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BOSWELL'S CONTROL OF AESTHETIC DISTANCE PAUL K. ALKON I Proper control of aesthetic distance was so highly regarded by Johnson that he was sometimes inclined to undervalue biography. Thus in the Idler, No. 84, he argues that autobiography is more useful because "he that recounts the life of another, commonly dwells most upon conspicuous events, lessens the familiarity of his tale to increase its dignity, shews his favourite at a distance decorated and magnified like the ancient actors in their tragick dress, and endeavours to hide the man that he may produce a hero.'" Hence the failure of most biographers. They keep their heroes too far away from us while, paradoxically, making them seem larger than life-size. Johnson's ideal for life-writing is clear: the less distance between reader and subject the better. Equally clear is Boswell's conscious adherence to that ideal. Indeed Boswell's fame as an instigator of modem biography rests largely on his thorough rejection of the "doctrine of dignified distance.'" Using a variety of devices which are well recognized by critics, Boswell succeeded in bringing his readers close, often uncomfortably close, to Johnson. Early in the Life of Johnson and only four paragraphs after referring to the argument in the Idler, No. 84, Boswell explains his decision to let as little as pOSSible, espeCially of the narrator, stand between readers and Johnson: "Instead of melting down my materials into one mass, and constantly speaking in my own person, by which I might have appeared to have more merit in the execution of the work, I . . . produce, wherever it is in my power, his own minutes, letters, or conversation , being convinced that this mode is more lively.'" Neither Boswell nor his critics, however, have pointed out the crucial devices employed throughout the Life to increase and, in general, vary aesthetic distance in order to solve some of the literary problems confronting the biographer. A major problem is hinted at by Boswell's equation of liveliness with "minutes, letters, or conversation. JJ The reader's interest must somehow be sustained through a very long work. One method of doing so, Boswell implies, is to minitnize distance by allOwing his audience to remain in Volume XXXVIII, Number 2, January 1969 DOSWELL'S CONTROL OF AES'I'HETIC DIS'I'ANCE 175 close touch with Johnson's own statements rather than with those statements seen at one remove through the filtering and perhaps distracting or tedious consciousness of an omnipresent narrator. Yet if Boswell faithfully kept to his promise of not constantly speaking in his own person, he was nevertheless uneasily aware of the fact that he did choose to remain what critics would now characterize as a highly intrusive, dramatized , self·conscious narrator-agent in his account of Johnson's life.' Shortly before the conclusion, in somewhat ironic counterpoint to his initial statement of method, Boswell apologetically calls attention to his role as narrator: "I now relieve the readers of this Work from any farther personal notice of its authour, who if he should be thought to have obtruded himself too much upon their attention, requests them to consider the peculiar plan of his biographical undertaking." (IV, 380) Accepting this invitation to consider his "peculiar plan" does in fact lead to a better understanding of Boswell's artistic problems and his manipulation of aesthetic distance to cope with them. The peculiarity of his Life obviously does not consist in the mere presence of a narrator speaking in the first person to recount incidents and analyze character; nor is the chronological organization any novelty. What is distinctive, rather, is Boswell's announced effort to bring us close to Johnson by "interweaving what he privately wrote, and said, and thought; by which mankind are enabled as it were to see him live, and to 'live o'er each scene' with him." (I, 30) And the Life's singularity is not only in taking readers strikingly close to Johnson's private self; perhaps an even more radical departure from traditional biography is Boswell's determination to present in SO far as possible each scene - no matter how seemingly trivial - of Johnson's life. In principle, nothing was to...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 174-191
Launched on MUSE
2015-07-01
Open Access
No
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