Tuesday, October 18, 2016
"Such a storm of vulgar force"— Books on the nightstand
It's been a long time since I updated my Books on the Nightstand section.
We beat up ourselves for whipping out phones and text messaging each other, posting Facebook updates and sending Snapchats. But in truth, the desire to keep in touch with our friends and loved ones, as much as possible, is neither regrettable or new.
On Thursday, Oct. 7, 1773, Scottish lawyer James Boswell watched a dreadful storm lash rain against the windows of the house he was staying at on a remote island in Western Scotland and felt cut off.
"We were in a strange state of abstraction from the world," he wrote. "We could neither hear from our friends, nor write to them. It gave me much uneasiness to think of the anxiety my dear wife must suffer."
And Boswell was with the man he most admired in life, Samuel Johnson, the great English author and dictionary compiler, taking a long-anticipated trip to Boswell's home nation, visiting its western islands, the Hebrides.
While they were warmly received wherever they went—Johnson at the time was among the most famous men of letters in the English-speaking world—It felt like both the outer rung of the civilization, and at times its lowest rung as well. At one point they peer into a poor hut, smoky and filthy, where the simple family sleeps all in one bed.
"Et hoc secundum sententiam philosopherum est esse beatus," Johnson murmurs to Boswell. "And that, according to the opinion of philosophers, is happiness," no doubt a dig at Boswell's idol, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and his lauding of simple country virtues.
Boswell would meet Rousseau. And Voltaire. And David Hume. And King George III. He thrilled to be in the presence of greatness, so much his adoration was almost charming. And Johnson, who once said "The road to hell is paved with good intentions," is the avatar of pithiness and reason. They're great guys to hang around with.
Johnson remarks on the value of being attacked in print, as opposed to being ignored.
"A man who tells me my play is very bad, is less my enemy than he who lets it die in silence," he tells Boswell. "A man whose business it is to be talked of, is much helped by being attacked."
Words to remember.
Having read Boswell's Life of Johnson and found it perhaps the best biography I've ever read, I long anticipated Hebrides as a kind of looser encore, and it is exactly that, although Johnson does sometimes fade away, nearly lost amidst the lairds and lochs and crumbling castles that are being reported upon by Boswell. It nearly shocked me when Boswell paused to address it, as if he had read my mind.
"He asked me today how we were so little together," Boswell notes, on Sept. 19, 1773. "I told him my Journal took up so much time. But at the same time, it is curious that although I will run from one end of London to another to have an hour with him, I should omit to seize any spare time to be in his company when I am in the house with him. But my Journal is really a task of much time and labor, and Mr. Johnson forbids me to contract it."
The book is still a box of candy for any Johnson fan, and I've been reading it with much joy and happiness. I happened upon a 1936 Viking Press imprint (in Evanston's delightful Amaranth Books on Davis Street) that reproduces the original manuscript, whole, and includes much tart personal observations that are cut out of the book as published at the time, his arguments with Johnson, his nightmares about his child's face, eaten by worms, and his tendency to start each morning with a dram of Scottish whiskey, until Johnson, a teetotaler, berates him. "For shame!"
They have an exchange that would be current this week, with the conservative Boswell taking up the popular Republican cry, and Johnson providing the draft of common sense.
"But is there not reason to fear the common people may be oppressed?" Boswell asks.
"No sir," Johnson answers. "Our great fear is from want of power in government. Such a storm of vulgar force has broken in."
"It has only roared," parries Boswell.
"Sir, it has roared till the judges in Westminster Hall have been afraid to pronounce sentence in opposition to the popular cry. You are frightened by what is no longer dangerous, like Presbyterians by Popery." There are many people nowadays, Johnson observes, quoting a popular work, who "would cry "Fire! Fire!' in Noah's Flood."
Such people are still with us, unfortunately, though the likes of Boswell and Johnson are not. But they can still be found alive and well and talking lustily in his Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides. Plus a lot about Scotland. They even observe a game of golf, circa 1773.