Monday, November 2, 2009

a considerable effort of resolution

On Wednesday, after months of guilty neglect, I wrote to M.'s mother. On Thursday, opening Boswell's Life of Johnson, which I'm reading now for the first time, I, almost immediately, came across this letter from the older man to the younger one:

Dear Sir,

You are not to think yourself forgotten, or criminally neglected, that you have had yet no letter from me. I love to see my friends, to hear from them, to talk to them, and to talk of them; but it is not without a considerable effort of resolution that I prevail upon myself to write. I would not, however, gratify my own indolence by the omission of any important duty, or any office of real kindness.

A little later (Boswell reports) Johnson is fretting in his private notes to himself, worried that he is not doing enough, that he is lazy. On Thursday, when I read this, I was doing the same thing, I was saying to myself, "You have this free time, you were going to do such-and-such, you were going to finish so-and-so, but here you are, reading a book, and sometimes wandering off to spray the mould on the grouting in the shower with vinegar and water. Is this the work you told yourself you were going to do? It is not."

Then, on Saturday, after coming to the end of Lisa's post about Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani's I Do Not Come to You By Chance, a book about a Nigerian man tempted by the email scam business, I opened Johnson and found myself looking at this:

The ferocity of our ancestors, as of all other nations, produced not fraud, but rapine. They had not yet learned to cheat, and attempted only to rob. As manners grow more polished, with the knowledge of good, men attain, likewise, dexterity in evil. Open rapine becomes less frequent, and violence gives way to cunning. Those who before invaded pastures and stormed houses, now begin to enrich themselves by unequal contracts and fraudulent intromissions.

It is not against the violence of ferocity, but the circumventions of deceit, that this law was framed; and, I am afraid, the increase of commerce, and the incessant struggle for riches, which commerce excites, give us no prospect of an end speedily to be expected of artifice and fraud.

The theme of spookiness has being doing the rounds of the blogs recently, thanks to the Stateside enthusiasm for Hallowe'en, but none of these coincidences seemed spooky, they were surprising but comforting, or not comforting exactly, but they gave me the impression that I was being spoken to, and being heard. At the same time I knew that I was not, and that I was only noticing these passages because ideas like them were running through my mind. If I'd read them at a different time they would have looked like nothing special. This is not Boswell or Johnson talking to me, this is me talking to myself, through the book, and recognising myself, reframed. Of course it's me. Who else is here? No one. And yet this recognition of solitude, which might have left me melancholy, left me pleased.

Proust once wrote:

In reality every reader is, while he is reading, the reader of his own self. The writer's work is merely a kind of optical instrument which he offers to the reader to enable him to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have perceived in himself. And the recognition by the reader in his own self of what the book says is the proof of its veracity …

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