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7/30/13 1:18 AM
NYRblog : Roving thoughts and provocations from our writers
A Lecture on Johnson and Boswell
Jorge Luis Borges
Thomas Rowlandson: Walking up the High Street, 1786
Dr. Johnson was already fifty years old. He had published his dictionary, for which he was paid 1,500 pounds sterling—which became 1,600 when his publishers decided to give him one hundred more—when he finished. He was slowing down. He then published his edition of Shakespeare, which he finished only because his publishers had received payments from subscribers, so it had to be done. Otherwise, Dr. Johnson spent his time engaged in conversation. ….The truth is, in spite of his numerous accomplishments, he had a natural tendency toward idleness. He preferred to talk rather than write. So, he worked only on that edition of Shakespeare, which was one of his last works, for he received complaints, and satirical
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” Then Carlyle adds. There’s a famous passage by the Scottish writer. Boswell’s father had a small castle that was in ruins. because http://www. but rather a judicial title. judges were given the title of Lord and could choose the place they wanted to be lord of. But this wasn’t. of difficult battles against the English. was Lord Auchinleck and so was his son. he tried to approach the great men of his time. in Switzerland. Like Milton knew that he would be a poet before he had written a single line. and this made him decide to finish the work. these don’t. For a time he was extremely interested in the subject of ghosts. He was the son of a judge. Johnson had a peculiar temperament. He studied in Edinburgh and then for more than two years at Utretcht University in Holland. Thomas Carlyle. which suggest an opulent life with small but more or less lavish courts. saying that Johnson wanted to see a ghost. He visited Voltaire in Berne. then. The castle was called Auchinleck. And Carlyle wonders: “What is a ghost? A ghost is a spirit that has taken corporal form and appears for a while among men. because the subscribers had already paid. poor castles in the Highlands of Scotland.” or “The Mended Tailor. and as opposed to the castles of the Rhine. Apparently. Boswell’s father. his parents wanted him to go into law. Now. they give the impression of a life of battle. from birth. Scotland is full of castles in ruins. So he visited Voltaire. let us say. Boswell always felt he would be the biographer of a great man of his era.nybooks.” and we’ll soon see why—in which he talks about Johnson. even though Boswell showed an interest in letters. he didn’t. and he made friends with Jean-Jacques Rousseau—they were friends for only fifteen or twenty days. “How could Johnson not have thought of this when faced with the spectacle of the human multitudes he loved so much in the streets of London. This was customary at that time: to study at several universities.com/blogs/nyrblog/2013/jul/28/lecture-johnson-and-boswell/ Page 2 of 8 . a native title. I think it is in his Sartor Resartus—which means “The Tailor Retailored. that he himself was a ghost? What is each man but a spirit that has taken corporal form briefly and then disappears? What are men if not ghosts?” …. why did it not occur to him that the London multitudes were ghosts. for if a ghost were a spirit that has taken a corporal form for a brief interval. In Scotland. in the British Isles and on the continent. This young man was born in Edinburgh in 1740 and died in the year 1795.A Lecture on Johnson and Boswell by Jorge Luis Borges | NYRblog | The New York Review of Books 7/30/13 1:18 AM responses.Johnson was in a bookstore when he met a young man named James Boswell. He was so interested in them that he spent several nights in an abandoned house to see if he could meet one. It could be said that Boswell had a premonition of his destiny.
written.com/blogs/nyrblog/2013/jul/28/lecture-johnson-and-boswell/ Page 3 of 8 . But Macaulay forgets that we owe the narration of almost all those facts to Boswell himself. that person would have wanted the earth to swallow him up. and that of Bernard Shaw. he wrote a book about Corsica. however. Macaulay says that the preeminence of Homer as an epic poet. I believe. and his imbecility. that if he had lived in Shakespeare’s century he would not have written works better than Hamlet or Macbeth. there’s the scorn shown to him by an English duchess. He then recounts a series of instances in which Boswell appears as a ridiculous character. http://www. Bernard Shaw. through Euripides—and then passes through Shakespeare. and that the odd thing about Boswell is that he owes his preeminence as a biographer to his foolishness. He says that he is not. and the fact that members of the club he managed to join thought there could not be a person less intelligent than Boswell. but now he can. through Marlowe. of Demosthenes as an orator. and at a party given in Stratford-upon-Avon to celebrate the birth of Shakespeare. because he was a fool. And when he returned to England.” and we know this because of his own testimony and that of his contemporaries. on which he had written “Corsica’s Boswell. or something like that. and of Cervantes as a novelist is no less indisputable than the preeminence of Boswell as a biographer. who wrote around the middle of the nineteenth century. dedicated himself to publicizing them. he showed up dressed as a Corsican villager. Sophocles. For example. from Corsica. he carried a sign on his hat. He says that if these things that happened to Boswell had happened to anybody else. Now… in the case of a short composition a fool can utter a brilliant sentence but it seems quite rare for a fool to be able to write an admirable biography of seven or eight hundred pages in spite of being a fool or. Boswell. let us take a look at the opposite opinion. Then there is a whole range of judgments between those two. his inconsistency. And then he says that all those eminent names owed their preeminence to their talent and brilliance. Now. in one of his long and incisive prologues. around 1915. something that has been interpreted in two different ways. his vanity.A Lecture on Johnson and Boswell by Jorge Luis Borges | NYRblog | The New York Review of Books 7/30/13 1:18 AM Rousseau was a very ill-tempered man—and then he became friends with an Italian general. Paoli. So that people would recognize him as the author of the book about Corsica. There is something very strange about Boswell. I’m going to look at the two extreme views: the one of the English essayist and historian Macaulay. that of Bernard Shaw. says that he is the heir to an apostolic succession of dramatists. that this succession comes from the Greek tragedians—from Aeschylus. in fact. according to Macaulay. of Shakespeare as a dramatic poet. better than Shakespeare.nybooks.
we have me. among his other literary merits. Boswell was a young man. and grunted at the same time. who says that Johnson was. an extremely unkempt person: he paid no attention to what he wore. of Bernard Shaw. and Johnson. those four great dramatists who created the character Christ. he is tired of life.” “Finally. and he didn’t respond if somebody asked him a question. That http://www.nybooks. Johnson was from a humble background. …. he listened to his opinions with reverence. or he’d start praying right in the middle of a meeting. in his twenties.” Johnson accompanied Boswell to the boat. the opposite. Boswell decided to go to Holland to continue his legal studies. “I have no intention of answering such an inept question.A Lecture on Johnson and Boswell by Jorge Luis Borges | NYRblog | The New York Review of Books 7/30/13 1:18 AM for he cannot stand Shakespeare. it is well known that men of a certain age are rejuvenated by the company of the young. who created the character Socrates. “When a man is tired of London.” And Boswell jotted down this answer. he mentioned other dramatists. we had Plato. When he ate. the list would be almost infinite as well as being well known. who was very attached to London … Johnson said. Boswell did not contradict him. who created the character Johnson. I think it is many miles south of London. Johnson would answer—“What would you do if you were locked in a tower with a newborn baby?” Of course. he pushed away—like so. the veins on his forehead swelled. now we will return to the relationship between Boswell and Johnson. for example—just to know what Dr. But after two or three months of friendship. In other words.” So here we have these two extreme opinions: one. In spite of all this. “And now.” he says. a dictator in the world of English letters (at the same time he was a man who suffered from loneliness. as do many famous men). Boswell became friends with him. he had a gluttonous appetite. moreover. Before.com/blogs/nyrblog/2013/jul/28/lecture-johnson-and-boswell/ Page 4 of 8 . with his hands—a woman who asked him something. He says we have the four Evangelists. and wrote it up. Then we have Boswell. went to his house. he emitted all kinds of grunts. that Boswell was an idiot who had the good fortune to meet Johnson and write his biography—that’s Macaulay’s—and the other. But he knew that everything would be tolerated because he was an important figure. Before. It is true that at times Boswell annoyed him with questions that were difficult to answer. And the other was a young aristocrat. names that are somewhat surprising for such a list. “I am heir to the apostolic succession that begins with Aeschylus and ends in me and that undoubtedly will continue. Johnson was. because he has read authors who are better than him. a dramatic character created by Boswell. He asked him. his father was a bookseller in a small town in Staffordshire.So. who has created so many characters it is not worth listing them. Johnson was a famous man. Johnson answered.
what Boswell planned. because the more writers develop their characters. as Unamuno and others have maintained. he diligently tolerated the long and—at the time—difficult trip. Because Eckermann was a man of limited intelligence who greatly revered Goethe. that’s how we have a character who is sometimes ridiculous. They wouldn’t see each other for two or three years. was completely different: to make Johnson’s biography a drama. We know nothing about Eckermann. and sometimes our pity. but who can be serious and have profound thoughts. Then he’d go home and write it all down. This is what happens with Cervantes’s character. Eckermann almost doesn’t exist except as a kind of machine that records Goethe’s words. nothing about his character—he undoubtedly had one. given to us by Boswell. each has his own personality—above all. Then.com/blogs/nyrblog/2013/jul/28/lecture-johnson-and-boswell/ Page 5 of 8 . there is [Oliver] Goldsmith. The Life of Samuel Johnson. On the other hand. and Boswell says he stood at the port watching the boat sail away. by Eckermann.A Lecture on Johnson and Boswell by Jorge Luis Borges | NYRblog | The New York Review of Books 7/30/13 1:18 AM is. And we can say “of history” because Don Quixote is more real to us than Cervantes himself. And they appear and behave like the characters in a play. but he is also a gentleman worthy of our respect. his success with Paoli—which might not have been difficult because Paoli was not a very important person—Boswell decided to dedicate himself to being Johnson’s biographer. especially in the second part. the first writes down what Goethe has said…. his failure with Rousseau. Dr. his long arms. the better they get to know them. The book has something of catechism about it. Boswell conceived of the idea of an extensive biography. who spoke with him ex cathedra. And this is the same sensation we get from the image of Dr. sometimes the members of the circle. In other words: Eckermann asks. Goethe answers. This is true. and above all is one of the most beloved characters in all of history. Johnson. cannot be inferred from it. sometimes more. his slovenly appearance. whom he saw several times a week. but this cannot be deduced from the book. Don Quixote is a slightly ridiculous character. who is presented sometimes as ridiculous but always as lovable. But he is lovable. Johnson. with several characters. when the author has learned to know his character and has forgotten his initial goal of parodying novels of chivalry. by Boswell. with his grotesque appearance. Eckermann very rarely dared to contradict Goethe. one that included his conversations with Johnson. Don Quixote. or how would we call it. And at the end. http://www. even though it was praised by Nietzsche as the best book ever written in German. or in any case what he carried out. …. has often been compared to Conversations of Goethe. after his failure with Voltaire. waving goodbye. the salon. of which Johnson was the leader. So. but he is always lovable.nybooks. a book that in my opinion is in no way comparable. Indeed. There is [Sir Joshua] Reynolds.
According to this theory. Boswell appears as a despicable character. in other words. in the same way that we have seen how Johnson is similar to Don Quixote. / But I will eat and drink. I have felt that there is something deep down inside me that remains separate. is what Shakespeare also felt. at moments when something very bad has happened to me. And the same thing happens with us. we see Boswell in that same relation to Dr. and in front of the entire troop they pull off his medals. the Miles Gloriosus of the Latin comedy. or. and. In other words. if you prefer. they humiliate him. maybe it would be better to say an actor. And then he is left alone and says: “Captain I’ll be no more.” “No seré capitán. we have to think that just as Sancho is the companion Quixote sometimes treats badly. a cowardly soldier. as I have always had him in front of me. and that character in Boswell’s work is Boswell himself.nybooks. beyond his cowardice. I have ended up identifying with him. for if he wrote them down. That is. and they promote him and he becomes a captain. This is Sancho. and ends up identifying with one of the characters who is there in front of him. Now.” That is. above all.com/blogs/nyrblog/2013/jul/28/lecture-johnson-and-boswell/ Page 6 of 8 . often authors need a character who serves as a framework for and a contrast to the deeds of his hero. There is a Hindu school of philosophy that says that we are not the actors in our lives. I have felt: “But. A spectator sees a dancer or an actor. because in one of his comedies there is a soldier. And this. I. I have seen him be ridiculous in some situations. But it seems impossible to me that Boswell didn’t realize this. and this I is identified with—though separate from—the other. he makes people believe that he has acted bravely. but sometimes this happens to me: usually at two particular kinds of moments—at moments when something very good has happened. These days. was born the same day as Jorge Luis Borges.A Lecture on Johnson and Boswell by Jorge Luis Borges | NYRblog | The New York Review of Books 7/30/13 1:18 AM …. There are characters whose role is to bring out the hero’s personality. his http://www. exactly the same day. And for a few seconds. and this is illustrated using the metaphor of a dancer. but rather the spectators. And. The man is a showoff.Now.” That is. Johnson: a sometimes stupid and loyal companion. and sleep as soft / As captain shall: simply the thing I am / Shall make me live. Then they discover his trick. he feels that above and beyond the circumstances. pathetic in others. reads a novel. And this shows that Boswell positioned himself in contrast to Johnson. what do I care about all this? It is as if all of this is happening to somebody else. The fact that Boswell himself tells anecdotes in which he appears ridiculous makes him not seem ridiculous at all. I don’t know what experiences you might have had. surely. the I would be double: there is a profound I.” He says simply. for example. “the thing I am shall make me live. he did it because he saw that the purpose of the anecdote was to make Johnson stand out. This is what those Hindu thinkers before the fifth century said.
Perhaps Boswell simply felt it as an aesthetic necessity that to better showcase Johnson. who so obviously admired him. Johnson. and he knew that the gems of his conversation would be recorded by Boswell. then the work would have lost a lot. And Boswell gives himself the role of the ridiculous one. or anything like that. his interlocutors retain memories much like that. http://www. But this would explain Johnson’s silence.nybooks.” what Schopenhauer called “will. in a very believable way.” This is in tune with the courage we feel in Dr. that Johnson was unaware of what it contained. Now. “The profession of sailors and soldiers has the dignity of danger. the fact that Johnson knew that what he said would not be lost.” what Bernard Shaw called “life force. has wondered if Boswell’s book reproduces Johnson’s conversations exactly. sometimes whipped. after meetings at his club. a kind of strength we all have within us. what Spinoza called “God. Somebody said to Johnson that he could not imagine a more miserable life than a sailor’s.” and Bergson called “vital impulse. and of course he liked to feel by his side the friendship of a much younger man. At the same time. There is another problem that comes up here. I don’t remember if I have already mentioned it. Yet. And Johnson answered. that this would be so. that seem to be coined by Johnson. an American critic. that Boswell does not reproduce Johnson’s conversation as a stenographer would have done. [Joseph] Wood Krutch. in any case.” I think this is also what was going on with Boswell. if it appears that Boswell had shown Johnson the manuscript. Watson makes the brilliant Sherlock Holmes stand out even more. We have to accept the fact.com/blogs/nyrblog/2013/jul/28/lecture-johnson-and-boswell/ Page 7 of 8 . there should be a very different character alongside him. was to see the nadir. and this is what led Johnson to devote his last years almost exclusively to conversation. In other words. it is very possible that Johnson was not always as epigrammatic nor as ingenious as he is presented in the work. and he maintains it throughout the entire book. Now. though undoubtedly. the lowest depths of the human condition. as I have said. true or false. for Johnson was a famous man and alone. to see the sailors crowded together. rather that he produces the effect of Johnson’s conversation. and he reaches the conclusion. It can be explained because Johnson knew he liked to converse. or a recording. that to see a warship. Johnson almost stopped writing. this can be explained in a certain way. we feel a sincere friendship between the two in the same way we feel it when we read Conan Doyle’s novels. he is something else. which he had to do because the publishers were demanding it. All men feel ashamed at not having been at sea or in battle. There are sentences. besides the edition of Shakespeare.A Lecture on Johnson and Boswell by Jorge Luis Borges | NYRblog | The New York Review of Books 7/30/13 1:18 AM humiliation. It is natural. Something like in the novels of Conan Doyle: the mediocre Dr.
Monday. Copyright © 1963-2013 NYREV. Inc.A Lecture on Johnson and Boswell by Jorge Luis Borges | NYRblog | The New York Review of Books 7/30/13 1:18 AM Excerpted from “Class 10: Samuel Johnson as Seen by Boswell. 2013. Johnson and His Critics.” in Professor Borges: A Course on English Literature. July 28. November 7. a compilation of twenty-five lectures Borges gave in 1966 that has been translated into English for the first time by Katherine Silver.com/blogs/nyrblog/2013/jul/28/lecture-johnson-and-boswell/ Page 8 of 8 . The Art of Biography. 10:23 a.nybooks. 1966. http://www. All rights reserved.m. It will be published by New Directions on July 31.