Monday, January 2, 2012

* JAMIE: Yale's "Signor Gonorrhoea," XVII

Remains of 14th Century Auchinleck Castle

Boswell's family estate, Auchinleck House; edifice replaced, 18th Century

Young  James Boswell circa 1760, future 9th Laird of Auchinleck

Fifteen years after James Boswell's death in 1795 from venereal disease and alcoholism at age 55 in London, an American preacher would write a sermon against the sin of dueling, after the Vice President of the United States, Aaron Burr, killed Alexander Hamilton, in an instance of that testosterone-laden barbaric practice of ritualized murder among males who feel their honor to have been damaged: The duel.

He entitled his sermon, 
"How are the Mighty  Fallen!" 2 Samuel 1:27 
The collection at Yale's Beinecke Rare Book Library of the papers of James Boswell,  author of what is universally acknowledged as the greatest biography of all time, The Life of Samuel Johnson, contains a manuscript which was not discovered until more than a century  after Boswell's 1795 death.  The  previously unknown mansucript London Journal 1762-1763 was not published until 1950, and then courageously by Yale, unsanitized, despite the intervening reign of prudery of the British philanthropist and censor, Dr. Thomas Bowdler ------ a prudery which it fortuitously escaped by being lost for 120 years.

Cutaway of Yale's Beinecke Rare Book Library 

On the first page of this racy two-year journal (1762-1763) the twenty-two year old future Lord of Auchinleck in Scotland, writes from London, where he has escaped the leash of his domineering parents, that he intends to write honestly and frankly in his journal, after his cousin, Andrew Erskine, assures him there is no danger of self-incrimination since "I fancy you will not set down your robberies on the highway, or the murders that you commit." (p.40)

Very soon thereafter, we are treated to proof of Boswell's candor up to Erskine's hypothetical boundary of crimes: "I picked up a girl in the Strand; went into the court with intention to enjoy her in armour [prophylactic sheath]. But she had none. I toyed with her. She wondered at my size and said if I ever had a girl's maidenhead, I would make her squeak." (p. 49+)

Foolishly, he falls in love with an actress, to whom he gives the pseudonym "Louisa"in his journal,  and  who Lust leads him to believe is a lady.

Indeed, she is sympathetic when he appears to be impotent after failing to "make a triumphal entry" : She philosophizes kindly, albeit euphemistically, "'People cannot always command their spirits.' " (p.116). 

 At this time in his youthful life in London, he is socializing with the actor Garrick and the writers Sheridan and Goldsmith.  He has not yet met Dr. Johnson.  He has made a pledge to Sheridan about gambling at cards "not to play for five years" (p 127)  betraying one facet of the compulsions which will retire him to what, for us moderns, is an early grave, at 55. He is a man of his word, however, and is often the only member of Lady Northumberland's guests who does not sit at table and play cards, making him a bit socially awkward. Pity he did not make similar pledges about alcohol and promiscuity as he did to Sheriden about gambling. 

JAN. 12 1863:

After finally arranging a night alone with Louisa, he writes, "A more voluptuous night I never enjoyed. Five times I was fairly lost in supreme rapture . .  Thus was this conquest completed to my highest satisfaction." (pp. 139-41)  On another occasion soon thereafter, "I strutted up and own, considering myself as a valiant man who could gratify a lady's loving five times in a night . . ." (p. 142)

On his next liaison with Louisa he "felt his passion for Louisa much gone. I felt a degree of coldness for her and I observed an affectation about her which disgusted me. I had a strong proof of my own inconstancy of disposition, and I considered that any woman who married me must be miserable."( p.145)

So  much for the vanishing Venus.

Six days after his January 12th victory Boswell writes " I this day began to feel an unaccountable alarm of unexpected evil: a little heat in the members of my body sacred to Cupid, very like a symptom of that distemper with which Venus, when cross, takes it into her head to plague her votaries."

On January 19th, "I felt the symptoms increase , which was very confounding and very distressing to me." (.153)

That evening " Jamie" (the name his cousin Erskine calls Boswell) attends the theatre and then has a warm supper at Lady Betty's. 

" The evening was passed most cheerfully . . .  When I got home, though, then came sorrow. Too, too plain was Signor Gonorrhoea."   By Thursday, January 20th "I rose, very disconsolate, having rested very ill by the poisonous infection raging in my veins and anxiety and vexation boiling in my breast. What ! thought I, can this beautiful, this sensible, and this agreeable woman be so sadly defiled? Can corruption lodge beneath so fair a form? Can she who professed delicacy of sentiment and sincere regard for me, use me so very basely and so very cruelly? No, it is impossible. I have just got a gleet by iritating the parts too much with excessive venery. And yet these damned twinges, that scalding heat, and that deep-tinged loathsome matter are the strongest proofs of an infection." (p.155+)

Poor Jamie. 

He spends five weeks housebound, as we moderns say, taking the cure.  Then, after confronting the good Louisa, his pistress,  (freudian typo?), he proceeds in ensuing days to take four or five other street women 'for concubinage.' 

On February 20th he reflects "What I am most anxious about is to get it entirely eradicated, that I may recover perfect soundness of constitution and may not bring a race of poor, sickly human beings into the world" (p. 197)  He dies 32-years later having brought five legitimate and two illegitimate children into the world.

Wikipedia notes that Boswell, who died of alcoholism and venereal disease, contracted  gonnorhea "seventeen times" in his life.

In 1793 at the age of 53, , two years before his death, the, by-then,  9th Laird of Auchinleck writes his close friend, Temple, that he had been drinking and been robbed  "The robbery is only a few schillings; but the cut on my head and the bruises on my arms were sad things, and confined me to bed in pain, and fever, and helplessness, as a child, many days  . . . This shall be a crisis in my life: I trust I shall henceforth be a sober, regular man indeed, my indulgence in wine has, of late years especially, been excessive . . . "  (kindle 140-143) Preface:  Boswell and Erskine's Letters

(How the mighty are fallen.)

But to return to the beginning of great things: 

On May 16th, 1763 , when Jamie first meets Dr. Johnson, we can be sure from his previous scrupulous self-honesty that we are reading a writer who pens the truth. Here are his first words about the man whose life he was to immortalize over the next three decades:

 "Mr. Johnson is a man of most dreadful appearance. He is a very big man, is troubled with sore eyes, the palsy, and the king's evil. [ That is, bears the scars of scrofula. What Boswell calls palsy was rather a number of convulsive tics] (p. 260+)

Johnson and Boswell would remain friends for the next twenty-one years until 1784.

On December 13 of that year, at the age of 73, Johnson died after "seizing a knife" and stabbing his own leg to relieve swelling.

(How the mighty are fallen.)

 "It may be said that disease generally begins that equality which death completes."  Samuel Johnson


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