Narrative, history, and memory
in the Lives of the Poets
The notion that people more often need to be reminded than informed is central to Johnson's thinking about human experience. 1 Anticipating the basic recollective structure of psychoanalysis, in which the past through “repetition” seeks re-emplotment in a newly imagined narrative, 2 Johnson's idea speaks to the relationships among memory, knowledge, writing, and character which inform the structure and experiential content of the Lives of the Poets. These are relationships which make for the constitutive and “redemptive” functions of biographical memory. Such theoretical terms have long been used to describe Boswell's biographical writing, and, while the fictive nature of biographical writing most obviously, the use of tropes and figurative language in recording a life – has been widely accepted in other areas of literary studies, 3 we have insisted on seeing Johnson as wedded to a theory of positivistic verisimilitude. Oddly, we have not registered Johnson's insistence on the imaginativeness of life writing. In “Rambler” 60 he notes that, like high forms of literature, biography succeeds in proportion to its capacity to draw on and appeal to common human experiences, for “[a]ll joy or sorrow for the happiness or calamities of others is produced by an act of imagination, that realises the event however fictitious, or approximates it however remote… Our passions are therefore more strongly moved, in proportion as we can more readily adopt the pains and the pleasures proposed to our minds” (in, 318–19).
The sympathetic experience described here is no different in kind from that of poetry or fiction. Evidently, all good writing for Johnson appeals to human passions, and “Rambler” 60 assumes that a biographer fulfills his purpose in proportion to the creativity of the writing. He may be able to conceive the pains and the pleasures of other minds, but must also excite them - “uniformity of sentiment… enables us to conceive and to excite the pains and the pleasure of other minds” (Lives, 1, 20). In doing so we are able to distinguish a mere “chronological series