Saturday, October 31, 2009

`Minute Diversities'

In On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs, James V. Schall recounts a minor anecdote reported by Boswell in his Life of Johnson. It is Friday, Sept. 19, 1777, and Boswell and Johnson set out in a post-chaise for Derby, a city in the East Midlands about 30 miles north of Birmingham. (Coincidentally, this is also the date of the first Battle of Saratoga, the beginning of the end of the American Revolution.) Along the way, Johnson enjoys the sensation of speed, a proclivity, like the pleasure he takes in rolling down a hill, that always surprises us. He tells Boswell:

“If 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 us, and would add something to the conversation.”

Once in Derby, the pair tour the city, already a center of the Industrial Revolution. For a moment, Boswell forgets Johnson and indulges in a personal digression:

“I felt a pleasure in walking about Derby such as I always have in walking about any town to which I am not accustomed. There is an immediate sensation of novelty; and one speculates on the way in which life is passed in it, which, although there is a sameness every where upon the whole, is yet minutely diversified. The minute diversities in every thing are wonderful.”

Schall glosses Boswell’s observation like this:

“The general constancy of human nature across time and space is recorded here. But the particularities of human existence are, indeed, `wonderful,’ as Boswell remarked. The same sentiment exists in Dante, St. Paul, Aristotle, Plato, and perhaps originally in Herodotus.”

Boswell reveals an essential artistic and moral gift – the capacity to observe and appreciate simultaneously the general and particular, forests and trees, big picture and details. To see only the former is blindness; only the latter, tedium and madness. To consign humans to reductive categories– economic, sexual, racial and so on – erases their “minute diversity,” their irreplaceable singleness in creation. The passage that immediately follows Boswell’s observation above is very human, mundane and comical, and thus typical of Johnson:

“Talking of shaving the other night at Dr. Taylor’s, Dr Johnson said, `Sir, of a thousand shavers, two do not shave so much alike as not to be distinguished.’ I thought this not possible, till he specified so many of the varieties in shaving; -- holding the razor more or less perpendicular; -- drawing long or short strokes; -- beginning at the upper part of the face, or the under – at the right side or the left side. Indeed, when one considers what variety of sounds can be uttered by the wind-pipe, in the compass of a very small aperture, we may be convinced how many degrees of difference there may be in the application of a razor.”

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