Monday, October 29, 2012

`Mingled Frenzy and Stupefaction'

“Evidence of his irresolution was his extravagant regimen of drunkenness, underworld sex, and public executions.” 

That’s the James Boswell who comes to mind without effort, embodying one face of eighteenth-century England, the Age of so-called Enlightenment. We know physicians treated him for venereal disease at least seventeen times (as dutifully documented in his journals). Remarkably, he lived to age fifty-five despite suffering malaria, chronic foot infections, gonorrhea (often contracted in the Blue Periwig, a brothel in The Strand, London), depression (possibly manic, known generically as "The Melancholia") and prolonged heavy drinking (whether or not clinically alcoholic, it didn’t help the depression). He added another addiction, gambling, lost heavily, and exacerbated his melancholia, all the while putting off his literary work, including the Life of Johnson. Peter Martin in A Life of James Boswell (1999) – the source of the sentence quoted above – writes of Boswell in the 1770s: 

“Alcohol became a major problem. There were stretches when he got drunk every day. If he dined out, with or without [his wife] Margaret, a recurring theme was his struggle to control how much wine, port and madeira he allowed himself…Heavy drinking was almost always followed by sickness, severe headaches and coldness, late rising, and ennui. The journal abounds with such passages: `outrageously intoxicated…After I got home, I was very ill; not sick, but like to suffocate’; `a complete riot, which lasted until near twelve at night’; `I drank three bottles of hock, and then staggered away’; I swallows about a bottle of port, which inflamed me much, the weather being hot’; `I grew monstrously drunk…mingled frenzy and stupefaction.’” 

This same sot, in 1791, seven years after his subject’s death, gave us the book that inspired Robert Louis Stevenson to say: “I am taking a little of Boswell daily by way of a Bible. I mean to read him now until the day I die.” Like his friend Johnson, Boswell’s nature was irredeemably human, meaning contradictory, self-divided, defying facile understanding. We read both men because they are us, only finer and coarser. In all of literary history, I can’t think of a more unlikely writer of genius. His own death was protracted, painful and squalid. Wracked with fevers, headaches and intestinal anguish, suffering from uremia and progressive kidney failure, he died May 19, 1795. 

Sadder yet is Johnson’s death and Boswell’s reaction. The latter was in Scotland when his friend died in London on Dec. 13, 1784. Boswell learned of his passing four days later. In his journal Boswell wrote: “I did not shed tears. I was not tenderly affected. My feeling was just one large expanse of stupor.” Martin reports that only when he described Johnson’s death in the Life did he “properly release his emotion into words”: 

“I trust, I shall not be accused of affectation, when I declare, that I find myself unable to express all that I felt upon the loss of such a 'Guide, Philosopher, and Friend.' I shall, therefore, not say one word of my own, but adopt those of an eminent friend, which he uttered with an abrupt felicity, superior to all studied compositions:--'He has made a chasm, which not only nothing can fill up, but which nothing has a tendency to fill up. Johnson is dead. Let us go to the next best:--there is nobody; no man can be said to put you in mind of Johnson.'" 

Boswell was born on this date, Oct. 29, in 1740, in Edinburgh.


George said...

Well, he shocked the Victorians--or at least some of them, for example Macaulay, affected shock. But in a London of Wilkes and Fox, and in an age when Burns wrote poetry that the 19th Century would not have printed, was he that unusual?

bruce floyd said...

The last time Boswell saw Johnson alive was on June 30, 1784. After dining with Sir Joshus Reynolds, Boswell accompanied Johnson in Reynols's coach to the entry of Bolt's court. Johnson asked Boswell to go with him to his house. Boswell declined, writing, "I declined it, from an apprehension that my spirits would sink." The two men said goodbye with great affection. Says Boswell, "When he had got down upon the foot-pavement, he called out, 'Fare you well;' and without looking back, sprung away with a kind of pathetick briskness, if I may use that expression, which seemed to indicate a struggle to conceal uneasiness, and impressed me with a foreboding of our long,long separation."

I've always found this scene poignant, if not heartbreaking: a dying man going to a bleak and lonely room--perhaps the setting Johnson feared most--refuses to yield to self-pity, steps bravely away with the courage we'd expect from such a man as Johnson.