The Hypochondrics: Nine Tormented Lives
By Brian Dillon
Hardcover, 188 pages
Faber & Faber
List price: $25
Chapter 1: James Boswell's English Malady
'He is a convalescent whom the last relapse will infallibly destroy.'
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Correspondence generale de J.-J. Rousseau
On Saturday, the 6th of August 1763, James Boswell, who was then two months short of his twenty-third birthday, was received on board the Prince of Wales packet-boat at Harwich, on the coast of Essex. The ship was bound for the Dutch port of Helvoetsluys; from there, the young man was to travel north to Leyden, and thence east to the university town of Utrecht where, at the insistence of his father, Lord Auchinleck, he was to study law. Boswell's hopeful mood as he set out — a promised tour of Paris and the German courts lay at the end of his stay in Holland — was shadowed by a sense that this term of study in a less than teeming town was a parental punishment for his recent dissolution in London. His first flight from his native Scotland had been alarming enough, as far as his father was concerned: the eighteen-year-old had quickly converted to Catholicism and at the same time, as if testing the strength of his new piety, acquired a taste for bought sex that he would pursue, for much of his life, with the force of a vocation. Hastily recalled to Scotland by his father, he languished for two years, studying desultorily and dreaming of escape. In the second year, he fathered an illegitimate son whom he never saw.
His second adventure in the capital commenced in November 1762. Lord Auchinleck had grudgingly agreed to his son's returning to London to seek a commission in His Majesty's Foot Guards, a scheme that came to nothing. Instead, as we know from his journals, Boswell further indulged his physical appetites but also began, under the tutelage of Samuel Johnson, whom he first met in May 1763, to picture for himself a more ordered and serene existence. He determined on a life of study, and of writing, that would keep at bay both carnal chaos and the periodic melancholy that had already threatened him in the months since his arrival in London. He felt, in the days before his departure, that his London life, with its diverting extremes of physical pleasure and intellectual play, but its prospects too for moral improvement, was about to be snatched away. On the first of the month, trying to reconcile himself to his father's plan, he wrote in his journal: 'Resolve now study in earnest. Consider you're not to be so much a student as a traveller. Be a liberal student. Learn to be reserved. Keep your melancholy to yourself, and you'll easily conceal your joy.'
Dining at the Turk's Head with Johnson two days earlier, Boswell had been unable to hide the nostalgia that had seized him even before leaving England, and he was flattered and consoled to discover that his famous friend planned to see him off at Harwich. But seated again at the same establishment on the 3rd of August, suffering a feverish headache and feeling heavy from a bout of insomnia the night before, he was scarcely able to listen as Johnson discoursed at length upon the Convocation of the Church of England. The following day, Boswell's last in London, his mind shrank, agitated, gloomy and dejected, from the prospect of leaving the city, and he had to remind himself, not for the first or the last time, to be manly, steady and dignified, to commit himself to the care of his merciful Creator.
It was in this confused state that he travelled by coach with Johnson to Harwich the next day. They stayed overnight at Colchester, where the elder man, observing a moth burn itself to death as it fluttered about a candle flame, remarked: 'That creature was its own tormenter, and I believe its name was Boswell.' The human subject of this comparison does not record his own response in The Life of Samuel Johnson, but moves the scene at once to Harwich, where, exploring the town, the pair had one of the most celebrated exchanges in English literature. On leaving the local church, they began to dispute about George Berkeley's philosophical doctrine concerning the reality of matter, and in particular his positing its non-existence in the absence of our sensing it. The notion, said Boswell, was impossible to refute; Johnson replied by suddenly kicking a large stone ('till he rebounded from it', notes his companion) and announcing: 'I refute it thus.' It was soon time for Boswell to embark, and we may wonder whether it occurred to him, as the Prince of Wales pulled away from the shore, that his solid friend, on whom he kept his eyes fixed for a considerable time, had something of the same stone about him as he strolled the beach, 'rolling his majestic frame in his usual manner', and whether, as the animated shape on the shoreline shrank and started to move inland, Boswell questioned the reality of knowledge, of friendship, of home, or of the strange sensations that had troubled his mind and body in recent days. At length, the figure on the beach had vanished, and then too the land itself.
His ship docked in Holland at midday on the 7th of August. After a day or two at the house of Archibald Stewart, an acquaintance in Rotterdam, Boswell went to Leyden, where he began to feel 'low-spirited', and so set out swiftly for Utrecht. It was a journey of nine hours in a trek schuit, an exceedingly slow-moving horse-drawn boat. Solitude and the sluggish pace of three miles an hour did nothing for his mood, and he began, he wrote later, to brood over his own dismal imaginations. His father, in one of the moments of crushing pedantry that characterize his communications with his son, had asked him to observe closely the agricultural habits of the Dutch, but it is doubtful whether, as his covered craft pushed between the pastures of central Holland, Boswell paid much attention to the species and number of the livestock he passed, or to the crops awaiting harvest. He may not even have noticed, as the sun sank towards a Saturday evening, the tower of Utrecht's medieval cathedral rising to meet him. On arriving in the cathedral square, however, he would have been struck at once by its curious aspect: the tower was connected to the cathedral proper only by a pile of overgrown rubble, bony and pale in the fading light. The nave had collapsed during a storm in August 1674, and almost a century later the debris had still not been cleared away. Boswell faced the prospect of lodging next door to a ruin — his hotel, the Nouveau Château d'Anvers, stood across the square from the amputated campanile. A deep melancholy, he writes, now fell upon him. He was shown to a bedroom on an upper floor and left to dine there alone among its cheerless old furnishings. On each hour, the thirty-five bells of an elaborate carillon, housed in the octagonal lantern of the cathedral tower and timed by adjustments to a vast metal drum below, tolled out the same dreary psalm. As the clangorous tune subsided again, Boswell, in his solitude, thought himself old, miserable and abandoned, and he 'groaned with the idea of living all winter in so shocking a place'.
Excerpted from The Hypochondriacs by Brian Dillon. Copyright 2009 by Brian Dillon. Published in 2009 by Faber and Faber, Inc.