Friday, March 09, 2018

`Feel the Loss of Much of Our Sun'

“The old downgrading of Boswell was accompanied by a downgrading of his friendship with Johnson. He was seen as a kind of remora fish attached by the suckers of flattery to a leviathan, occasionally brushed off by the impatient monster of the deep, though more often tolerated, at times half affectionately, but certainly never loved or even much respected.”

That’s the libelous party line, codified at least since 1831 when Macaulay reviewed John Croker’s edition of Boswell’s Life of Johnson and concluded it was “immoral” that so great a book should be authored by such “a great fool.” For Macaulay, Boswell was an idiot savant of literature, a whoring drunk and moral leper who inexplicably turned himself into a writer of genius. Macaulay’s censure postponed a proper assessment of Boswell’s achievement for more than a century. In his review of the same edition, Carlyle was less dismissive than Macaulay but unleashed an even more colorful cataract of venom at Boswell the man: “. . . he was vain, heedless, a babbler; had much of the sycophant, alternating with the braggadocio; curiously spiced too with an all-pervading dash of the coxcomb.” No one is as entertainingly vituperative as Carlyle when he’s in a snit, as when he itemizes Boswell’s “bag-cheeks, hanging like half-filled wine-skins, still able to contain more [and] that coarsely-protruded shelf-mouth, that fat dew-lapped chin.” He tops it off by finding Boswell guilty of “sensuality, pretension, boisterous imbecility.”

The discovery of Boswell’s journals in the 1920s and 1930s, and the publication of the London Journal 1762-1763 in 1950, followed by subsequent volumes in the series, sparked an ongoing reassessment. In A Life of James Boswell (1999), Peter Martin writes:

“At first, the journals appeared to confirm the nineteenth-century perception of Boswell as a compulsive womanizer, drinker and gambler, a habitual gallant who only seemed happy when acting the fool. But readers soon began to see him as a highly complex figure, someone they thought they understood and with whom they were prepared to travel the extra mile. His honesty, sincerity, geniality, sensitivity, and desire to become a better human being are partly responsible for this change of perception. His journals also show him to be a conscientious and talented writer. Perhaps most importantly, they reveal the degree of mental suffering he endured for most of his lifetime.”

The witty remora metaphor at the top is the work of the late Louis Auchincloss in Love without Wings: Some Friendships in Literature and Politics (1991). Auchincloss argues that while Boswell and Johnson each “used” the other and that both possessed “greatly developed egos,” a deep and mutually gratifying friendship evolved between them. It was “very probably the deepest to which either was ever a partner.”

Auchincloss is serious about friendship, suggesting we have customarily treated it with less attentiveness and care than other relationships. “Most of us spend a large part of our lives in the company of friends and would feel the loss of much of our sun without them,” he writes in his preface, adding: “There is no commandment in the Decalogue to honor a friend.” Through the lens of friendship, Auchincloss looks at something even larger: what it means to be human. He explores fifteen friendships, including Henry Adams and John Hay, Ivy Compton-Burnett and Margaret Jourdain, Edith Wharton and Margaret Chanler, Arthur Hallam and Lord Tennyson. As a novelist, he is intrigued by the subject, its stickiness, contradictions and deep satisfactions. In passing, Auchincloss makes shrewd observations about writing, his subjects and human nature in general. He’s very good on Compton-Burnett, a novelist I’ve often lobbied for but never with success:

“She was not much impressed by human love or even by human hate, both of which she probably felt had been overrated by artists through the ages. In her view we differ from beasts essentially in two respects: in our speech and in our striving for power, and to these her novels are largely addressed. Her characters are locked in constant conflict as to who shall rule the home, and they express their arguments in the concise and limpid prose of La Rochefoucauld.”

No comments: