Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

The Limits of the Senses in Johnson's Scotland

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

The Limits of the Senses in Johnson's Scotland

Article excerpt

"More nicety... is better, and no man should travel unprovided with instruments for taking heights and distances," Samuel Johnson notes in A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775).1 This is not the only moment when Johnson assures the reader of his commitment to accuracy. Playing the demystifying scientist, he criticizes Boethius's "fabulousness and credulity" and takes him to task for an especially inaccurate account of the breadth of Loch Ness (15, 30). Considering that same body of water, Johnson questions accounts that have reported the waters to be "open in the hardest winters," faulting their "accuracy of narration" (31). And Johnson is not shy about simple matter-of-fact numerical reporting: "the length of Raasay is, by computation, fifteen miles, and the breadth two" (60). Such comments are in line with Richard Schwartz's booklength account of a Baconian Johnson using Scotland as the proving ground for a deep commitment to "veracity and exactitude."2 For Schwartz, Johnson is a scientist, an experimenter, "working in an extremely practical context, testing accounts and relating the evidence of the senses."3 Indeed, Schwartz defends the term "virtuoso" to characterize Johnson in Scotland, describing him as "shar[ing] the scientific and antiquarian interests of many of his predecessors and contemporaries."4

In a good number of places, the text of the Journey supports not just Johnson's aim of scientific accuracy but also its relation to a specifically antiquarian pursuit. For this reason, critics have quarreled over the indebtedness of Johnson's account to those of the antiquarian and natural historian Thomas Pennant, whose first A Tour in Scotland was published in 1771, before Johnson's trip, and whose second Tour (which extended to the Hebrides) was published around the time Johnson completed the manuscript of the Journey for the press in the first months of 1774.5 There is no doubt that Johnson drew on Pennant's account, and he seems too to have been inspired by the kind of accuracy Pennant's antiquarian itinerary could manage, whether in its calculation of the number of miles between towns, or in its focus on the inscriptions and remains of physical structures that are the stereotypical terrain of the antiquary.6 We can certainly see this strain of inquiry early in the Journey when Johnson moves immediately to Inch Keith and to the material remains of an earlier society: the "small fort," along with "this inscription: Maria Reg. 1564" (3, 4). Unlike James Boswell's later published account of the trip, Johnson does not linger over the individuals he meets or the conversations he has with them. In St. Andrews, he does not even offer proper names for the "invisible friend" and "one of the professors," but moves swiftly to the city itself as something he can "perambulate" (5). Amidst what Johnson calls "lettered hospitality," his concern is with the "ruins of ancient magnificence," with the foundations of the cathedral, the "fragment of the castle" (5, 6). Indeed, at Aberdeen he goes so far as to record the "curiosities" he was shown at the Marischal College, among them "a Hebrew manuscript of exquisite penmanship, and a Latin translation of Aristotle's Politicks by Leonardus Aretinus, written in the Roman character with nicety and beauty" (15-16). If one has Boswell's account in mind, Johnson's account seems strangely quiet, even empty, devoid of conversation and focused on the physical and historical evidence in the landscape. Alongside Pennant's antiquarian account of Scotland (or other writing in the same tradition), however, this preference for finding "manners" in the physical, material world is right at home.

But our view of this scientific, or even antiquarian, Johnson is complicated by a strange engagement with the scientific nature of antiquarian inquiry: the Journey's series of failed measurements. Take Johnson's observation of the churches in Icolmkill: "I brought away rude measures of the buildings, such as I cannot much trust myself, inaccurately taken, and obscurely noted. …

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