Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Organic Tensions: Putting the Tracings Back on the Map in Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Organic Tensions: Putting the Tracings Back on the Map in Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson

Article excerpt

Certain ironic tensions run through many aspects of James Boswell's rela- tionship to Samuel Johnson. Boswell was Scottish, an outsider to eighteenth- century London who sought to appropriate himself through social associations with the prominent figures of the age. Most significantly, the young Boswell cultivated a connection with Johnson, who "in the public eye of London . . . was a crotchety man of letters," no better than an outsider himself, awkward in both appearance and behavior, and no proponent of the increasing Scottish presence in the nation's center.1 The disparate characters of the two men-the unstable, dissolute Boswell and the austere, moralizing Johnson-made for a companionship that seems, in the extreme, like a pairing of virtue and vice. Moreover, the former was a voluminous private writer, perhaps better known now for his journals than what he chose to publish; the latter, a public authorial persona of his own time, Mr. Rambler, the great lexicographer and biographer. The tension between the character of each man and in their relationship un- derscores the irony of Boswell authoring the Life of Samuel Johnson (1791). That such a man would play biographer to the great biographer of the period was a bold endeavor, but that a Scotsman would endeavor to codify the great English codifier of their time smacked of hubris.

To force their relationship into easy, dialectical distinctions like English and Scottish, saint and sinner, or even deity and devotee is to reduce the complex multiplicity inherent in the self and its interaction with others to mere cliché. In the Life of Johnson, however, Boswell capitalizes on the multiplicity of the self and tries to represent it textually, setting his biographical project up as an "accumulation of intelligence from various points" so that Johnson "will be seen . . . more completely than any man who has yet lived."2 Boswell's Johnson must incorporate the contradiction of various points of view to lend continuity to the complete textual self Boswell seeks to portray. Rendering Johnson's life into text is fundamentally a rhetorical task of ordering and structuring, not only "all the most important events of it in their order, but interweaving what he pri- vately wrote, and said, and thought" (I.30). Boswell claims that seeking out the important events of Johnson's life or even verifying its seemingly inconsequen- tial details sent him throughout London and put him in correspondence with Johnson's acquaintances (I.7). Striving for accuracy forced him to address John- son's own desires for his posthumous biographical representation.3 The tensions between these considerations, Johnson's lived life and its textual representation, highlight the rhetorical maneuvers that Boswell must deploy to unify the "innu- merable detached particulars" of Johnson's self biographically (I.6).

The theoretical approaches of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari for examin- ing the disorder within organizational structures provide a vocabulary for grap- pling with Boswell's biographical accumulation of the ambiguous, "detached particulars," as well as offering an alternative to historical treatments of the Life which seek to give Boswell's "innumerable" details a binary consistency. Using their critical vocabulary, I will interrogate how Boswell uses particular rhetori- cal structures within his Life of Johnson-his arrangement of letters, as well as paratextual and autobiographical commentary-to order his representation of Johnson's life within social convention, but especially how Boswell's Johnson fundamentally resists this biographical structuring. It is Johnson's laughter that most clearly marks his resistance, a laughter that constantly threatens to under- mine the definitive structuring Boswell's biography seeks to apply to the life of Johnson, mocking both the biographer and the biographer's work.

Historically, the legitimacy of competing representations of Johnson has been contested by scholars and biographers since his death in 1784, and they inevitably seek to situate Boswell's Life of Johnson within a binary relationship. …

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