'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.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Black Dogs and Boswell

Boswell's character is favourite subject for many writers, and he often serves as light relief in many dry texts on the eighteenth century. He does, after all, give us one of the first 'modern' biographies, not to mention plenty of essays, letters and diary entries. Boswell stands at the centre of his writing; his personal experiences, conversations, whims, conquests and failures; his sexual triumphs, tragedies and diseases. All are on display for anyone willing to have a read.

Inevitably then, unlike more distant figures of the age, this raw exposure to another man's mind can be uncomfortable and distasteful. Indeed Boswell frequently comes across as superficial, unable to take criticism and moody. It is a point he is well aware of: 'when we know exactly all a man's views and how he comes to speak and act so and so, we lose any respect for him, though we may love and admire him; at least we lose that kind of distant respect which is very agreeable for us to feel and him to receive.'

Hume by Louis Carrogis, paints the man in
a light hearted and accessible way.
A careful and sympathetic reading of his journal allows us to better understand his less attractive features. Boswell is especially conscious of his frequent swings from states of euphoric optimism to brooding melancholy. 'In the space of a few hours I was a dull and miserable, a clever and a happy mortal, and all without the intervention of any external cause'. 

Boswell's happy conjectures frequently erupt onto the pages. One example should suffice, when one afternoon he 'was very high-spirited and full of ambition.' He longed to be of consequence, and goes about forming plans to return to Scotland to become an advocate. 'By this means I would make money which would enable me to jaunt about wherever I pleased in the vacations. I would have an opportunity of being of much real use, of being of service to my friends by having weight in the country, and would make my father exceedingly happy.'  He prattles on 'that I might have the wit and humour of Sir David Dalrymple, the jollity of Duncan Forbes, the whim of Baron Dalrymple, the show of Baron Maule...' 

Yet like many great thinkers from the period Boswell complains of melancholy moods. Adam Smith suffered these while at Oxford; David Hume seems to have had a severe mental breakdown at a young age; Samuel Johnson lived his life prone to frequently bouts of depression. The causes of each individual case are impossible to pin down. Yet Montesquieu blamed what seemed a peculiarly English phenomenon on the weather; Dr Cheyne blamed the eighteenth-century diet. Boswell would have also been aware of Aristotle's connection between melancholy moods and genius.

Like Hume, Boswell had 'a very severe illness' as a young adult, becoming 'very melancholy' in the process. He imagined he would never shake the state and 'gave myself up as devoted to misery.' He notes that: 'I entertained a most gloomy and odd way of thinking. I was much hurt at being good for nothing in life...Many a struggle was in my mind between melancholy and mirth.' 

Throughout the Journal then, Boswell shifts between this affable foppish front and his moody and emotional self. The solution, once again, is one Boswell shares with David Hume. Action and socialising are the best cures: 

"I and many more speculative men have been thrown into deep and serious thought about matters very little more serious. Yet the mind will take its own way, do what we will. So that we may be rendered uneasy by such cloudy reveries when we have no intention to be in such a humour. The best relief in such a case is mirth and gentle amusement."

Hume, incidentally, noted: 

"Very refined reflections have little or no influence upon us; and yet we do not, and cannot, establish it for a rule that they ought not to have any influence; which implies a manifest contradiction. [But] I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends, and after three or four hours’ amusement, I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold and strained and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any further."

Boswell wrote a series of essays, almost as self-therapy, called The Hypochondriack which were designed to turn his low moods into action and chase away the black dog of depression in the process. During one essay he noted, which the writer will second, 'while writing this paper, I have by some gracious influence been insensibly relieved from the distress under which I laboured when I began it.'