Thursday, March 19, 2015

Boswell and Johnson at the bar

I've been spending a lot of casual, here and there reading time with Boswell and Johnson lately. Three volumes--the Oxford World's Classics selection of Johnson's writing, Boswell's Life, and Boswell's London journal--have been alongside whatever chair I'm reading in reliably for months now, dipped into for a page here, a page there, when I'm between books or need a break. I suspect there are few other trios of books that are so reliably rewarding.

Today it was the London journal, which offers us Boswell unbuttoned, unashamed of what he is even as he continually lays fruitless plans to become better. I opened it at random to a pair of entries that could, in a pinch, stand in for the whole experience of reading the journal. The first is from July 14, 1763:
When we went into the Mitre tonight, Mr. Johnson said, "We will not drink two bottles of port." When one was drank, he called for another pint; and when we had got to the bottom of that, and I was distributing it equally, "Come," said he, "you need not measure it so exactly." "Sir," said I, "it is done." "Well, Sir," said he, "are you satisfied? or would you choose another?" "Would you, Sir?" said I. "Yes," said he, "I think I would. I think two bottles would seem toe be the quantity for us." Accordingly we made them out.

I take pleasure in recording every little circumstance about so great a man as Mr. Johnson. This little specimen of social pleasantry will serve me to tell as an agreeable story to literary people. He took me cordially by the hand and said, "My dear Boswell! I do love you very much."--I will be vain, there's enough.

FRIDAY 15 JULY. A bottle of thick English port is a very heavy and a very inflammatory dose. I felt it last time that I drank it for several days, and this morning it was boiling in my veins. Dempster came and saw me, and said I had better be palsied at eighteen than not to keep company with such a man as Johnson.
A little too much to drink

{Photos by rocketlass.}

The break between days there works as effectively as a comic cut in a TV show: we see Boswell drunk and happy, cut to black, then see him hungover and groaning. I admire him for recalling so clearly--and so convincingly--the drunken finickiness about measuring out the port, and the later descent into maudlin sentiment. We have, most of us, been that exact drunk at some point.

Boswell was, to be fair, at a disadvantage. Though Johnson in later life gave up drinking, he is thought to have had (in part based on his own claims) an impressive capacity in his early life. One bottle may have been enough to wreck Boswell's head, but in the Life Johnson boasts that he would face no such risk:
Talking of drinking wine, he said, "I did not leave off wine because I could not bear it; I have drunk three bottles of port without being the worse for it. University College has witnessed this." Boswell: "Why then, Sir, did you leave it off?" Johnson: "Why, Sir, because it is so much better for a man to be sure that he is never intoxicated, never to lose the power over himself."
Johnson's line of argument jibes with another discussion of alcohol in the Life, this one involving Sir Joshua Reynolds, the painter:
We discussed the question whether drinking improved conversation and benevolence. Sir Joshua maintained it did. Johnson: "No, Sir: before dinner men meet with great inequality of understanding; and those who are conscious of their inferiority, have the modesty not to talk. When they have drunk wine, every man feels himself happy, and loses that modesty, and grows impudent and vociferous: but he is not improved; he is only not sensible of his defects."
That calls to mind an anecdote from after Johnson gave up drinking, found in Boswell, but retold in the version I'm quoting here by Reynolds's biographer Frederick Sanders Pulling. Pulling leaves out Johnson's opening sally, as reported by Boswell, who at the time was (briefly) sticking to water: "Boswell is a bolder combatant than Sir Joshua: he argues for wine without the help of wine; but Sir Joshua with it." From there, however, Pulling offers a good summary:
Never did he tire of inveighing against wine, and any one who ventured to argue the point with him got a severe rebuff. Witness the poor man who innocently suggested that at all events drinking made one forget disagreeable things. "Would you not," he mildly inquired, "allow a man to drink for that reason?" "Yes, sir," grunted Johnson, "if he sat next you." To such an inveterate hater of wine, even Reynolds's moderation was excess; and on one occasion, when the painter had urged that "to please one's company was a strong motive," Johnson, having no answer ready, retorted rudely with "I won't argue any more with you, sir--you are too far gone." Reynolds's rebuke is calmly dignified: "I should have thought so indeed, sir, had I made such a speech as you have now done." This was enough. Johnson, "drawing himself in, and I really thought blushing," says Boswell, "replies, 'Nay, don't be angry--I did not mean to offend you.'"
The rare sight of Johnson realizing he's gone too far, and embarrassed by it, I find deeply touching, a reminder of the powerful humanity and unexpected gentleness and even vulnerability that truly do seem to have been hidden deep beneath his obstreperous, self-confident presentation.

Since port is what we first poured in this post, it would be wrong not to close with Johnson's most famous words on that drink, also found in Boswell's Life:
Johnson harangued upon the qualities of different liquors; and spoke with great contempt of claret, as so weak, that "a man would be drowned by it before it made him drunk." He was persuaded to drink one glass of it, that he might judge, not from recollection, which might be dim, but from immediate sensation. He shook his head, and said, "Poor stuff! No, Sir, claret is the liquor for boys; port, for men; but he who aspires to be a hero (smiling) must drink brandy. In the first place, brandy is most grateful to the palate; and then brandy will do soonest for a man what drinking can do for him. There are, indeed, few who are able to drink brandy. That is a power rather to be wished for than attained."
I do not need my readers to be heroes, so you should feel free to raise a glass of whatever suits your fancy: here's to Boswell and the Doctor. May they be read for centuries more.

at the violet hour

1 comment:

  1. And I raise a cup of Lapsang Souchang tea to you, to Boswell (even if inflicted with Signor Gonnorhea as he so often was), to Johnson, and to your superb blog.