The Book, Cat, & Cat Book Lovers Almanac

of historical trivia regarding books, cats, and other animals. Actually this blog has evolved so that it is described better as a blog about cats in history and culture. And we take as a theme the advice of Aldous Huxley: If you want to be a writer, get some cats. Don't forget to see the archived articles linked at the bottom of the page.

May 19, 2016

May 19, 1795

The history of modernity is a history of growing subjectivity. Augustine's Confessions has been labeled the first autobiography because its author fused external history and details about his own private life. This balance between public and private details has by the 21st century shifted so the private occupies a larger percentage of one's person's experience. An example is someone walking down the sidewalk, unaware of the surrounding trees, traffic, or wayside turtles. Their attention is focused on a small lit screen, to the extent they may endanger themselves.

An in between stage is seen in the art of biography. The accumulation of details, for their own sake and not necessarily the light they may shed on the subject, is salutary in this job, it is maintained. This gathering is part of the job of the biographer. The first modern biography, and some say the best, is that of Samuel Johnson by his friend James Boswell (October 29, 1740 to May 19, 1795).

Boswell set an example in his gathering, and he was aware the documentation of the irrelevant was in need of a defense. In The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. (1791) we read:

I cannot allow any fragment whatever that floats in my memory concerning the great subject of this work to be lost. Though a small particular may appear trifling to some, it will be relished by others; while every little spark adds something to the general blaze: and to please the true, candid, warm admirers of Johnson, and in any degree increase the splendor of his reputation, I bid defiance to the shafts of ridicule, or even of malignity. Showers of them have been discharged at my "Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides;" yet it still sails unhurt along the stream of time....

One morning after breakfast, when the sun shone bright, we walked out together, and "pored" for some time with placid indolence upon an artificial waterfall, which Dr. Taylor had made by building a strong dyke of stone across the river behind the garden. It was now somewhat obstructed by branches of trees and other rubbish, which had come down the river, and settled close to it. Johnson, partly from a desire to see it play more freely, and partly from that inclination to activity which will animate, at times, the most inert and sluggish mortal, took a long pole which was lying on u bank, and pushed down several parcels of this wreck with painful assiduity, while I stood quietly by, wondering to behold the sage thus curiously employed, and smiling with an humorous satisfaction each time when he carried his point. He worked till he was quite out of breath; and having found a large dead cat so heavy that he could not move it after several efforts, "Come, (said he, throwing down the pole,) you, shall take it now;" which I accordingly did, and being a fresh man, soon made the cat tumble over the cascade. This may be laughed at as too trifling to record; but it is a small characteristic trait in the Flemish picture which I give of my friend, and in which, therefore, I mark the most minute particulars. And, let it be remembered, that "Aesop at play," is one of the instructive apologues of antiquity.

Boswell's appeal to classical precedence was typical of his time. The story he mentions is of a thinker who was chided for taking time to play with children. Aesop answered that taking a break actually made him more productive. So we see that Boswell had several arguments to defend his collecting and recounting details about Samuel Johnson. This suggests he was well aware he was trail blazing with his books. Now the practice  hardly seems to need defending; we are well sunk in a subjectivity which needs constant distraction, and accept it as a norm.

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