Reading Boswell

Over the past ten years, I’ve been desultorily reading Boswell’s Life of Johnson. Today we’d call it a masterpiece of non-fiction that combines psychological insight, reportage, collage, anecdote, and narrative. But really, it’s a book about the moral and spiritual life of a public intellectual.

Last night, I came to this passage:

1777: Ætat. 68.]–In 1777, it appears from his Prayers and Meditations, that Johnson suffered much from a state of mind “unsettled and perplexed,” and from that constitutional gloom, which, together with his extreme humility and anxiety with regard to his religious state, made him contemplate himself through too dark and unfavourable a medium. It may be said of him, the he “saw God in the clouds.” Certain we may be of his injustice to himself in the following lamentable paragraph, which it is painful to think came from the contrite heart of this great man, to whose labors the world is so much indebted: “When I survey my past life, I discover nothing but a barren waste of time, with some disorders of body, and disturbances of the mind, very near to madness, which I hope He that made me will suffer to extenuate many faults, and excuse many deficiencies.” …

If Boswell were writing today, he would no doubt attempt to psychoanalyze Johnson; he would find that Johnson lacked sexual outlet following the untimely death of his wife, that Johnson’s “constitutional gloom” was in fact a clinical depression which could have been cleared up with a mood-elevating drug, that Johnson had Tourette’s Syndrome and obsessive-compulsive disorder, and that the disability of being blind in one eye (the result of a childhood bout with scrofula) affected him throughout his life. And if Boswell lived here in the United States, he probably would have gotten infected with our national mythology that the “pursuit of happiness” is the highest good, and he would have recommended a combination of psychoanalysis and happy consumerism to end Johnson’s woes.

I don’t know about you, but I certainly have surveyed my own life and thought, What a barren waste of time! –How little I have done (nothing, really) to leave the world better than it was I came into it! Better to say what is true than hide behind a bland psychologizing:– The usual liberal psychotherapy provides a pitifully meager answer to the question, How ought I to live out my life? Nor do the conservative platitudes of our time offer anything more; they just cloak psychology and pointless pursuit of happiness in strident nationalism or religious excess.

So we find more and more essentially sane people getting diagnosed as crazy-depressed and dosed up with anti-depressants. Our public discourse doesn’t allow us to carefully and honestly survey our lives, let alone admit that when we do survey our lives we are likely to find a good deal that is barren. Last night I took a long walk, thinking about what I’ve done with my life; and I found much that was barren. Anyone who is honest would find the same. What to do? Having already rejected strident nationalism, prosperity theology, religious fundamentalism, bland psychotherapy, over-medication, happiness through consumption, and a few other pointless things, I settled on some good honest soul-searching. I was not particularly happy to do so, and it’s never pleasant to realize that the barrenness of one’s own life is in part a reflection of the barrenness of public life. My deficiencies and faults didn’t go away. But when I went to sleep, my dreams were rich and untroubled, and I awakened with renewed energy.

1 thought on “Reading Boswell

  1. Jean

    I disagree that anyone who is honest will survey their lives and find a good deal that is barren. I’m not sure I’d classify that as “honest” but rather perhaps “brutal” or “harsh.” Or maybe, simply, mistaken.

    What is barrenness, anyway? When I first moved the the Midwest I thought was the most barren of places, emtpy of content, ugly, miserable, uniformed, pedestrian. You name it. But now, 15 years later — and yep, it took about that long — I know what I’m looking at, can identify the nuances of the landscape, and it’s not anything remotely resembling barren. It’s as though I now have my own internal field guide to the Midwest; maybe that’s what is needed when reviewing one’s life in order to perceive richness instead of barrenness: a better field guide.

    For what it’s worth, and I’m really biased of course, your life and the work you have done these past
    40 some years seems anything but barren. Rather rich, indeed.

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