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Happy Birthday Shameless Boswell

October 29, 2016


I’ve often thought that if Boswell, really had persevered in his youthful conversion to Catholicism, he would have severely tested the practical limits of the sacrament of confession.  There would have been watch-tapping queues trailing from the confessional booth half way down the street as Jamie attempted to give a full and frank account of the extent of his recent sins to an exasperated priest.

All human life and folly is contained within Boswell’s journals.  It is perhaps the most complete day to day account of a human life in existence.  Indeed, the shameless detail of the journals once put me in mind of a Doctor Who adventure I thought (not really “thought”) of pitching to Steven Moffat).   It ran thus…

Of course, the least “human” thing about Boswell is his compulsive need to narrate and confess.  He had no concept of shame. He had guilt (tremendous guilt) but not shame.  At one point he reflects upon this deficiency and muses that acquisition of this thing called “shame” might well prevent him from doing in advance so many of those things that subsequently made him feel guilty.  William Ober has charted Boswell’s lifelong struggle with STDs and it is hard not to reach the conclusion that merely from the point of view of a rational pleasure-pain ratio, Boswell’s sex life was poorly calculated.

Yet his shameless confessional nature is what makes him so eminently lovable.  He wants to be better than he is.  He “resolves”.   He is always clawing his way back from somewhere.  In a sense, Boswell’s life is eminently sublime, since it’s a collection of plans for a life that should be, rather than a life that is.  Following Longinus, Boswell’s Life of Boswell is an effort of continual straining, a teasing and a testing of a human capacity for extrapolation.

I think the very first academic conference I ever attended was in Edinburgh, to mark the 200th anniversary of Boswell’s death (so you can work that one out).   We had a large and well lubricated dinner on the Saturday night, and the following morning we crawled into seminar rooms to hear papers on Boswell’s hangovers.  I have never felt so close to the subject matter of a conference in my whole life.  Two of the main speakers at that conference are no longer with us, but are now commemorated at Edinburgh University.

And I think of all the occasions when Jamie Boswell must have crawled out of bed slightly too late with a peculiarly punitive head ache, struggled to locate his legal paraphernalia before arriving to plead a case in front of a judge who happened to be his own judgmental father.   That sounds like the worst morning ever.



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