Friday, September 22, 2017

`Attention to the Minutiae of Life and Manners'

A capsule job description for any writer worthy of being read: “Such was his attention to the minutiae of life and manners.” Avoid the heady stuff that invites pomposity. Stick to life as lived, not life as cerebrated. Ford writes about Christopher Tietjens, not geopolitics. The Golden Bowl recounts human selfishness and deceit, not the capitalist patriarchy. Larkin articulated it in his defense of Barbara Pym and her novels:

“I like to read about people who have done nothing spectacular, who aren’t beautiful and lucky, who try to behave well in the limited field of activity they command, but who can see, in the little autumnal moments of vision, that the so called ‘big’ experiences of life are going to miss them; and I like to read about such things presented not with self-pity or despair or romanticism, but with realistic firmness and even humour.”

The source of the sentence quoted at the top is James Boswell, speaking of Dr. Johnson on this date, Sept. 22, in 1777. As usual, Boswell is baiting his friend, this time regarding a Mrs. Macaulay. Elsewhere in the Life, Johnson dismisses her as “a great republican,” a defender of “the levelling doctrine,” like one of today’s “inequality” obsessives. Johnson resists Boswell’s efforts to instigate a debate between him and Macaulay, and says, prudently, “. . . no man has a right to engage two people in a dispute by which their passions may be inflamed, and they may part with bitter resentment against each other.”

Johnson goes on to complain of a mutual acquaintance who “keeps a bad table.” We all know the type – chintzy when it comes to supplying guests with food and drink. Sensibly, Johnson says, “`every body loves to have things which please the palate put in their way, without trouble or preparation.’ Such was his attention to the minutiae of life and manners.”

Johnson continues in what Coleridge called his “bow wow manner,” but clearly he is having a good, provocative time. Unlike bores, Johnson is enjoying what a musician might call modulating his dynamics. He can speak out of genuine anger, and then slip into an ironic, self-amusing register his opponent is likely not to recognize. After all, eviscerating cranks is one of the supreme pleasures society affords us, whether or not they appreciate it. Boswell notes of his friend: “Johnson seemed to be more uniformly social, cheerful, and alert, than I had almost ever seen him. He was prompt on great occasions and on small.” In keeping with his “bow wow manner,” Johnson enters into an amusing debate over the ideal shape of a bulldog. He even throws in a stereotypically Latinate Johnsonian word and promptly translates it into plain English: “TENUITY— the thin part.” Unexpectedly, Boswell offers a moving apologia for his devotion to Johnson, “the minutiae of life and manners,” and his project:

“I cannot allow any fragment whatever that floats in my memory concerning the great subject of this work to be lost. Though a small particular may appear trifling to some, it will be relished by others; while every little spark adds something to the general blaze: and to please the true, candid, warm admirers of Johnson, and in any degree increase the splendour of his reputation, I bid defiance to the shafts of ridicule, or even of malignity.”

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