On Samuel Johnson and James Boswell

Jorge Luis Borges:

Boswell conceived of the idea of an extensive biography, one that included his conversations with Johnson, whom he saw several times a week, sometimes more. The Life of Samuel Johnson, by Boswell, has often been compared to Conversations of Goethe, by Eckermann, a book that in my opinion is in no way comparable, even though it was praised by Nietzsche as the best book ever written in German. Because Eckermann was a man of limited intelligence who greatly revered Goethe, who spoke with him ex cathedra. Eckermann very rarely dared to contradict Goethe. Then he’d go home and write it all down. The book has something of catechism about it. In other words: Eckermann asks, Goethe answers, the first writes down what Goethe has said…. Eckermann almost doesn’t exist except as a kind of machine that records Goethe’s words. We know nothing about Eckermann, nothing about his character—he undoubtedly had one, but this cannot be deduced from the book, cannot be inferred from it.

On the other hand, what Boswell planned, or in any case what he carried out, was completely different: to make Johnson’s biography a drama, with several characters. There is [Sir Joshua] Reynolds, there is [Oliver] Goldsmith, sometimes the members of the circle, or how would we call it, the salon, of which Johnson was the leader. And they appear and behave like the characters in a play. Indeed, each has his own personality—above all, Dr. Johnson, who is presented sometimes as ridiculous but always as lovable. This is what happens with Cervantes’s character, Don Quixote, especially in the second part, when the author has learned to know his character and has forgotten his initial goal of parodying novels of chivalry. This is true, because the more writers develop their characters, the better they get to know them. So, that’s how we have a character who is sometimes ridiculous, but who can be serious and have profound thoughts, and above all is one of the most beloved characters in all of history. And we can say “of history” because Don Quixote is more real to us than Cervantes himself, as Unamuno and others have maintained. …. And at the end, Don Quixote is a slightly ridiculous character, but he is also a gentleman worthy of our respect, and sometimes our pity, but he is always lovable. And this is the same sensation we get from the image of Dr. Johnson, given to us by Boswell, with his grotesque appearance, his long arms, his slovenly appearance. But he is lovable.

….Now, in the same way that we have seen how Johnson is similar to Don Quixote, we have to think that just as Sancho is the companion Quixote sometimes treats badly, we see Boswell in that same relation to Dr. Johnson: a sometimes stupid and loyal companion. There are characters whose role is to bring out the hero’s personality. In other words, often authors need a character who serves as a framework for and a contrast to the deeds of his hero. This is Sancho, and that character in Boswell’s work is Boswell himself. That is, Boswell appears as a despicable character. But it seems impossible to me that Boswell didn’t realize this. And this shows that Boswell positioned himself in contrast to Johnson. The fact that Boswell himself tells anecdotes in which he appears ridiculous makes him not seem ridiculous at all, for if he wrote them down, he did it because he saw that the purpose of the anecdote was to make Johnson stand out.