Saturday, March 10, 2018

`We Attain the Great Art'

“He recommended to me to keep a journal of my life, full and unreserved.”

This is Boswell recounting Johnson’s advice to him in the Life (1791). The time is July 1763. The men had met two months earlier, on May 16. Johnson was fifty-three; Boswell, twenty-two. Here is the corresponding sentence as found in Boswell’s London Journal 1762-1763 (McGraw-Hill, 1950), dated July 16, 1763:

“He advised me to keep a journal of my life, fair and undisguised.”

Both work. I prefer the latter -- “advised” over “recommended,” and “fair and undisguised” over “full and unreserved.” The revisions don’t corrupt the sense but the latter, in my ear, sounds more euphonious, closer to the vernacular and thus more conversational and convincing. Hearing such distinctions, and forming preferences based on them is probably behavior peculiar to writers, who weigh every syllable. Here is the next sentence, first from the Life:

“He said it would be a very good exercise, and would yield me great satisfaction when the particulars were faded from my remembrance.”

And from London Journal:

“He said it would be a very good exercise, and would yield me infinite satisfaction when the ideas were faded from my remembrance.”

A mixed reaction. I prefer the metaphorical exaggeration of “infinite” to the feeble “great,” and would choose “particulars” over “ideas.” We don’t remember ideas. Memories, the sort one might record in a journal, are distinguished by particularity. They may seem minute and trivial, but often that’s why we later treasure them. What was the color of my first girlfriend’s eye? I don’t remember. Here is the remainder of the paragraph in the Life:

“I was uncommonly fortunate in having had a previous coincidence of opinion with him upon this subject, for I had kept such a journal for some time; and it was no small pleasure to me to have this to tell him, and to receive his approbation. He counselled me to keep it private, and said I might surely have a friend who would burn it in case of my death. From this habit I have been enabled to give the world so many anecdotes, which would otherwise have been lost to posterity. I mentioned that I was afraid I put into my journal too many little incidents. Johnson: `There is nothing, Sir, too little for so little a creature as man. It is by studying little things that we attain the great art of having as little misery and as much happiness as possible.’”

Johnson’s wisdom caps the passage. Boswell’s genius is to defer to his friend, give him the best lines. The corresponding passage in the London Journal is more cluttered, less focused on setting up the punch line. Boswell reveals that he has been keeping a journal since leaving Scotland, and indulges in a self-celebrating rhapsody: “O my journal! art thou not highly dignified? Shalt though not flourish tenfold?” In the privacy of his journal, Boswell brags of “the sanction of Mr. Samuel Johnson.” In the quotation by Johnson that concludes the scene, Boswell changes a single word: ‘we attain the great knowledge” becomes “we attain the great art.”

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