'In this way I shall preserve many things that would otherwise be lost in oblivion. I shall find daily employment for myself, which will save me from indolence and help to keep off the spleen, and I shall lay up a store of entertainment for my after life.'

For James Boswell posts please follow the labels on the right.

This blog mainly contains reviews from the Edinburgh Festivals from 2008 to 2010 which I wrote for the Edinburgh Festivals Magazine. These reviews cover everything from comedy to contemporary dance; children's theatre to Handel.

Friday, 21 January 2011

Please refrain from analysing in the Cathedral

I recently visited St Paul's and attended the Epiphany Procession. The Cathedral is generally regarded as one of the high points of European Baroque. Yet unlike many buildings of its scale, there is no grand approach; it emerges all at once out of a cluster of tightly packed city houses. Despite its mighty and looming exterior, the inner architectural harmony of the Cathedral serves to relax the pilgrim. The design, by Wren, was heavily influenced by the light forms of continental architecture; at the time the dome was considered slightly too Papish.

What, for me, was initially an excursion for an enquiring mind, turned into something more spiritual. I am not, mind, in any way religious. Yet the music and architecture piety can produce do serve to lighten the soul and give a feeling of renewal and calm. I could, of course, try to analyse these thoughts and probably come to some sort of pseudo-scientific conclusion: harmonious music and space; the effects of singing; the general mood of the congregation. Yet this would be to sully the sense that 'church' made me feel better. 

St Paul's Cathedral by Cannaletto painted in 1754.
Indeed, after far to much learning about eighteenth-century philosophy, I am increasingly seeing the merits in reacting against analysis, numbers and pure reason. Our society is surely reaching a saturation point, culturally and spiritually, with its obsession with figures, graphs and numerical proof. There are scientific formulas for Happiness, Weight Loss and a Good Christmas; Powerpoint presentations, plans and diagrams on 'How to be Good' or 'How to feel Better'. We have somehow managed to pinpoint the Worst Day of the year. Advertising companies use statistics to convince us that our eyelashes can have '4 times more Impact'.

Obviously these should not all taken with the same seriousness as, say, the mathematics behind a medical vaccine. But what about political numbers used to prove an argument? What about the omnipotent question of the Budget Deficit? The danger is that analysis goes beyond being a mere prop for decision making, and becomes in itself the irrefutable answer to a problem. Understandable then, was the reaction of Thomas Carlyle to many of the high ideals of analysis and reason in the eighteenth century. One of the greatest intellectual feats of the century, Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, was for Carlyle the beginning of 'the dismal science' of economics. 

Yet the view of the time of Boswell as one of 'Reason' is slightly misguided, and has, like 'Enlightenment', been applied after the fact. It might as well, as many historians have pointed out, been called an age of 'Passion'. Certainly in Boswell we find an impassioned lover, moody writer and angry young man. He is prone to fluctuating emotions, and his 'whims' stand in marked contrast with a rigorous accounting process for his expenditure. 'The pleasure of gratifying a whim is very great. It is known only by those who are whimsical.' Indeed, in an interesting city with no immediate regulated pattern of work, the point is well made; going 'walk about' in London (without a map or direction) is always an interesting experience. 

Furthermore, Boswell's love for women and socialising is the stuff of legend. Even at church, 'In the midst of divine service I was laying plans for having women...I have a warm heart and a vivacious fancy. I am therefore given to love, and also to piety and gratitude to God, and to the most brilliant and showy method of public worship.' On another occasion, his piety is clouded out: ‘I was on honour much disposed to be a Christian. Yet I was rather cold in my devotion. The Duchess of Grafton attracted my eyes rather too much.’ 

Alas, no such talent at this week's service.  

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