'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.

Monday, 16 May 2011

Truth is a cow

Despite Boswell's London being scattered with great minds and thinkers, Boswell only ever reached the status of a great modern biographer, and cannot be considered as a great philosopher. More wit than intellectual, his all too human whims and flights of fancy show a likeable character, but only very rarely to glimpses of a deeper interest of philosophy emerge. All too often Boswell succumbs to the diversions of the metropolis. 

9 April 1763, for example, sees Boswell meet with Dr Blair, go to Holborn with Erskine, visit Arne's popular opera Artaxerxes, before heading to St Clement's Chop-house for supper. Boswell then jaunts off to Covent Garden for some entertainment and ends up drinking tea with an acquaintance. Not quite done, he then heads to 'the Park, and in armorial guise performed concubinage with a strong, plump, good-humoured girl called Nanny Baker'. Here it is then: the Hogarthian image of eighteenth-century Britain; haughty high culture mixed with low debauchery. A mess of claret and horse manure; Handel and back street harlots. It's a view of England the English continue enjoy; a messy compromise of a society, unplanned and organic.   
'A Scene from the Beggar's Opera' by Hogarth 1731

Similar diaries are doubtless being kept today. It's not a leap to imagine the young buck about town today mixing entertainment, drinking and sex into a busy weekend, while trying to smatter it (perhaps purge it) with trips to cultural and artistic fonts.

Yet, precisely because of his whimsical but intelligent character, Boswell acts as a great cultural sponge for the period. Intellectually, it is clear Boswell was influenced by David Hume; for a man he doesn't meet once in his London adventure, Hume seems ever present. He is read, his philosophy analysed and picked over; his character dissected. Indeed the Journal itself begins, where Hume begins, with the simple dictum: 'Know thyself'. In some senses, then, the convergence of the first 'modern' biography and Hume's 'modern' philosophy should be no surprise. Hume may have not been reading Boswell, but Boswell certainly was reading Hume.

Indeed so much was Boswell taken by the philosopher-historian that his friends 'forged a letter from David Hume to me containing some genteel compliments...' Perhaps his reading of Hume had gotten a bit much for his lively friends? Either way, 'suspecting no deceit [I] was vastly pleased.' On finding out the trickery Boswell fumed, yet still saw an opportunity to write a letter to Hume. Recounting the affair and his lose of temper he nevertheless saw 'the milk of human kindness, as Shakespeare tenderly expresses it, was not long destroyed in acrimony.' 

Hume - no great fan of Shakespeare - sent a less than encouraging response. [Angrily] 'How the devil came it into your heads, or rather your noddles (for if there had been a head among you, the thing had not happened; not are you to imagine that a parcel of volatile spirits enclosed in a skull, make a head) - I repeat it, how the devil came it into your noddles to publish in a book to all the world what you pretend I told you in private conversation.' 

Despite the initial setback the interest with Hume continued; even stylistically there is overlap. On 19 February 1763 there is a clear attempt to emulate Hume's prose:

'I must observe that we are not affected by the complaints of a genteel agreeable man against life. The agreeable ideas which he inspires serve as an antidote to gloom, and we cannot believe his murmurings to be serious. Everybody must feel this from experience. When we see a fine lady before us and hear her venting discontented exclamations, we are apt to imagine them words of course; or if we think her really distressed, we solace ourselves by thinking that distress is not so terrible and may be endured with a good deal of complacency, considering that a person may present us with so pleasing an appearance, who is distressed.'

Johnson, of course, was one of Hume's most outspoken critics. Boswell, despite pouring over Hume while ill with venereal disease, seems to have nodded along with the Doctor's assertions. Hume, and all other sceptics, we 'vain men; and finding mankind already in possession of truth, they could not gratify their vanity by supporting her; and so they have taken to error'. Predictably Johnson formed an amusing analogy. '...Truth is a cow which will yield such people no more milk, and so they are gone to milk the bull.' Johnson then, always good with a turn of phrase, may not have been aware of the influence Hume was having on his future biographer. 

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