Boswell’s Life of Johnson

Finally read this one, and it’s a lot of fun! Well, by read I mean skimmed, there are a lot of details of dinners and discussions of particular plays of the period that didn’t hold my attention. Still, sift through the slag and there’s many a jewel here. Boswell was a young lawyer from Scotland when he met Johnson (Johnson never misses a chance to roast Scotland). He reconstructed the life of Johnson previous to meeting him, and then picks up, more or less writing down any witty or interesting things Johnson had to say, which were many.

On Johnson’s college years:

Dr Adams told me that Johnson, while he was at Pembroke College, ‘was caressed and loved by all about him, was a gay and frolicksome fellow, and passed there the happiest part of his life.”  But this is a striking proof of the fallacy of appearances, and how little any of us know of the real interna state eveon of those whom we see most frequently; for the truth is, that he was then depressed by poverty, and irritated by disease.  When I mentioned to him this acocunt as given me by Dr Adams, he said, “Ah, Sir, I was mad and violent.  I twas bitterness which they mistook for frolick.  I was miserably poor, and I thought to fight my way by my literature and my wit; so I disregarded all power and all authority.”  

Johnson recounts to Boswell what happened on the way to his wedding:

Sir, she had read the old romances, and had got into her hear head the fantastical notion that a woman of spirit should use her lover like a dog.  So, Sir, at first she told me that I rode too fast, and she could not keep up with me; and, when I rode a little slower, she passed me, and complained that I lagged behind.  I was not to be made the slave of caprice; and I resolved to begin as I meant to end.  I therefore pushed on briskly, till I was fairly out of her sight.  The road lay between two hedges, so I was sure she could not miss it and I contrived that she should soon come up with me.  When she did, I observed her to be in tears.

Despite this, it appears to have been a happy, if short marriage. Johnson’s was a love marriage to a woman significantly older than him. On marriage in general Johnson muses:

I believe marriages would in general be as happy, and often more so, if they were all made by the Lord Chancellor, upon a due consideration of characters and circumstances, without the parties having any choice in the matter.  

When Boswell met Johnson, he was a widower, who’s often with his friends the Thrales or other people who take him in for his charm. For his dictionary Johnson got paid 1575 pounds, and “when the expense of amanuenses and paper and other articles are deducted, his clear profit was very inconsiderable.” As for money:

He frequently gave all the silver in his pocket to the poor, who watched him, between his house and the tavern where he dined.  He walked the streets at all hours, and said he was never robbed, for the rogues knew he had little money, nor had the appearance of having much.

I liked this:

In 1761 Johnson appears to have done little. 

Johnson has much advice about drinking and melancholy:

Against melancholy he recommended constant occupation of mind, a great deal of exercise, moderation in eating and drinking, and especially to shun drinking at night.  He said melancholy people were apt to fly to intemperance for relief, but that it sunk them much deeper in misery.  He observed, that labouring men who work hard, and live sparingly, are seldom or never troubled with low spirits.    

I heard him once give a very judicious practical advice upon this subject: “A man, who has been drinking wine at all freely, should never go into a new company.  With those who have partaken of wine with him, he may be pretty well in unison; but he will probably be offensive, or appear ridiculous, to other people.”

Boswell goes with Johnson to his hometown, Lichfield, and observes not much work going on:

“Surely, Sir, (said I,) you are an idle set of people.’  Sir, (said Johnson,) we are a city of philosophers: we work with our heads, and make the boobies of Birmingham work for us with their hands.”

Johnson chastises Boswell for using the phrase “to make money.” 

Don’t you see (said he,) the impropriety of it?  To make money is to coin it : you should say get money.  

I feel like rappers are on to this one. On fame:

Talking of fame, for which there is so great a desire, I observed how little there is of it in reality, compared with the other objects of human attention.  “Let every man recollect, and he will be sensible how small a part of his time is employed in talking or thinking of Shakespeare, Voltaire, or any of the most celebrated men that have ever lived, or are now supposed to occupy the attention and admiration of the world.  Let this be extracted and compressed: into what a narrow space will it go!

War:

We talked of war.  JOHNSON: Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier, or not having been at sea.  BOSWELL: Lord Mansfield does not.  JOHNSON:  Sir, if Lord Mansfield were in a company of General Officers and Admirals who have been in service, he would shrink; he’d wish to creep under the table.  Were Socrates and Charles the Twelfth of Sweden both present in any company, and Socrates to say, “Follow me, and hear a lecture on philosophy;” and Charles, laying his hand on his sword, to say, “Follow me, and dethrone the Czar;” a man would be ashamed to follow Socrates.  Sir, the impression is universal; yet it is strange.

(I feel this is often misquoted, leaving out the “having been at sea” part, and the part about Socrates vs. Charles The Twelfth. Of course, if Socrates was in the Peloponnesian Wars like Plato claims, he could handle both).

Travel:

He talked with an uncommon animation of travelling into distant countries; that the mind was enlarged by it, and that an acquisition of dignity of character was derived from it.  He expressed a particular enthusiasm with respect to visiting the wall of China.  I catched it for the moment, and said I really believed I should go and see the wall of China had I not children, of whom it was my duty to take care.  “Sir, (said he,) by doing so, you would do what would be of importance in raising your children to eminence.  There would be a lustre reflected upon them from your spirit and curiosity.  They would be at all times regarded as the children of a man who had gone to view the wall of China.  I am serious, Sir.  

Johnson was not a fan of America:

From this pleasing subject [Jesus] he, I know not how or why, made a sudden transition to one upon which he was a violent aggressor; for he said, “I am willing to love all mankind, except an American: and his inflammable corruption bursting into horrid fire, he breathed out threatenings and slaughter, calling them, Rascals – Robbers – Pirates; and exclaiming, he’d burn and destroy them.  

Later, Boswell tries to put this in context:

Notwithstanding occasional explosions of violence, we were all delighted upon the whole with Johnson.  I compared him at this time to a warm West-Indian climate, where you have a bright sun, quick vegetation, luxuriant foliage, luscious fruits; but where the same heat sometimes produces thunder, lightning, earthquakes, in a terrible degree.

How about:

Depend upon it, said he, that if a man talks of his misfortunes, there is something in them that is not disagreeable to him; for where there is nothing but pure misery, there never is any recourse to the mention of it.  

Medicine:

On Sunday, March 23, I breakfasted with Dr. Johnson, who seemed much relieved, having taken opium the night before.  He however protested against it, as a remedy that should be given with the utmost reluctance, and only in extreme necessity.  

The idea comes up a few times that Johnson might be considered something of an underachiever, or at least that his position in the world doesn’t match his brilliance:

Mrs Desmoulins made tea; and she and I talked before him upon a topic which he had once borne patiently from me when we were by ourselves – his not complaining of the world, because he was not called to some great office, nor had attained great wealth.  He flew into a violent passion, I confess with some justice, and commanded us to have done.  Nobody (said he) has a right to talk in this manner, to bring before a man his own character, and the events of his life, when he does not choose it should be done.  I never have sought the world; the world was not to seek me.  It is rather wonderful that so much has been done for me.  All the complaints which are made of the world are unjust.  I never knew a man of merit neglected; it was generally by his own fault that he failed of success.  A man may hide his head in a hole: he may go into the country, and publish a book now and then, which nobody readys, and then complain he is neglected.  There is no reason why any person should exert himself for a man who has written a good book: he has not written it for any individual.  I may as well make a present to the postman who brings me a letter.  

A zinger on Adam Smith:

I once reminded him that when Dr Adam Smith was expatiating on the beauty of Glasgow, he had cut him short by saying, “Pray, Sir, Have you seen Brentford?”  and I took the liberty to add, “My dear Sir, surely that was shocking,”  “Why then, Sir (he replied,) YOU have not seen Brentford.” 

Animals:

I shall never forget the indulgence with which he treated Hodge, his cat: for whom he himself used to go out and buy oysters

(Boswell doesn’t really like Hodge, but tolerates him)

Mrs Thrale, while supping very heartily upon larks, laid down her knife and fork, and abruptly exclaimed, “O, my dear Mr Johnson, do you know what has happened?  The last letters from abroad have brought us an account that our poor cousin’s head was taken off by a cannon-ball.”  Johnson, who was shocked both at the fact, and her light unfeeling manner of mentioning it, replied, “Madam, it would give you very little concern if all your relations were spitted like those larks, and drest for Presto’s supper.”

(Presto being a dog who was present). 

One of Johnson’s good buds was the painter Joshua Reynolds.


Marines vs ravens

from the Hi-Desert Star, Nov 18, 2021:

Members of the public have been invited to comment on an environmental assessment of plans to kill thousands of ravens at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center and five other military installations in the California desert.

The assessment, examines two alternative plans, the first calling for a continued use of primarily non-lethal raven management actions, including flushing of individuals, increasing levels of stress and disrupting of nesting opportunities.

That’s the first plan, stress out the ravens. The second plan?

The second calls for the lethal removal of 11,830 to 13,293 ravens initially and 1,477 to 1,715 ravens annually.

The reasoning?

“The overpopulation of ravens in both the built and undeveloped areas of the California desert has had several detrimental impacts on the DoD installations within the region,” the report states.

“For instance, increased raven numbers result in higher incidences of predation on juvenile desert tortoises. The desert tortoise is the only federally listed species that occurs within the boundaries of all six DoD installations in the California desert, and the DoD is legally obligated by federal law to ensure the species is protected.

“Ravens are also causing property damage and pose a human health hazard in the built environment, particularly in and around areas where vehicles and aircraft are parked and where DoD personnel must work directly underneath high-use roosting sites.”

I’d be careful here, ravens are pretty smart. The crow can be a nuisance bird for sure (although also said to be quite smart) but the raven I would be hesitant to mess with. They have powers.


Down with the brioche bun!

Longtime readers will know I don’t like to get political on this site, but sometimes you’ve just got to speak up: I’ve HAD it with the brioche buns every upscale restaurant is using for their burgers! I’m eating a freakin’ cheeseburger, I don’t need it served between two pieces of cake! Just give me like a chill old regular bun, such as any successful fast food franchise might use.

Sorry, sorry, I didn’t mean to go on an angry rant here. But it’s an aspect of society’s decadence where I must take a stand. I expect to get quite a few letters on this – you know where to find me!

From brioche Wikipedia:

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in his autobiography Confessions, relates that “a great princess” is said to have advised, with regard to peasants who had no bread, “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche“, commonly translated as “Let them eat cake”. This saying is commonly misattributed to Queen Marie-Antoinette, wife of Louis XVI.


Europe relative to USA

Cheers to whoever it was on Twitter that put me on to Scale-A-Tron, latest map overlay tech. My post on how big UK/Ireland are compared to California is one of my most popular.

Here’s some fun with California:

A good comp for Italy, in climate as well as size.

Compared to Korea:

Good reminder on how vast Australia is:

A fellow I met in Brisbane once shook his head about foolish tourist who thought he could drive to Cairns in one day.

Chile:

Namibia:

The US Midwest:

In Best and The Brightest, David Halberstam reports that General Max Taylor introduced a note of ice cold realism by presenting a map of Cuba overlaid over the United States, shaking the stupid assumption that this was a rinkydink little island, invasion of which would be a minor matter:

Maybe they should’ve done this one:

Or:


Out and about

Ships waiting to dock at Port of LA – Long Beach, seen from Seal Beach. The whole world is backed up! Seal Beach is an interesting town. Most of the acreage is used to store ammunition for the US Navy, and yet there’s a Whole Foods and a Peloton store. On Electric Avenue you can see what remains of the old streetcar route. It could’ve looked like New Orleans down there. Maybe the vastness of LA could never have supported the length of streetcar routes required, but you can’t help but mourn.

After viewing the vessels, we went for pho at Pho 79 in Little Saigon. Fantastic, cheap, a great richness of flavor, although was it really more than 20% better than my local pho place? Still, some people live for that 20%.

Las Vegas remains itself. Mask enforcement in casinos is diligent, to my surprise. Back in May it was a maskless wilderness, but Delta seems to have put the fear out there. We were present in the Bellagio sportsbook for one of the more wrenching communal emotions you can feel in a sportsbook, when a team (the Chicago Bears, in this case) covers the spread (against Pittsburgh) but fails to win. Thus Pittsburgh fans/bettors disappointed, Bears fans disappointed and bettors mildly satisfied? A mingling of disappointment and emotional anticlimax, felt in the air.

At least one occasion of dudes attempting to start the “Let’s Go Brandon” chant in the bathroom. Permission to be obnoxious was always an appeal of Las Vegas I suppose, but it does seem like obnoxiousness in general is on the rise.

It was a great pleasure to attend the Pro Bull Riding World Finals. I was not bored! Brave dudes: the safety team/ bullfighters who lure away the bull after the rider is thrown. I had the opportunity to ask one of these dudes what I should do in the event I had to fill in for him: “don’t run in straight lines. Four legs is gonna outrun two.” Sometimes these guys have to cut out a cowboy who’s caught under a rope. Doing knifework on a bucking bull, not an easy job. They’re brave like the banderilleros in a traditional Spanish bullfight, who also don’t get enough credit.

So far as I could tell, despite rumors of testicle electrocuting, no real harm is done to the bulls. It’s the humans who are getting damaged. Eli Vastbinder won the final round despite a dislocated shoulder and several broken ribs.

Human/bull sport has a long history, I was reminded of the bull leapers depicted in the Great Palace of Knossos, 1450 or so BCE.

source


Two Ports

I was checking on some ships and saw them traveling through the ship channel in Port Sulfur, Louisiana.

The town is 8 feet (2.4 m) above sea level and had not flooded during Hurricane Betsy nor Hurricane Camille. Before Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita about 3,000 people lived in Port Sulphur. Nevertheless, during Hurricane Katrina, the federal levees failed and around 22 feet (6.7 m) of water engulfed the town. Almost all single-family homes in the town were destroyed, many of which were moved off their foundations by as much as 100 feet. In the months following Katrina, some residents moved back to Port Sulphur in trailers and modular homes provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. But many residents relocated to other parts of Louisiana, the Southeast, and Texas.

The New York Times has been all over the case of the precarious communities of Plaquemines Parish. I’d like to visit sometime. Would I feel weird staying at Woodland Plantation? Yes, but I’m prepared to do it in my role as a journalist.

Here’s the Subway in Port Sulphur. Get a sandwich and sit on that levee watching the ships go by?

A port closer to home, Port Hueneme, came up in some recent discussion of the huge backup at Port of Los Angeles / Long Beach.

I learn that 3.3 billion bananas come through Port Hueneme each year. One of these days I’m gonna go up there and get a banana right off the boat.


The burners

Fire at the Grand Storehouse of the Tower of London 1841 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/D27846

What if our purpose, humanity’s purpose, is to burn up the Earth? To take all the burnable materials and burn them up, fast as we can, and reduce the planet to ash, or to a hot burning volcanic rock with a carbon-filled atmosphere, like Venus?

The surface of Venus from Venera 10. source

If you took a step back, looked at all the species on Earth, and tried to conclude what the function of our species, in particular, could be, you might conclude we are the burners. We’re the only species that uses fire. We’ve been using it for let’s say 1.5 mill – 100,000 years. A blip in geological time. We’ve gotten amazing at it, astonishingly advanced, to the point that we can bend fire to our will, dredge up ancient organic matter and refine it and put it to light. We can even invert the heating power of fire. When we want to cool ourselves, we turn a dial that sends signals that leads to the burning of coal, oil, gas. In our dim conscious minds we may be thinking “we’re making ourselves comfortable,” but perhaps on a deeper level we’re fulfilling our galactic mission to burn up planet Earth. Most of us only rarely deal with fire fire, outside of the occasional campfire or fireplace fire (which by the way we are drawn to and love). We don’t even need to. We’ve gotten so good at fire that every house has a refrigerator in it that works from something, somewhere, down the wires and at the end of the pipelines, burning.

Maybe burning is our function, the way the carrying away of dead matter is a function of ants.

What if the use and control of fire goes together with consciousness? As soon as a species becomes conscious, anywhere in the universe, they turn to the passion of burning. Quickly (within a few million years or so) they extinguish themselves and their planet and return it to glowing gas, rock, and dust? From a consciousness perspective, this seems sad, because everything we care about, our history, our arts, it’ll all be “extinguished” (to use a word that resonates with our burner culture, signifying loss). But we already know on a long enough scale it’s all temporary.

What if the light of consciousness is meant to burn hot and then extinguish itself, as stars do in their own time?

Couldn’t that be kind of beautiful? Sure, in the late stages of speciatic consciousness maybe we’d come to contemplate this end, even worry about it or attempt to wish it away. But perhaps after that stage, then we’ll reach a kind of smiling acceptance. In this scenario, all the fuss about climate change and so on is just the panic of an anxious toddler learning about death for the first time. It’s natural to be upset, but we need to progress through it and get back to burning up the Earth as quickly as possible.

Perhaps then Exxon executives, wildcatting frackers, really all of us as consumers and burners, are spiritually whole, leading purpose-driven lives that will lead soon to our ultimate fulfillment, if we can just accept that’s what we’re doing. The more we’re burning and consuming, the better. That’s why we keep doing it, even if neurotically we scream to ourselves that we have to do something about it.

Maybe traveling some rotten stretch of interstate you spy blackened stacks, raveling smoke, and wonder, What’s burning? We ought to ask the same each time we step into a comfortably warmed or cooled room, each time we click on a reading lamp or plug in a phone.

writes Joe Wilkins in a thoughtful essay in High Country News. More or less every article in that publication these days is about burning: natural gas drilling, abandoned oil wells, literal fires, or the first, second, third order effects of burning: changing rivers, drying forests, altered farming patterns. But maybe the fire we fear as demonic is calling to us for a reason.


San Luis Obispo

A couple years had passed since I’d last taken the train up to SLO. The town appears to be prospering. The Thursday night farmers market and Halloween festivities were full of happy faces, the farm produce looked amazing, the grilled meats smelled good. There are multiple stores that sell like soaps and globes and mugs and scarves. And places called like

The creek runs right through town. A fantasy would be to open a Japanese style inn alongside it, in about 300 years you might have a decent ryokan. Kids were on campus at Cal Poly, they looked healthy and vital. School pride there feels abundant, and it’s my sense that the learning there is practical and focused. Is the more famous Cal Poly alum Ozzie Smith or Weird Al Yankovich?

The Central Coast cadence of chill can be overheard everywhere, over pale ale and pinball at Lincoln Market for sure. Del Monte Cafe, La Loconda, Big Sky Cafe, Mistura all make my list. Dr Burnsteins Ice Cream Lab unfortunately somewhat disappoints. The “lab” theme is simply not maniacal enough.

Several California towns I’ve visited in the last year have a hollowed out feel, the main streets shells, but San Luis Obispo feels alive. I’ve never failed to feel good after a journey there. A small house in town will run you $600k at least, and there are not many available. In previous October visits the weather’s been brisk, but this time the air was quite toasty. Three or four visits over a few years is not a fair sample size, so I wouldn’t consider this science, but I feel the climate is changing.

Bought these at Phoenix Books, where I’ve never failed to score:

The Garden Street Inn has been taken over by Hilton, but not to worry, it’s still weird and the staff are still friendly and the rooms retain their individual themes (not on Madonna Inn level, just small touches).

Any traveler on Amtrak should expect a two hour or so delay somewhere along the line, and at least one semi deranged fellow passenger, but the Coast Starlight still can’t be beat for oceanside leisure travel. For lunch I had a baked potato with vegan chili, cheese, and half a bottle of Dark Harvest cab, tell me where you can have a better lunch at 50 mph.

WNBA should return to this fit

The mission in SLO is one of the more inviting California missions in its architecture, in my opinion. The town was named for St. Louis of Toulouse. Three hundred years after, the mission of converting California to Catholicism must be declared a failed project but the lingering relics of the medieval Spanish priests are significant and still impress.

“The solidity of justice,” my dad commented on my photos of the county courthouse.