Friday, September 05, 2014

`I Wondered at His Tranquility'

“I looked at him, as a man whose head is turning giddy at sea looks at a rock, or any fixed object. I wondered at his tranquility.” 

Tranquility and the strength it implies offended me when I was young. I wished to live at a higher emotional pitch, associating Sturm und Drang with authenticity. Now I associate it with self-dramatizing adolescence. Few character types are more offensive than drama royalty, kings and queens of flamboyant narcissism, which makes Boswell’s observation of Johnson all the more remarkable. It comes in the section of the Life devoted to the friends’ tour of the Scottish highlands and the Hebrides. The passage describes their visit to the Isle of Sky on this date, Sept. 5, in 1773: 

“This being a beautiful day, my spirits were cheered by the mere effect of climate. I had felt a return of spleen during my stay at Armidale, and had it not been that I had Dr. Johnson to contemplate, I should have sunk into dejection; but his firmness supported me. I looked at him, as a man whose head is turning giddy at sea looks at a rock, or any fixed object. I wondered at his tranquility. He said, 'Sir, when a man retires into an island, he is to turn his thoughts entirely to another world. He has done with this.'” 

This would have made little sense to the callow reader who was me. Johnson’s stoicism would have appeared stagey and dubious, and I would have dismissed Boswell’s admiration for his friend as mere hero-worship, a groupie’s swoon. Boswell is closer to my adolescent self than Johnson, more flighty and grandiose, but even the drunken, whoremongering Scot is man enough to recognize nobility of soul.  The passage continues with a contemplation of the afterlife, what Johnson calls “the awful concerns of eternity,” and goes on: 

“I must here observe, that though Dr. Johnson appeared now to be philosophically calm, yet his genius did not shine forth as in companies, where I have listened to him with admiration. The vigour of his mind was, however, sufficiently manifested, by his discovering no symptoms of feeble relaxation in the dull, 'weary, flat and unprofitable' [Hamlet, Act I, Scene 2] state in which we now were placed.” 

The comparison is inexact, but I’ve long associated Boswell with Hamlet just as I associate Johnson with Lear.

1 comment:

George said...

Somewhere in the Life or in the Journal, Boswell is comforted by Johnson's remark that some third party really couldn't be called a whoremonger: a man is not called an ironmonger just because he has a nail in his pocket.