Tuesday, November 11, 2014

`The Gusts of Imagination'

Imagine yourself twenty-three years old, a provincial in the great city, a budding drunkard and whoremonger, a lawyer with literary pretensions, an errant son with a father who inspires your respect and resentment. Seven months earlier you met your hero, the man who already dominates his literary age. You judge him without quite knowing it your truer father, and already you have written him two letters. The first you describe as “plaintive and desponding,” and the second as “expressing much anxiety to hear from him.” He has not replied. On Dec. 8, 1763, Samuel Johnson, age fifty-four, at last writes to James Boswell: 

“You are not to think yourself forgotten or criminally neglected that you have had yet no letter from me—I love to see my friends to hear from them to talk to them and to talk of them, but it is not without a considerable effort of resolution that I prevail upon myself to write. I would not however gratify my own indolence by the omission of any important duty or any office of kindness.” 

In his first written words to his protégé and future biographer, Johnson teaches a lesson in self-examination. He expresses loyalty to a man half his age, implicitly calls him a friend, admits but never quite apologizes for his fabled “indolence” (which coexisted with Herculean industriousness), and declares that duty trumps any character flaw that might get in the way. Johnson adds that letters of obligation and empty etiquette, “written only for the sake of writing,” he “seldom shall think worth communication.” 

Boswell’s father, Lord Auchinleck, was a judge of the Scots Court of Session and the High Court of Justiciary. The young lawyer sought what we would call “career advice” from Johnson, who seconds the father’s wish that young Boswell practice civil law. Johnson also endorses the study of “Ancient languages.” Forever childless, Johnson turns fatherly. He urges Boswell to “spend a certain number of hours every day amongst your Books,” and delivers another non-sententious mini-sermon: 

“The dissipation of thought of which you complain is nothing more than the Vacillation of a mind suspended between different motives and changing its direction as any motive gains or loses Strength. If you can but kindle in your mind any strong desire, if you can but keep predominant any Wish for some particular excellence or attainment the Gusts of imagination will break away without any effect upon your conduct and commonly without any traces left upon the Memory.” 

This is self-knowledge in the guise of wise counsel. Johnson knows his own predisposition to “Vacillation.”  Sloth, he knows, follows frenetic scrambling. In The Rambler #155, published in 1751, he writes, “To do nothing is in every man's power; we can never want an opportunity of omitting duties. The lapse to indolence is soft and imperceptible, because it is only a mere cessation of activity; but the return to diligence is difficult, because it implies a change from rest to motion, from privation to reality.” Such insights are rooted in experience, not moral or psychological abstraction. Johnson knew his man, a point made even more emphatic when he warns Boswell of the ever-poised will to vanity – a caution of particular importance to young men whose dreams outweigh the dedication required to realize them: 

“There lurks perhaps in every human heart a desire of distinction, which inclines every man to hope and then to believe that nature has given him something peculiar to himself. This vanity makes one mind nurse aversions and another actuate desires till they rise by art much above their original state of power and as affectation in time improves to habit, they at last tyrannise over him who at first encouraged them only for show.” 

What did the young Boswell make of this? He never renounced his dissolute ways, yet mustered sufficient perseverance to write the greatest biography in the language. Read the rest of Johnson’s letter for a prescient prophecy of Boswell’s progress (and a retrospective review of his own). Boswell, who was in Utrecht when he received it, reprinted the Dec. 8, 1763 letter from Johnson in his biography (1791), appending this note: “At length I received the following epistle, which was of important service to me, and, I trust, will be so to many others.”

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