'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.

Sunday, 30 January 2011

'A man's a man, for a' that'

When writing it is best to ground your thoughts on the basis of greater thinkers. This is more than a matter of taste or intellectual snobbery: too many people write too much about very little. This was true in the eighteenth-century and is certainly true now. Writing in itself is not Good; it can be vacuous, serve no real purpose and act as mere filler. Next time you fail to get through the Sunday Times, try not to feel too bad. It's mostly padding.

There is also a danger when writing of repetition. Philosophically, it you will fail to say anything that hasn't already been said; historically you might prove useful - later - but this is usually unintentional. The current spat of books about the Internet - 'The Net Delusion'; 'Alone Together'; 'Is the Internet changing the Way you think?' - highlight the writers delusion that in innovation they can reveal some new Truth. This blog, then, anchors itself to Boswell's mind. Boswell himself grounded much of his thoughts on those of others. And so on, and so forth. 

This does not imply receiving knowledge, and accepting it on face value. Engage, criticise and add to writing. But don't think you can leap into the dark and Reveal anything new. History has shown mankind moves best at an amble; gradually building on past experience and pre-existing ideas. Attempting to sprint to the Finish through Reason and Perfect Systems has almost always ended in a shambles.

Occasionally, however, a figure appears from history whose mind seems to have emerged from the wilderness; a divinely inspired communicator or naturally gifted artist. Robert Burns, whose anniversary is celebrated on January 25, is one such example. His poems - 'A Winter Night' for example - stand in marked contrast to many of the pastoral idylls seen in Constable or Gainsborough. With Burns, it seems, we have it from the wind beaten farmers mouth. And it's not pleasant; a 'winter war' scarring and lashing down onto the landscape.

This is to forget, however, that Burns was born into one of the most literate societies in the world. He was thus exposed to the classics, not to mention Pope, Milton and Locke. The phenomenal success he achieved in a very short space of time should consequently hint at more than a simple farmer communicating with the Deity. Indeed he was acutely self-aware; a sharp mind that correctly judged writing in Scots would feed an intellectual appetite tired of a diet of flowery English prose. Like Benjamin Franklin or Rousseau then, Burns was an excellent at manipulating his 'Heav'n-taught ploughman' image to produce an impact in the Metropolis. 
Nasmyth's portrait of Burns - deliberately left unfinished and
slightly rough around the edges.

In a revealing note, writing in third person, Burns was able to consider: 'As he was but little indebted to scholastic education, and bred at a ploughtail, his performances must be strongly tinctured with his unpolished, rustic way of life' 

When it suited Boswell too, he could slip on different masks. ‘I have discovered that we may be in some degree whatever character we choose.’ In an interesting book on the subject, Dror Wahrman has teased out the fluid and mutable nature of Georgian identities. Clothing, for example, said a great deal about a person. This went beyond a simple display of wealth, also implying certain strong social and moral values. Boswell is thus able to march into a sword maker on the Strand, and on the basis of his appearance and demeanour - not, surely, his accent - he is able to leave with a sword on the promise of payment later.

Boswell in On the Profession of a Player formally introduces us to the idea of ‘double feeling'. Quick to validate his argument with some received wisdom he is eager to point out the root: 'Mr David Hume'. Hume, notes Boswell, was clear about the point of fluid character, men being, in general 'nothing but a bundle of perceptions'. 

Clothing, then, more than anything else seemed to define the plethora of pastel colours and powdered whigs prancing around London at the time. Burns, it seems, had realised this point before most, and saw a value in defining a deeper sense of self based on intelligence rather than dress sense:

What though on hamely fare we dine, 
Wear hoddin grey, an' a that; 
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine; 
A Man's a Man for a' that: 
For a' that, and a' that, 
Their tinsel show, an' a' that; 
The honest man, tho' e'er sae poor, 
Is king o' men for a' that