passage is not the named character, but the contrast between the two styles of dress. And yet again, in the passionate subjective authority with which Balzac weighs in on the contrast, Sterne has his revenge: it is hard to imagine anybody who had not seen these form-fitting, proto-spandex garments in action interposing an implied witness in the phrase “seemed to cling,” when, after all, as far as the record was concerned, a simple “clung” (or, for the metaphorically fastidious, “virtually clung”) would have done.
The above-cited passage hails from Balzac’s masterpiece, a glorious three-part, 700-page prose epic entitled Lost Illusions; and just as each cell in our body, according to the geneticists, contains all the information needed to produce a fully biologically functional replica of ourselves, so does this passage contain all the technical apparatus employed by Balzac in the realization of Lost Illusions as a whole. Firstly, and most obviously, it furnishes the name of the protagonist of the book, Lucien—in full, Lucien Chardon, and eventually Lucien de Rubempré. Secondly it furnishes a two-pronged attributive hook—in this case Apollonian beauty—whereby some infrarealistic facet of Lucien’s Lebenswelt can be fruitfully juxtaposed with some more general facet of existence in his own day and some equally more general facet of existence in the latter-day Balzac’s. And the hooks of this peculiar make that Balzac has ready to hand are many. For you see, DGR, the Lucien Chardon of 1822 is not merely an Apollonian beauty: he is also a talented poet and a native of the provincial town of Angoulême (even more specifically—and pathetically—of Houmeau, the Brooklyn to Angoulême’s Manhattan) and the son of an improvident (and now deceased) apothecary, and a man of aristocratic parentage on his mother’s side. And as Balzac knows full well that each of these attributes meant something different in 1822 than it does now (i.e., again, 1843), he knows that each of them likewise repays elucidation—at individual lonely, provincial, beautiful, semi-aristocratic poet resolution—in both 1822-ish and 1843-ish terms. Such that, for example, he is not content to tell us that Lucien went to the Palais Royal in search of a publisher; no: he has to map for us at floorplan-module resolution the differences between the Palais Royal of today, “a vast greenhouse without flowers,” and the “squalid bazaar” it was back then; and into exactly which niche of this bazaar the publishing firms fitted. (Consider by way of understanding the prima facie pointless elaborateness of this operation, some counterfactual version of Fast Times at Ridgemont High interrupted by a guided tour of the 1982 Ridgemont mall—“Now here you have the famous Dairy Queen. Who would have guessed a scant twenty months later it would be displaced by a Chik Fil A?”).
Grosso modo, this magnificent networked heap of infrarealia delineates a two panel storyboard depicting or perhaps dramatizing the transition from an interpersonal literary scene centering on poetry and the charisma of the individual writer, and beholden to the patronage of idiosyncratic aristocrats, to an impersonal one centering on journalism and the collectively-produced newspaper, and beholden to the anonymous mass of newspaper subscribers. Lucien Chardon starts out as a grand homme de province—a provincial celebrity—admired in his hometown for the brilliance of his poetry and his good looks and supported for both by the leading local aristocratic bluestocking, Madame de Bargeton. And he ends up a provincial nobody, having in the meantime enjoyed in
the French Restoration equivalent of 15 minutes of fame—at the impetus not of his poetry or even his good looks, but of a newspaper theater review tossed off on the spur of the moment, almost accidentally. His failure to draw those 15 minutes into 15 years or even 15 months is owing to many causes, but all of them are ultimately reducible to a misidentification of the anonymous reader as the full functional successor of the patron. He reasons that if in backwater Angoulême Madame de Bargeton was willing to trick him out in a new suit of clothes so that he could read his poems to an audience of a few dozen, the readership of the Paris newspapers will behave like 50,000 Madame de Bargetons and supply him with 50,000 suits of clothes in recompense for his entertaining them with whatever fancy impels him to write. Complementarily, and equally wrong-headedly, he assumes that these faceless and prevailingly bourgeois readers will be as impressed by an aristocratic surname as any patron would be, and so he casts his journalistic fortunes with the political faction most likely to reward him with such a surname, with the so-called ultras mulishly loyal to the king and hence to the old aristocratic system whose last vestiges of political influence are doomed to expire within a generation. Balzac concedes to his tabloid and broadsheet-jaded, baggy-trousered contemporaries that such reasoning would be naïve to the point of imbecility now, in the oxymoronic “bourgeois monarchist” year 1843, but he also confidently maintains that it was hardly irrational in 1822, given that the experiences capable of preemptively refuting it were then becoming live-through-able for the first time in history. How, after all, can somebody who has never heard of non-domesticated canines be blamed for petting the first wolf he encounters and consequently having his hand bitten off? Paris
Unhappily, though, for Balzac’s claim to the title of trailblazer, the early 1820s do not mark the wolf Mass Readership’s first appearance in the literary ecosphere, or even the first literary record of this wolf’s attack on a naïve, patron-attuned poet. That account appeared nearly a full century before Lost Illusions, in An Account of the Life of Mr Richard Savage, a biographical narrative penned by a young man named Samuel Johnson. If this coincidence strikes you as too timely to be true, DGR, I beg you, the next time you have a few hundred hours to spare, to read the two texts in juxtaposition; and I wager that you will end up conceding that they essentially relate the same story. To be sure, there are a few non-negligible differences: having been born in the capital, Savage has no need to travel to it; and far from being an Apollo, Savage is a man of “a long visage and coarse features,”et (paucissima) c. But the similarities are more numerous and far more striking: like Lucien, Savage is obsessed with obtaining official recognition of an aristocratic birthright; like Lucien he starts out as a self-styled poet but ends up earning his daily bread from journalism; above all, like Lucien, he is naïve enough to consider himself a made man on the evidence of a single commercial success, and in consequence becomes a terminal debtor. To be sure, even in this second or third-most particularistic of his works, Johnson remains at heart a generalizer, and so one hardly gets from the Account the cornucopic abondanza of infrarealistic detail that fairly oozes from every page of the Illusions. But the few touches thereof that one does get therein certainly give the Illusions a run for its money, as they say. Balzac’s professional football coach-worthy analyses of the about-faces, interceptions, feints, and scrimmages stooped to by the political journalists of Restoration-microepoch
may compel one to despair of man’s capacity to be governed by any motive nobler than a hankering for the almighty livre. But Johnson’s account of Savage’s involvement in a fractured polygonal coffee-house brawl and his subsequent trial for murder compels one with a Cohen-brothers-worthy grotesqueness and relentlessness to despair of the human organism’s capacity even to act according to something as coherent as a motive. Surreal is too prosaic and too good-natured an attributive for the “eloquent harangue” with which Savage’s judge attempts to “exasperate the jury,” into returning a verdict of guilty: Paris
Gentlemen of the jury, you are to consider that Mr Savage is a very great man, a much greater man than you or I, gentlemen of the jury; that he wears very fine clothes, much finer clothes than you or I, gentlemen of the jury; that he has abundance of money in his pocket, much more money than you or I, gentlemen of the jury; but, gentlemen of the jury, is it not a very hard case, gentlemen of the jury, that Mr Savage should therefore kill you or me, gentlemen of the jury?
And no tableau of the hardscrabble literary life in Lost Illusions can quite vie with the following one in pointing up the sheer ludicrousness-cum-pettiness of the expedients to which debt can drive even the most illustrious and established professional author:
He [i.e., Savage] was once desired by Sir Richard [Steele], with an air of the utmost importance, to come very early to his house the next morning. Mr. Savage came as he had promised, found the chariot at the door, and Sir Richard waiting for him, and ready to go out. What was intended, and whither they were to go, Savage could not conjecture, and was not willing to inquire; but immediately seated himself with Sir Richard. The coachman was ordered to drive, and they hurried with the utmost expedition to Hyde Park Corner, where they stopped at a petty tavern, and retired to a private room. Sir Richard then informed him that he intended to publish a pamphlet, and that he had desired him to come thither that he might write for him. He soon sat down to the work. Sir Richard dictated, and Savage wrote, till the dinner that had been ordered was put upon the table. Savage was surprised at the meanness of the entertainment, and after some hesitation ventured to ask for wine, which Sir Richard, not without reluctance, ordered to be brought. They then finished their dinner, and proceeded in their pamphlet, which they concluded in the afternoon.
Mr. Savage then imagined his task over, and expected that Sir Richard would call for the reckoning, and return home; but his expectations deceived him, for Sir Richard told him that he was without money, and that the pamphlet must be sold before the dinner could be paid for; and Savage was therefore obliged to go and offer their new production to sale for two guineas, which with some difficulty he obtained. Sir Richard then returned home, having retired that day only to avoid his creditors, and composed the pamphlet only to discharge his reckoning.
It is worth noting that this episode gains in epistemological force in virtue of centering not on some fictional composite journalist à la Balzac’s Blondeau or Lousteau, but on a real formerly-alive and historically-cum-geographically pinpointable man of letters, Sir Richard Steele, founder of and leading contributor to the Tatler. But at bottom the actuality of the personages referred to in the Account is of far less moment than the seminality of the phenomena it registers—than, for example, the fact, vis-à-vis the above-quoted passage, that the Tatler was the very first privately initiated organ of periodical journalism in any country, and that on this account Steele may not inaptly be dubbed the very first professional journalist ever. Beside such rough-hewn colossi as Steele and Savage, generals-cum-foot-soldiers in the vanguard of the commercialization-cum-massification of literary activity, Balzac’s characters, for all their infrarealistic vitality, come across as puny and clueless epigones, the literary-historical equivalent of American Civil War re-enactors. To their likes, and on the score of their stinking so-called Lost Illusions, Johnson effectively has four words—like the famous Manhattan deli-counter clerk who, on presenting a customer with a Styrofoam-cupful of hot water and a teabag, was met with the spluttering demurral “B-b-but you don’t understand: I’m English!,” he stone-facedly retorts, Get over it, pal. If there is one thing Balzac and his contemporaries should and could have learned from a reading of Johnson, it is that commercialization on its own cannot in any age be blamed for a deterioration in either the standards of literary production or the quality of life of the man of letters. As Johnson observed in a three-way chinwag with Boswell and a certain pre-Holmesian Dr. Watson during the Edinburghian leg of the tour to the
Hebrides, “as trade is now carried on by subordinate hands, men in trade have as much leisure as others; and learning itself is a trade. A man goes to a bookseller, and gets what he can. We have done with patronage,” and concluded, “it is better as it is,” by comparison with the old patronage-dominated system (Boswell, Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, Thursday, August 19). This is not to say that Johnson by any means thought that he was living in a literary golden age, but merely that he recognized that the state of literature qua profession was completely separable from the state of literature qua Weltgeistträger (rough translation—bearer of knowledge of the true state and course of the world). As a man who had supported himself on publisher’s royalties for a good thirty of his sixty-four years, he was keenly both aware of and grateful for the fact that literary men were better paid under the dispensation of commercial publication than they had been under the dispensation of patronage. But at the same time, as a would-be producer of non-superfluous literature, he deplored what he conceived as his late arrival in the antechamber of an already suffocatingly overcrowded Pantheon of great writers. For when Boswell “told him that our friend [Oliver] Goldsmith had said to me, that he had come too late into the world, for that Pope and other poets had taken up the places in the Temple of Fame; so that, as but a few at any period can possess poetical reputation, a man of genius can now hardly acquire it,” he replied, “That is one of the most sensible things I have ever heard of Goldsmith. It is difficult to get literary fame, and it is every day growing more difficult” (Life, Friday, April 14, 1775).
This sense of belatedness—of his own de facto epigonehoood, and of the sheer, cussed gratuitousness of most literary activity in his own day in the light of what had already been written—informs virtually every one of Johnson’s literary undertakings. It informs, for very big example, his production of the Dictionary, the motivation for which was not—as his grudging, clothespin-nosed acknowledgments of his lexicographical predecessors in the preface to that work attest—an overweening passion for tracing etymologies and composing definitions, but rather the recognition that the absence of an English counterpart to the French Academy’s dictionary constituted a genuine so-called niche to be filled; that while there was clearly a demand for such a book, nobody else could seem to be arsed to produce it. Undoubtedly he would have preferred to make his name by writing a poem as great as The Rape of the Lock or The Dunciad, and he may very well have considered himself a “man of genius” sufficient to such an achievement, but, alas, the niche for such a poem had already been filled by The Rape of the Lock and The Dunciad themselves. The sense of belatedness likewise informs, for equally big example, the selectiveness with which he treats of the geographical constituents of his Scottish tour in the Journey to the Western Isles. From Boswell’s Journal of the trip, we know that Johnson spent some eighteen days, or roughly a fifth of the length of the entire tour, in Edinburgh; and that on his way back from the Hebrides he stopped for a day-and-a-half in Glasgow; yet in the Journey he devotes to Scotland’s two largest cities a grand total of 21 words, viz. “Edinburgh is a city too well known to admit description” and “to describe a city so much frequented as Glasgow, is unnecessary” as if by way of insuring his ability to boast in good faith, as he did to Boswell on April 28, 1778, that “in that book I have told the world a great deal that they did not know before”—meaning, inter alia, that I have not told the world the tiniest deal-let of what they did know before.
Finally, for biggest of all example, the sense of belatedness informs the assertion that Edmund Wilson paraphrased as “[I] cannot conceive anyone’s writing except for the purpose of making money.” Now, from my preceding paragraph it should be clear that Johnson conceived at least two worthy non-pecuniarily oriented purposes for writing—namely, the pursuit of fame and the dissemination of knowledge. It therefore follows that
’s paraphrase must have been either willfully licentious or guilelessly erroneous. The original assertion admits of either alternative, for it is worded precisely as follows: “Nobody but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” It is, I admit, a bit of a verbal analogue to the old Wittgensteinian rabbit-duck, this here assertion. The reader who has never encountered it before is bound by default to think of it as a rabbitical clone of Wilson ’s paraphrase, whereas I, while capable of viewing it either as rabbit or as a duck, am inclined to think that its draughtsman intended it as a duck rather than as a rabbit. The case for my perspective hinges entirely on the devilish multivalency of that wee preposition “for,” which can in good idiomatic English indeed stand in for the bulkier construction “for the purpose of,” but also carries out a number of other functions. Consider, by way of appreciating “for”’s multivalency, the case of the man who asserts that he has washed his preferred co-coitionist’s car “for 20 bucks.” Our knowledge that he washed the car “for” this aforementioned sum of money offers us no insight into his purposes; it merely proves that after (or, less plausibly, before or during) washing the car he received $20, and such knowledge is assuredly not incompatible with his truthfully asserting that he washed the car “for love,” i.e., for the purpose of expressing his love for his preferred co-coitionist, or for the purpose of securing the love of his preferred co-coitionist; such that had somebody other than his PCC offered him $20 in exchange for the same service, he may very well have declined to perform it. By now I hope it is as evident to the reader as it is to me that Johnson intended for in the second, weaker, sense illustrated by the car-washing scenario rather than in the strong, Wilsonian sense; in other words, that the “blockhead” assertion may actually best be paraphrased as something to the effect of “No man, whatever his purpose in writing a given text may have been, ever wrote in the absence of the prospect of receiving money as a consequence of having written it.” Wilson
But if the reader has not been won over to my perspective by my little thought-experiment, perhaps a perusal of the “blockhead” assertion in its natural habitat—i.e., the only textual source that we have for it—will bring him round. The passage is (surprise!) from Boswell’s Life, specifically from the portion of it chronicling
the 5th of April, 1776, and reads as follows:
When I expressed an earnest wish for his remarks on
[the occasion is an impending but ultimately abortive trip to the Italy Peninsula], he said, 'I do not see that I could make a book upon ; yet I should be glad to get two hundred pounds, or five hundred pounds, by such a work.' This shewed both that a journal of his Tour upon the Continent was not wholly out of his contemplation, and that he uniformly adhered to that strange opinion, which his indolent disposition made him utter: 'No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.' Numerous instances to refute this will occur to all who are versed in the history of literature. Italy
If Yogi Berra ever cares to prove that “It’s déjà vu all over again” is something more substantial than a risible pleonasm, he need look no further than this passage for evidence. Here, only three years after the Scottish tour, Johnson is being asked to write another account of another journey, a book about his prospective sojourns in the likes of Rome, Naples, and Florence—cities much “better known” and “much” more “frequented” than Edinburgh and Glasgow, hence much less “necessary” or “admissible” to be described in a published travelogue. Is it any wonder that according to his own lights, Johnson sees in such a book an opportunity “to tell the world” absolute zilch “that it does not know” already; or that he regards such a book as a virtual non-book; or that the only redeeming consequence he can envisage of the production of such a non-book is the deposit of a couple-hundred quid in his pocket?
But of course, the governing perspective here is Boswell’s, and Boswell—the man who, you will recall, effectively wanted to hook his brain up to a computer printer—naturally conceives the unwritten travelogue in a very different light. In Boswell’s opinion, it is far wiser to record our thoughts and observations on the off-chance that they will be of interest to others, rather than automatically lose them for ever by not recording them; and his practice both realizes and bears out this opinion. “Numerous instances” of certifiable non-blockheads writing in the absence of any prospect of pecuniary remuneration, he says, “will occur to all who are versed in the history of literature”; and I, for one, cannot help appending to this assertion an under-the-breath, through-gritted teeth postscript of “exempla-f**king-gratia., the book you’re reading at this very moment.” The bulk of the Life, after all, derives virtually unedited from Boswell’s personal diaries, diligently and conscientiously labored over for the most part during a period when Boswell had not the faintest idea of what genre of book would eventuate from them, let alone the sum he would be paid for it. And in the specific matter of Johnson’s never-written Italian travel book Boswell was undoubtedly right to be exasperated with the “blockhead” motto—for from any such book we would doubtless have learned much more about eighteenth-century Italy than we have from any of the accounts in English thereof that have actually come down to us. Yes, scads of Englishmen had been to
before Johnson, and had written about it, but none of their accounts can be said to have done the same kind and degree of justice to Italy as the Journey to the Western Isles did to Italy . Scotland
But over the long haul, literary history has shown Johnson’s tight-fisted attitude to literary production to be if not demonstrably correct, then at least creeping ever asymptotically closer to the axis of correctitude even as Boswell’s open-handed one equally asymptotically approaches the axis of futility. Balzac, less than fifty years after Johnson, was already effectively writing, in Welgeist-ial terms, a gratuitous travelogue of Edinburgh or Glasgow. The famous German literary critic Walter Benjamin dubbed Paris “the capital of the nineteenth century,” but by any reasonable measure that title belongs to London, compared to which Balzac’s Paris looks like a late-flowering twin of the more provincial (but more pioneering) London of the eighteenth century. And the Weltgeist-bearing capabilities of Boswellian EKG-esque transcription of particulars only continued to diminish after Balzac. To be sure, novels rich in objective infrarealia continued to be written, but the infrarealia became less and less toss-about-givable. To those who would proffer Dickens as an example in counterproof on the grounds that no place in the history of the world is more familiar to us (nor, if London is indeed the nineteenth-century Hauptsadt, more worth being familiar with) than Dickens’s London, I can only suggest that a century-and-a-half deep tradition of pictorial assistance, dating all the way back to Hablot K. “Phiz” Browne’s illustrations for the original editions, and culminating in the latest product of BBC’s never-idle Victorian novel adaptation mill, have made it virtually impossible for us to judge how much or little of a realist Dickens actually was. Certainly, by default one pictures the young Scrooge’s boss, Mr. Fezziwig (fl. ca. 1820?), as a sort of middle-aged English contemporary of the young Lucien Chardon—viz. a stout, rubicund complexioned, van Buren side-whiskered gentleman clad in a bright-green single-breasted cutaway coat and bum-hugging white trousers, and flanked by a wife crowned by a chaos of curls and draped in a seductively formless gauzy white slip of a post-Empire dress; and old Scrooge’s nephew Fred (fl. ca. 1840?) as a slim, naked-cheeked young gentleman togged out in a double-breasted black tailcoat, and espoused to a lacquer-coiffed, corseted, and buttressed throwback to the 1780s. But how much of this is Dickens’s doing and how much the doing of UA and MGM and BBC costume designers? This much I can say by way of testifying to the shabbiness of Dickens qua geographer laureate of London, both in absolute terms and by comparison with his eighteenth-century predecessors: back in the middle 1980s, when my knowledge of the English capital was derived almost entirely from the works of Dickens and visual offshoots thereof, I could not have told you on which side of the Thames the Houses of Parliament were sited (surely convenience must have played a part in Dickens’s predilection for fog as a symbolic device); whereas, now, having acquainted myself with eighteenth-century London ca. 90% courtesy of the writings of Boswell and Johnson, I may in all modesty boast of being able to find my way around that London practically blindfolded. And having found my way to a particular precinct of that London, I can report on the density and zoning-use of its architecture; the professions, social standings, and couture of its inhabitants or habitués; and the style and substance of its food, music, and conversational topics—invariably deriving from each of these facets of quotidiana a delighted recognition of a direct link, as they say, to some register of my present existence. Like the gentleman-barfly in the ancient television commercial who toasted individually a club-audience composed of long-dead Hollywood stars, I raise my brimful bulb of 1748 vintage port in salute to Mr. Steam Engine, Miss (sic) Condom, Mrs. Theory of Evolution, Miss National Debt, Mr. Abstractly Formulated Capitalism, et multissma cetera (each of whom or which, after his, her, or its own fashion, shoots back a grin pricelessly significative of “Who loves you, babe?”). By extreme contrast, when I turn to an allegedly serious twenty-first century novel in the pseudo-realist pseudo-tradition, I am horrified to discover a catalogue of pseudo-quotidiana devoid of any connection to any register of my present existence, despite their ostensibly ineluctable “relevance” to the country and epoch I inhabit.
In the earliest years, when you could still drive a Volvo 240 without feeling self-conscious, the collective task in Ramsey Hill was to relearn certain life skills that your own parents had fled to the suburbs specifically to unlearn, like how to interest the local cops in actually doing their job, and how to protect a bike from a highly motivated thief, and when to bother rousting a drunk from your lawn furniture, and how to encourage feral cats to shit in somebody else's children's sandbox, and how to determine whether a public school sucked too much to bother trying to fix it. There were also more contemporary questions, like, what about those cloth diapers? Worth the bother? And was it true that you could still get milk delivered in glass bottles? Were the Boy Scouts OK politically? Was bulgur really necessary? Where to recycle batteries? How to respond when a poor person of color accused you of destroying her neighborhood? Was it true that the glaze of old Fiestaware contained dangerous amounts of lead? How elaborate did a kitchen water filter actually need to be? Did your 240 sometimes not go into overdrive when you pushed the overdrive button? Was it better to offer panhandlers food, or nothing? Was it possible to raise unprecedentedly confident, happy, brilliant kids while working full-time? Could coffee beans be ground the night before you used them, or did this have to be done in the morning? Had anybody in the history of
ever had a positive experience with a roofer? What about a good Volvo mechanic? Did your 240 have that problem with the sticky parking-brake cable? And that enigmatically labeled dashboard switch that made such a satisfying Swedish click but seemed not to be connected to anything: what was that? St. Paul
Let me just go through the list, Whole Foods inventory clerk (speaking of Whole Foods: is it still OK politically to shop there now that they’re purchasing jojoba oil from a vendor with Huffington Post-alleged quangoistic ties to a Uganadan beige asphalt cartel?) style:
1. “Life skills”—Where ever is that frightful stench coming from?
2. Volvo 240—don’t drive
3. Feral cats—don’t have children or sandbox
4. Milk deliverable in glass bottles?—don’t drink milk, but the answer is “yes.”
5. Boy Scouts Politically OK?—Dunno (dropped out of Cub Scouts at bear level)
6. Is bulgur necessary?—Who do you think you are, Mervyn LeRoy or Victor Fleming?
7. Lead in Fiestaware—What’s Fiestaware? (But for what it’s worth, my watchword on suspected lead hazards is When in doubt, throw it out.)
7. Lead in Fiestaware—What’s Fiestaware? (But for what it’s worth, my watchword on suspected lead hazards is When in doubt, throw it out.)
8. 240 in overdrive—See No. 2
9. Panhandlers—The answer is obviously “Nothing, EVER!!!!!!!”
10. Happy brilliant kids—See No. 3
11. Coffee-grinding—Don’t make coffee at home
12. Roofer—Don’t own house or roof (but do live in
[Street, that is]) St. Paul
13-15 misc. Volvoniania see No. 2
“In short,” I mean to express by way of this inventory, “I fail to see why I am supposed to give an infrared silhouette of a freeze-dried shit about any of this.” And why do I so fail?—not merely because I have no direct association with most of the items in Mr. Franzen’s Ramsey-Hillian index rediscendum; as though I were so self-centered that the only contemporary novel I could be persuaded to read would be one about a single, childless non-house owning man with a Johnson-and-Boswell obsession. No: the reason I fail to see why I should give an ISS of a(n) FDS about the RHIR is that I do not give an ISS of a(n) FDS even about the items in the RHIR with which I do enjoy a direct association, that from my indifference to these items it is a reasonable inference that the Ramsey-Hillians (or their real-world models) do not themselves give an ISS of (a)n FDS about the remaining items, and that to give an ISS of an FDS or more about something via someone else’s not giving an ISS of a(n) FDS about it is surely the height or depth of some more pernicious vice than mere perversity. Take, as an example of an item on the RHIR with which I enjoy a direct association, No. 7—“Lead in Fiestaware.” Now, as should be evident from my comment on this item, although I do not know what Fiestaware is, I am no less alive than the Rasmey-Hillian to the threat of cryptomolibaxthesis, of the seemingly willful tendency of clinically toxic amounts of lead to make their way into our bodies by way of the most apparently innocuous and incorruptible everyday media and objects. And when I am alone, my cryptomolibaxthesis-awareness manifests itself in certain patterns of behavior—notably a habit of letting the kitchen faucet run for at least half a minute before drinking from it (this rather than using a filter because fourteen years ago a roommate of mine asserted on the authority of the Berkeley Wellness Letter that the thirty-second pre-run worked better than a filter [doubtless the scientific consensus has since changed]). But on being offered, say, a cup of tea at somebody else’s house, I cheerfully drain it to its dregs without daring to dream of soliciting its lead-free bona fides from my host. I behave thus in company vis-à-vis my cryptomolibaxthesis-awareness partly because to do otherwise would be rude, partly because it would make me look like something of a loon, but mostly because at bottom I am not especially worried about cryptomolibaxthesis. My intermittent behavioral acknowledgment of it is at worst a hang-up, and certainly not anything as dire as a phobia. Q.E.D.: I do not give an ISS of a(n) FDS about it, i.e., I do not care about it according to the criteria for caring quite tidily and sufficiently established by the famous twentieth and twenty-first century American analytic philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt. “A person who cares about something,”
is, as it were, invested in it. He identifies himself with what he cares about in the sense that he makes himself vulnerable to losses and susceptible to benefits depending upon whether what he cares about is diminished or enhanced. Thus he concerns himself with what concerns it, giving attention to such things and directing his behavior accordingly. Insofar as the person’s life is in whole or in part devoted to anything, rather than being merely a sequence of events whose themes and structures he makes no effort to fashion, it is devoted to this (Frankfurt, IWWCA, p. 83).
Nearly two hundred years earlier, in a chinwag with Boswell, Johnson delimited the boundaries of caring in material terms no less stringent than and wholly compatible with Frankfurt’s, by way of the less pleasurable half of caring, namely vexation:
BOSWELL. 'Perhaps, Sir, I should be the less happy for being in Parliament. I never would sell my vote, and I should be vexed if things went wrong.' JOHNSON. 'That's cant, Sir. It would not vex you more in the house, than in the gallery: publick affairs vex no man.' BOSWELL. 'Have not they vexed yourself a
little, Sir? Have not you been vexed by all the turbulence of this reign, and by that absurd vote of the House of Commons, "That the influence of the Crown has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished?"' JOHNSON. 'Sir, I have never slept an hour less, nor eat an ounce less meat. I would have knocked the factious dogs on the head, to be sure; but I was not vexed.' BOSWELL. 'I declare, Sir, upon my honour, I did imagine I was vexed, and took a pride in it; but
it was, perhaps, cant; for I own I neither ate less, nor slept less.' JOHNSON. 'My dear friend, clear your mind of cant. You may talk as other people do: you may say to a man, "Sir, I am your most humble servant." You are not his most humble servant. You may say, "These are bad times; it is a melancholy thing to be reserved to such times." You don't mind the times. You tell a man, "I am sorry you had such bad weather the last day of your journey, and were so much wet." You don't care six-pence whether he is wet or dry. You may talk in this manner;
it is a mode of talking in Society; but don't think foolishly.' (Life, Thursday, 15 May 1783)
It would be cant in me to say that I was vexed by cryptomolibaxthesis inasmuch as I have “never slept an hour less nor eat an ounce less meat [or tofu, or what have you]” on account of it. Likewise, and inasmuch as the same muchness, I wager, it would be cant in the real-world counterparts of Franzen’s Ramsey-Hillians to say that they were vexed by the potentially unfavorable cost-to-benefit ratio of cloth diapers or the potential political shortcomings of the Boy Scouts. To be sure, they may say, “these cloth diapers are terribly overpriced diapers; it is a melancholy thing to be reserved for a year’s subscription to such diapers.” They may say that they are vexed by the Boy Scouts’ absurd declaration “That the influence of the secular humanist lobby has increased, is increasing and ought to be diminished.” They may talk in this foolish manner; it is a mode of talking in intermillenial American Society, but this does not prove that they think foolishly. Unfortunately, the allegedly state-of-the-art serious literary English-language novel does not regard distinguishing between what is talked about and what is thought as part of its job-description. Pigheadedly loyal to its Balzacian birthright-cum-mission, it dutifully apportions every jot and tittle of the vast alphabet-soup sea of the past five years’ chit-chat among the speech-balloons of its personages, whom its first generation of readers out of a combination of vanity and naivety—the vanity of the attention-starved pseudo-mainstream, the naivety of the literary-historically ignorant worshipers of literature, and especially of the novel–embrace as faithful representations of themselves; and whom—in the absence of contemporary non-industry driven dissension—succeeding generations embrace as embodiments of “what it was really like back then.” By this mechanism have the 1970s been universally assimilated as the decade of disco, pre-crack cocaine, and the pet rock, in defiance of airplane-hangar filling heaps of reel-to-reel computer tape attesting to the existence, self-sufficiency, and tax-paying ability of tens of millions of pre-geriatric 1970s-inhabiting Americans who never gave a ghost of a serious thought to buying a pet rock, visiting a disco, or snorting a line of coke; and by this selfsame mechanism are the noughties/tweenies doomed to be regarded as (inter multa pessima alia), the decade of tentatively renascent cloth-diaper and home-milk delivery.
“Granted,” the best of all possible DGRs now interjects in outright appallment, “that this poetics of the novel is untenably awful: what sort of poetics thereof, then, is to be erected in its stead?” The BoaPDGRs perhaps forgets that the avowed purpose of this essay is to defend Boswell and Johnson qua objects of reading, not to prescribe subjects or methods of writing. But out of my love for him or her, I shall humor his or her craving at least to the extent of disclosing what I do not envisage as a tenable alternative to automated Balzacianism, namely a return to Fieldingian negative realism. To be sure, Fielding’s lack of interest in washer-resolution description of the proverbial kitchen sink is retrospectively quite refreshing. But at bottom this refreshment is preempted and vitiated by his overall authorial ethos, which may be properly characterized as one of unregenerately boorish arrogance and intrusiveness. Behind the admittedly incorruptibly elegant Augustan syntax, behind all the untranslated quotations from the Latin classics, Fielding is a thug and a lout who regards his membership of the landed gentry as an indefeasible warrant for grabbing the reader by the lapels or collar-flaps, slamming him back-first against the nearest wall, and barking at him, through clouds of acrid spittle, “Look, you facking c**t, I’m going to tell you a story about this c**t name of Tom Jones, centring not only round his visible exploits, but also round his private innmermost foughts and feelings (not to mention the innermost Fs&FS of his friends and relations); and if you value the integrity of your lesters, you’d best not dare to ask any questions about the ways and means of my sussing out such bits of inside bob, ’cos even if my story ain’t strictly true, it centres ’round the sorts of civilised c***s that bespoke toffs like your stroofly know inside-‘n’-out, you catch?” And such presumptive loutishness and thuggishness on the part of the novelist towards his readers and characters have been par for the course ever since. And if I refuse to suffer such manhandling at the hands of an authentick English gentleman like Henry Fielding, I shall be d***ed and roundly r****ed if I’m going suffer it at those of some newly M.F.A.-accredited dickhead with a bum-fluff moustache and a U Haul-exacting cache of Watchman comic-books. Seriously, DGR, could anything be more ludicrous than the issuing of a mind-reading license to every callow ignoramus “unsifted in perilous circumstance” who claims to be beholden to the calling of an artist? Why can people not stick to writing about things that they actually understand or have actually witnessed, under the auspices of a humble, non-à-clef-ized “I”?
“In other words, they should stick to writing biographies and travel journals—the early twenty-first century equivalent of the Life of Johnson and the Journal of a Tour to the Western Isles.”
Well, yes, along with essays of a certain type—the early twenty-first century equivalent of the Rambler, the Idler, and the Hypochondriack.
“But did you not strongly intimate some pages ago that even in Johnson’s and Boswell’s day the world was already running out of things worth treating of in such types of writing?”
No, I strongly intimated only that even in Johnson’s and Boswell’s day the world was already running out of things worth treating of in the first two types of writing—biographies and travel journals. Trading mainly in generalizations as it does, the Rambler-style essay is effectively immune to the impoverishment of the stock of novel particulars—indeed, the less things change, the more nearly true, the more apt, the more “relevant,” it becomes. Resistance here is likely to come less from the material than from the would-be author’s disposition and degree of competence. For in our day the two-and-a half century-old fetishization of the particular has been hypostasized as a moral principle, perhaps even the paramount moral principle. In our day it is almost biologically impossible to conceive of generalization’s being put to any other use than the furtherance of prejudice and bigotry. No sooner has one of us started to form the most seemingly innocuous and incontestable of generalizations (e.g., “Rabid dog-bites can be deadly”) than he or she visualizes a dissident particular hemming and hand-raising in none-too good natured demurral (e.g., “I’m the proud owner of a rabid dog that has bitten hundreds of people, only several dozens of whom have subsequently died (and not all necessarily of rabies)”); and thence it is an easy transition to his or her imagining himself or herself spending ten to life in Angola or Wormwood Scrubs for defamation of character, and a resolution to keep mum on the whole prospectively generalizable subject; such that anyone who now hopes to produce literary disquisitions anchored in pithy yet non-controversial generalization will essentially have to learn the art (that’s a non-“work”-owning “art” with an extra-small “a,” by the way) from scratch. And to do this, he or she will be best advised to become acquainted not only with the Johnsonian and Boswellian essayistic canon proper, but with the more particular-rich biographical-cum-travel journalistic half of the Boswellian-Johnsonian corpus, that he or she may acquire a sense of the individual characters, beliefs, and practices from which these generalizations have been abstracted, and derive from this sense a pattern for generalizing about the particulars of his or her own Lebenswelt.
And insofar as such unembarrassed fluency in generalization is a worthy goal eo ipso—i.e. qua habit of thought, independent of its objectification even in speech, let alone writing—my program for the would-be new Rambler or Hypochondriack applies equally soundly to the BoAPDGRs, and can be starkly re-phrased for the purposes of that re-application thus: if thou wishest to understand how to orient thyself in the world thou inhabitest, put aside thy Franzen, thy Updike—nay, even thy Tolstoy—and take up thy Johnson and Boswell. From my phrasing of this rephrasing it will be seen that I am not preeminently interested in presenting Johnson, Boswell, or any of the eighteenth-century figures referred to or depicted in their writings as role models, as people whose conduct should simply be blindly imitated (as if such blind imitation even of one’s exact contemporaries were remotely possible). I am in fact preeminently interested in presenting them as repositories of the established limits of experience that is at least to some extent both comprehensible and shapeable.
(BoAPDGRs again:) “It seems to me that you would have an easier time convincing me to adopt them as role models; inasmuch as in presenting them as role models you would merely be implying that nobody had witnessed or produced anything substantially better than what was witnessed and produced by certain people in eighteenth-century Britain—a view that, while obviously mistaken, equally obviously participates in a noble tradition of naïve or ‘quixotic’ veneration of the past; whereas ‘in presenting them as repositories of the established limits of comprehensible and shapeable experience’ you are plainly implying that nobody since the eighteenth century has either witnessed or produced anything substantially different from what was witnessable and producible by certain people in eighteenth-century Britain—a view that is simply and irredeemably barmy.”
I beg and grovel to differ. Take a prima-facie risible example of an eighteenth-century limit experience: Johnson’s delight in riding in fast-moving carriages, attested to in the two following passages from the Life:
“In the afternoon, as we were driven rapidly along in the post-chaise he said to me ‘Life has not many things better than this’” (
Thursday, 21 March 1776; p. 698).
“In our way, Johnson strongly expressed his love of driving in a post-chaise. ‘If (said he,) I had no duties and no reference to futurity, I would spend my life in driving briskly in a post-chaise with a pretty woman; but she should be one who could understand me, and would add something to the conversation’” (Friday, 19 September 1777; p. 845).
In first face of these two passages the early twenty-first century reader can scarcely suppress a triumphal guffaw-cum-eyebrow arch. What, after all, is the 18 m.p.h.- maximum speed of an eighteenth-century post-chaise to the 80 m.p.h.-middling speed of a modern motor car, to say nothing of the mid triple-digit speeds routinely resorted to by a modern jet-liner? Surely, one might as well speak of the thrill of “being driven rapidly along” in a golf cart or riding-mower? But if, my fellow inter-millennial, you will think back to the last time you exhilarated in “being driven” properly “rapidly along” in one of our modern post-chaise trouncing vehicles, and try to trace your exhilaration to its source-qualia, I wager that you will discover that the umpteen-fold increase in speed contributed precious little to it. From the rolled-down car window on the freeway did you really gaze at the tarmac below and revel (the bilious resentment of your stomach be damned) in the gradual consolidation of the lane-separator segments into a translucent stripe of oscillating shades of off-white; or did you not gaze straight ahead and focus on the horizon, and on its magisterially sluggish procession of trees, billboards, and light-posts? Can you honestly say that you experienced the celerity of the jetliner by popping open the nearest emergency exit and thrilling to your right arm’s dislocation by the ambient tropopausal air currents? No: more than likely you experienced your most blissful moment of the trip when the clouds briefly cleared away “loosely as cannon-smoke” to reveal a checkerboard of farmland fractured by a sinuous double small intestine of interstate highway punctuated by stationary little rabbit-turds that you could only assume were cars. Or perhaps you experienced it immediately after gazing down at this tableau and while talking to the attractive and witty young lady or gentleman sitting next to or across from you. Or perhaps, whether in the car or in the plane—or, indeed, whether in the pilot/driver or passenger’s seat (although, to be sure, there is a difference)—the high point came when you were unaccountably struck by the uncanniness of the fact that this continuously propulsive motion, for all its continuity and apparent rationality, was utterly beyond your control, that you were being driven (or flown) rather than driving (or flying). Whenever that so-called special moment occurred, it evidently did not depend for its realization on anything that would have been beyond the grasp of the sensorium, sensibility, or intellect of the post chaise-ensconced Samuel Johnson. Your journey, to be sure, did churn up in its progress certain phenomena that would have been beyond the grasp of Johnson’s sensorium and sensibility (Johnsonian chauvinism impels me to draw the line at including “intellect”), but these were phenomena to which you chose not to devote your attention for viscerally palpable reasons—viz. inter alia, the virtual certainty of losing your lunch or right arm. They added nothing qua themselves to your experience of the journey qua journey.
If, BoAPDGRs, you can be brought round to discovering a fellow-traveler, as it were, in so apparently far-fetched a figure as Johnson the post-chaise enthusiast, you will surely find it slight work to enter into the spirits of such nearer-fetched figures as Johnson the widow, Boswell the husband and father, Margaret Montgomerie Boswell the wife and mother, and Johnson the head of a non-traditional household (i.e./yes, yes, yes, EW, his “queer menage”). And by entering into their spirits, you will acquire, if not an infallible knowledge of how to act in any given situation, then at least as near to a complete knowledge of what you may expect of any given situation—and of what any given situation may expect of you—as modern mortal experience can afford.
“Whereas by entering into the spirits of Homer and Sophocles and Dante and Shakespeare—”
—you will learn both more and less. More because you will see the heights and depths to which human nature is capable of rising and descending from a pre-ca. 1640 God’s-eye view; a view that at once takes into account and depreciates the differences between democracies and monarchies, duchies and empires. Less because—well, this is going to sound awfully philistine, but the world really has moved on since, and has since continued its provisional reshaping of human nature.”
“But somehow, ca. 1780, this reshaping all stopped.”
That’s right. This is not to say that there have not been substantial changes in daily life since ca. 1780, but that vis-à-vis the twinned phenomena of experience and agency, they really are of the character of the tropopausal winds mentioned above, in that one only approaches ever nearer to one’s annihilation as a subject the more one attempts to treat of them by way of the traditional and as-yet unsuperseded means of expression and action available to subjectivity. There is a certain threshold attained by ca. 1780 beyond which everything is so much white noise, as a certain prolific and respected novelist who has been futilely attempting to scale it all down for the past forty years. The threshold can be summarized and itemized in three words—urbanity, embourgeoisement, and intellectuality. As to the first item: in common parlance urbanity is of course a sort of synonym for good manners combined with worldly-wise conversational fluency, and my employment of it is by no means at odds with the established sense. But as a complement to this ethical side, urbanity has a phenomenal side, the side of the urbane man’s own point of view—a point of view that both facilitates and vindicates the ethical side—and it is this phenomenal side whose evidence . Phenomenal urbanity effectively amounts to a constant tension between going for weeks without running into anybody you know and suddenly running into somebody you know well but have not seen for years if not decades, as Johnson did when he encountered his old college chum Oliver Edwards in
’s Butcher Row on London April 17, 1778. Two hundred-and-thirty three years later, our cities (including London) are very different in their geographical disposition, and yet the core of the urban experience is still reducible to this tension between canny strangeness and uncanny familiarity, because whether by massively coincident proclivity or sheer dumb luck, no matter where we live, we generally manage to keep ourselves within quotidian reach of the same number of people, and at the same friend-to-stranger ratio, as were correspondingly accessible to the eighteenth-century Londoner. If we happen to reside in a metropolitan unit that vies with eighteenth-century in demographic concentration (e.g., present-day Manhattan), we encounter our new strangers and old friends as the eighteenth-century Londoners did, in the street, ten blocks or a twenty minute walk from our apartment; and if we happen to reside in a more cat-swingable sort of city (e.g., present-day Houston), we encounter them at the mall ten miles or a twenty-minute drive distance from our house. But the size and constitution of the sample vis-à-vis the individual qua phenomenal subject are unchanged. London
As for embourgeoisement, it essentially amounts to an attitude to work, an attitude characteristic of those who are unused to what is quite erroneously termed working with one’s hands (as if the remainder of the workforce were composed exclusively of ambulant paraplegics) and are at the same time by material or volitional necessity incapable of subsisting, let alone thriving, exclusively on the produce of the labor of other people. Much has been made, both by Boswell and later commentators, of Johnson’s poverty during his first few London decades, and of the toilet paper conveyor-belt-esque round of hackwork he was obliged to keep running “in provision for the day that was passing over him”— and I for one do not wish to make less of it—after all, my preceding defense of the progressiveness of Johnson’s notion of “learning as a trade” presupposes my sympathy with it. At the same time, I beg to make a presumably unprecedented semblance of the same sort of muchness of Boswell’s struggles against the yoke of filial dependency. Yes, Boswell was the eldest son of a laird, the scion of one of the oldest and noblest families in Scotland, the umpteenth cousin fumpteen times removed of James I/VI, and what have you, but what with Scotland being as poor and thinly populated as it was by comparison with England, his base-level socioeconomic position in present-day North American terms essentially amounted to that of the eldest son of the mayor of Bismarck or Boise. Sure, from a certain aridly numismatic point of view, one may truthfully aver that the eldest son of the mayor of
or Bismarck “need never work a day in his life.” The mayor of Boise or Bismarck is presumably possessed of sufficient assets to feed and clothe his or her eldest son through the third or fourth decade of adulthood, and can presumably look forward to bequeathing him an estate sufficient to carry him through to a so-called ripe old age. But if the eldest son of the mayor of Bismarck or Boise is possessed of so much as a dram of shame, fear, ambition, or awareness of the world outside the capital of North Dakota or Idaho, he will hardly dream of making his so-called goal in life that of being the terminally unemployed heir of the former mayor of Bismarck or Boise. Out of fear he will avoid risking his progenitor’s interpellation of him as a sponger (for further fear of risking disinheritance); out of shame and ambition he will want to make something of himself, as they say; and out of awareness of the larger North American scene he will know, from the examples of certain children of Missoulan garbage collectors and Poughkeepsiean bus drivers who have risen to positions of national eminence, that it is possible for people in humbler stations than his own to do so. And it was out of the same set of motives, mutatis mutandis, that Boswell worked half his youthful ass off as a jobbing barrister at the Scots bar, “much against [his] will” and bereft of any illusions as to its constituting a “virtuous ambition”; and the other half of it in the fulfillment of residency requirements towards his admission to the English bar (itself an effective minimum requirement for his standing for Parliament and thereby becoming something more than a political nonentity). Despite his aristocratic pedigree, despite his land-owning prospects, he was hardly in a position to take anything beyond bare subsistence for granted. His case is proof positive that the rat race of modernity (or, if you insist, capitalism) was well underway by the 1760s, even for the nominally most privileged members of the Anglosphere of that time–and that even today the best-heeled of us remain but rats of slightly speedier carriage. Boise
“But if Boswell was working one half of his ass off to become a successful Scots barrister, and the other half to qualify himself as an English one, where did his literary career fit in (I blush to make use of the remaining metaphoric resources to answer my own question)?”
Ah, well, that brings me to my third item—intellectualization. And never fear, BoAPDGRs, you won’t have to envisage Boswell doing anything behind the scenes that you or I wouldn’t do (or, at any rate, admit to doing). Of course Boswell’s main aim in life was to write a great book—indeed, I wager that this aim was the “virtuous ambition” he had in mind as a positive contrast to barristering. But his advancement towards this aim hardly followed the same straightforward, albeit laborious, stepwise sort of cursus as did his legal and ultimately abortive political careers (the same sort of cursus, let it be said, that a would-be professional author is obliged to follow in our day). For one non-straightforward thing, it was as at least as strongly actuated by his exigencies qua learner-cum-consumer as by his prospects qua preceptor-cum-producer. From adolescence though middle age, Boswell was constantly forming, demolishing, and reforming an autodidact’s syllabus composed of the generically most heterogeneous materials, from treatises on political theory, to complete philosophical systems, to religious tracts, to histories and poems both ancient and modern. His letters to his best friend William Temple pullulate with requests for newly published titles, recommendations of books newly read, and commentaries on the contents thereof. And the very first favor he asked of Johnson, in the wee port-soaked concluding hours of their second interview, was for “advice as to my studies” (Life, Saturday 25 June 1763, p. 291). One must remember that even in the earliest stages of this self-imposed Lehrzeit one is dealing with a young man who has already graduated from university and determined to go to law school—in other words, a man whose “studies” require no supplement as far as the world is concerned. Clearly there must have been a method to such masochism, and I submit—on no better evidence, admittedly, than the sheer overwhelmingly eloquent cocksureness with which the Life treads underfoot every biography ever written before it—that this method was coextensive with a sense that whatever great work Providence had in mind for Boswell to do, its accomplishment would require his knowing something about everything; in other words, that even if this work did turn out to center on the most nominally parochial of subjects—say, a particular person—it could not afford to be merely parochial in scope or informed by merely parochial cognitions and interests. He wanted this work not only to be taken seriously, but also to be worth being taken seriously, because imbued with knowledge both wide-ranging and penetrating; and he wanted it not only to have a so-called impact, but to have a specifically worthy so-called impact, because imbued with specifically worthy insights derived—not reflexively and indiscriminately but reflectively and selectively—from worthy sources. Clearly an extracurricular scholarly program of this scope and aim makes a mockery of such latter-day pseudo-counterparts as “self-improvement” and “continuing education,” and to liken Boswell’s voluntary immersion in such black hole-generating texts as the fifteen-volume Histoire de France depuis l’Etablissement de la Monarchie, jusqu’au Regne de Louis XIV to Aunt Edna’s tri-monthly forays to the American Legion Hall for lessons in conversational Spanish would be blasphemy. Comparisons to the New Yorker subscriber’s sedulous attempts to stay abreast of what passes for serious contemporary literature are only slightly more accurate or less insulting, not only because—as I have already argued—the twenty-first century texts do not deserve to pass for anything, but also because for every post-1750 bestseller on Boswell’s syllabus there are at least two books that were originally published before 1700. Not even such ideals of authentically eighteenth-century provenance as politeness or the cultivation of taste do justice to the Boswellian course of study, as it embraces far too many subjects of no obvious utility at the pumphouse, ballroom, or banquet table. It amounts to the locally disinterested pursuit of knowledge towards the eventual fulfillment of some as yet undefined but globally interested purpose. And for the sort of person who pursues knowledge in this fashion and to this end I know of no other remotely more suitable titular designation than intellectual. Mind you, DGR, I am fully aware of this word’s checkered history in our language; I am aware that it has come in for a great deal of criticism, as they say, in recent years (and even half-centuries), that it did not yet exist as an English noun in Johnson’s and Boswell’s time (as is proved by Johnson’s exclusively adjectival definition of it in the Dictionary), that it acquired this nominal Anglophone existence by way of certain Continental languages prevailingly spoken by people prevailingly hostile to our Anglo-Saxon political and intellectual traditions, that nowadays it practically de jure denotes a person with a university appointment and a television contract, and that (most damningly of all) most of these de jure intellectuals are incapable even of understanding, let alone practicing, the locally disinterested pursuit of knowledge; or, complementarily, of conceiving global interests as anything other than local. But we must not throw out the prodigious intellectual baby with the stultifying meta-intellectual bathwater. Yes, the vocation of intellectual comes ready-bundled with a massive sesquicentennially ancient portmanteau-ful of bullshit. But this bullshit is the equivalent of speed in the above account of eighteenth vs. twenty first-century travel–it has not added anything of substance to the experience-cum-practice of being an intellectual, which has always been essentially the haphazard, ramshackle semi-wild goose chase pursued by Johnson and Boswell, and which for all its ramshackleness deserves to be dignified by the name of intellectuality because it really does deal preeminently with things of the mind—because it emphatically is not politics or gastronomy by other means, and is impervious to being pursued as though it were. Take the fellow I quoted at the very beginning of this essay, Roland Barthes. Much if not most of his oeuvre is vitiated by its employment of the in-his-day newly fashionable jargon of structuralism and post-structuralism. (Parenthetical gloss on “vitiated”: made impossible to read with a straight face.) Nonetheless, as it is not determined by this jargon, but rather by the quirky and not un-Boswellian or Johnsonian course of study pursued by the very young Barthes during his long medical confinement, the worst of it remains much more readable and enlightening than any of the productions of a dedicated post-structuralist specialist in any one of the butcher’s dozen subjects on which he touched. Yes, Barthes’s addiction to post-structuralist jargon may have secured him a reputation as an intellectual that he would otherwise have lacked, but the efficient and final cause of his outlook and practice as an intellectual was a not un-Boswellian or Johnsonian devotion to certain authors and composers qua potential bearers of a significant and purposive intellectual whole.
“Hmm. In the light of certain of these interests of his (Proust, Balzac, communism, so-called classical music) I am having a hard time not picturing the hypothetical jargon-free Roland Barthes as a virtual twin of your old bugbear Edmund Wilson.”
Suggested translation: “Oh, the irony—one would need a band-saw to cut it.”
“Pas mal, mon vieux fruit.”
Well, you can take your pas mals and smoke ’em, because
is an even better example than Barthes for my present purposes. I beg you to remember that I am describing the practice of the intellectual as a habitus, or in vulgar (and not quite accurate) parlance, “from the inside”; and in relation to this perspective, the fact that Wilson foolishly and cruelly underrated Boswell and Johnson is simply irrelevant, for whether he liked it or not (there is plenty of evidence to show that he knew it), he was following very closely their dispositional footsteps, “reading just as [his] inclination [led] him” (Life, 14 July 1763), and establishing himself as an authority on certain subjects (e.g., Russia past and present, and symbolism French and American) only by a gradual clustering of his inclinations, like the dust of the primeval solar system forming into planets, around a few loci that happened to be of public interest—quite precise analogues to lexicography and moral instruction in Johnson’s case, or Corsica and Johnson in Boswell’s, or the Hebrides and literary biography in the case of both. Wilson
“So, at bottom, what you’re saying is that reading Boswell and Johnson helps us to get in touch, as they say, with who we already are, with who we would know ourselves to be if only we could ‘clear our minds of [the] cant’ of the past two-plus centuries —triple-digit travel speeds, feral cats, etc.”
At bottom that is exactly what I am saying.
“Such that in the end, we may overcome any difficulty that we encounter simply by posing to ourselves the question ‘What would Boswell or Johnson have done in this situation?’”
No: please recall that I am not positing either Boswell or Johnson or any other citizen of the eighteenth century as a (so-called) role model. Lord knows Boswell made a ton of untrivial mistakes, and that even Johnson made a kilogram or two of them. The difficulty to be overcome, and that I fancy may be consistently overcome once one has immersed oneself in the Johnsonian-Boswellian corpus, is that of distinguishing real difficulties from pseudo-difficulties; and its overcoming consists in posing to oneself the question, “Would Boswell or Johnson even have understood this as a situation, let alone done anything in it?”
“Again I sense an immanent access of lunacy on your end. You’re starting to sound like one of those strict constructionist would-be Supreme Court justices who hold that because (say) motor vehicles are not mentioned in the constitution, all injuries and fatalities caused by cars should be regarded as fictitious.”
Well, that is both an irony and a pity, inasmuch as strict constructionism figures among the vices against which an acquaintance with the Boswellian-Johnsonian corpus can inoculate us. But I see where you’re coming from, as they say. You’re saying-cum-rhetorically asking, “It’s all very well to pooh-pooh affected panic about such presentist persiflage as Fiestaware and the Boy Scouts from a lofty Johnsonian-cum-Boswellian pinnacle, but thence is it not a slippery slope or easy transition to pooh-poohing genuine panic over whether or not to undergo chemotherapy or place one’s aged parent in an assisted living facility, on the grounds that neither Johnson nor Boswell ever heard of chemotherapy or assisted living facilities?”
Well, the answer to your question is “No,” but regrettably—“or, rather all too conveniently,” I suppose you’ll say—to understand why, you will need to make the acquaintance that I have been recommending for the past forty-or-so pages.”
“Fine, but as forty-or-so pages happens to be just about the limit of my patience as a reader, it would be helpful if you could whittle that acquaintance-making-session down to something of that approximate length before we get to the end of the present page.”
So you want me to select forty-or-so pages out of the B-JC that as a self-contained unit will do the trick, as they say—that will convince you that all that I have been arguing on its behalf has not been so much Dixie or Lilliburllero whistlage, and that I can sum up in—let’s see—300 words or less?
“That ‘less’ really should be ‘fewer’.”
Touché; so then—“in 300 words or fewer”?
Sorry, but afraid no can do. Which is to say that while I can point you to forty pages out of the B-JC that are worth reading as a unit, I cannot possibly justify their unity in 300 words or fewer. So I’m afraid you’ll just have to tune in to this same so-called bat channel a month or two hence for your syllabus, which, I promise, will be, although a good deal longer than 300 words, at any rate a good deal shorter than forty-or-so pages.
 Actually in Hypochondriack No. LXVI.
 By non-industry driven dissension I mean dissension driven by those who do not take the donnees of creative writing programs for granted. To be sure, Mr. Franzen hardly wants for detractors, but these detractors all fault him for not “creating well-rounded characters that we can relate to,” rather than for the far greater sin of presuming to “create” fictional characters of any sort.
 Fielding’s antagonist and rival Samuel Richardson, author of Pamela and Clarissa (novels to which, in virtue of their epistolary structure, my strictures on Fielding do not apply), said, according to Johnson that “had he not known who Fielding was, he should have believed he was an ostler” (Life, 6 April 1772).
 (“We have, after all, rather lost touch with him in the past few-dozen pages.”)