DISSIPATION AND ‘NATURAL CHARACTER’
So far we have been tracing the history of ‘the manly ideal’ and its countertypes in the modern era, looking especially closely at changing conceptions of the male body as it was re-imagined following the First World War. One disadvantage of Mosse’s account of the dominant form of masculinity — and this is also true of the opposition between the classical and the grotesque — is that, however closely these contrasting figures are intertwined, they can easily start to become polarized, as if they were mutually exclusive. In fact, masculinities are often much more inherently contradictory than such an analysis would tend to suggest, and never more so than in periods of intense social upheaval. ‘I’ll nearly always be mistaken if I think that a man has only a single character’, wrote the young Stendhal in his diary in 1801 (Beyle 1955: 14). Mosse may well be right about the manly ideal, but wrong to think of it in such a relatively rigid manner. By regarding it as ‘a stereotype, presenting a standardized mental picture’, Mosse sometimes comes close to reifying his own argument unnecessarily (Mosse 1996: 5).
As we saw earlier, Mosse dates the origins of the new manly ideal from the second half of the eighteenth century and this period therefore provides an interesting test case as to how robust this male sense of self was in practice. London in the eighteenth century was a highly contested social space in which a number of social groupings and factions vied for power and in the city’s theatres, taverns, and coffee-houses several different styles of masculinity were to be seen, among them the fop, the rake and the gentleman, to name just a handful. None of these labels was entirely clear-cut and few kept the same meaning for very long; as chronicled in early issues of periodicals like The Tatler, for example, they were ‘less an orderly taxonomy than a fluid continuum of male gender types’ usually distinguished through ‘details in the extravagance of their dress’ and by the ways in which they sought the favours of women (McKeon 1995: 313).
To make one’s way in such a volatile milieu was not always easy. One of the best case studies we have of the uncertainties surrounding masculinity in the middle of the century comes from the diaries kept by James Boswell, whose Life of Johnson (1791) was one of the first modern biographies. Throughout his diaries Boswell worried over his ambitions and his failings, and about what kind of man he really wanted to be. His London Journal 1762—1763 is particularly fascinating because of his descriptions of the wealth of opportunities and temptations that the capital made available to him: it was, as he disarmingly observes, simultaneously ‘the seat of Parliament and the seat of pleasure’ (Boswell 1950: 140). Boswell, who sometimes dreamed ofa career in government, found himself attracted to both, yet he also believed that they were quite incompatible. Unfortunately, he found it hard to decide which mattered most.
Boswell’s dilemma can be read as at once social and philosophical. Socially, Boswell came from a wealthy, landed family of considerable professional standing: his father was one of five judges in Scotland’s supreme criminal court and as a young man Boswell was pressed into studying law, which he did with little enthusiasm. By the late 1750s he had already begun to publish his own verse and, much to his father’s dismay, he formed the plan of becoming an officer in the Guards — not because he had any desire to fight for his country, but simply to enable him to live permanently in London. In fact, following the successful conclusion of the Seven Years’ War, the army already had far more officers than it needed and Boswell’s aspirations were hopelessly unrealistic. But his experiences in the city, where he met the writer Samuel Johnson for the first time, played a key role in his formation as a man of letters.
On an ethical or philosophical level, Boswell was tormented by questions of identity that ultimately derived from strains in the way the self could be imagined in the late eighteenth century. Boswell aspired to be a man who ‘was rational and composed, yet lively and entertaining’. But in spite of a firm belief that his ‘natural character is that of dignity’, he found it difficult to ‘fix myself in such a character and preserve it uniformly’ and when his ‘resolution’ or will-power faltered he became a ‘dissipated, inconstant fellow’ at the mercy of every passing whim or fancy (Boswell 1950: 258). Boswell alternates between seeing himself as a sober, upright individual, a condition he describes as retenu — that is to say, reserved or restrained — and feeling that his best self is always being thwarted by his own uncontrollable enthusiasms or impulses, rendering him scatter-brained or etourdi, a man whose identity lacked a secure centre, a slave to his emotions.
Could the self ever be anything more than a loose bundle of appetites or sensations, without a stable core? Some of Boswell’s contemporaries, like his friend the philosopher David Hume, were sceptical that it could. But, while Boswell resisted this idea intellectually — hence his conviction that each man possessed a ‘natural character’, a kind of essential inner self — he found himself pulled between the competing models of masculinity he encountered in London. In this period, Boswell:
represents an amalgam of increasingly mobile status positions: he vacillates between Scots, English, aristocratic, and bourgeois male identities as he maintains his dignity, attempts to adhere to a strict sexual morality, and pursues the pleasure that may constitute the privilege of his station.
(Weed 1997/8: 216)
He is, by turns, pious and amorous, a man of gravitas and a man of sensual pleasures, a highminded scholar who will sometimes masquerade as a lower-class tradesman. Paradoxically, the sexual desires that are partly aroused by the urge to transgress class boundaries are then immediately punished by his own self-disgust at having done so. On one occasion he ‘picked up a strong, jolly young damsel’ and, after walking her down to Westminster Bridge, found that ‘[t]he whim of doing it there with the Thames rolling below us amused me much. Yet after the brutish appetite was sated, I could not but despise myself for being so closely united with such a low wretch’ (Boswell 1950: 255—6).
As Felicity Nussbaum’s detailed study has shown, the contrast between Boswell’s retenu and etourdi selves was deeply gendered. His rationality and his reserve are not just confirmed by the approval of his male peers; they also crucially depend upon his ‘power to maintain dominance over women’ (Nussbaum 1989: 115). In the account of his affair with the actress he calls Louisa in his journal, Boswell writes of his ‘sweet delirium’ and ‘supreme rapture’. Yet, although he is thoroughly delighted by his own ‘godlike vigour’, his self-possession prevents him from losing control, from frittering away his precious masculinity. His phrasing here is particularly revealing. ‘Sobriety’, he insists, ‘preserved me from effeminacy and weakness’ (Boswell 1950: 139). A week later, however, on discovering the painful signs of an unwanted foreign visitor, ‘Signor Gonorrhea’, he has second thoughts and is beside himself at the idea of having been ‘the dupe of a strumpet’, at having wasted his time and his money (155—6).
Believing that Louisa must have known of the infection, Boswell confronts her. Once again he is in command of the situation: ‘I really behaved with a manly composure and polite dignity that could not fail to inspire an awe’, while Louisa stands miserably before him as ‘pale as ashes and trembled and faltered’. He receives her denials and anxious queries about his health in silence, dismissing her from his mind as ‘a most consummate dissembling whore’. Boswell refuses to accept any blame for this incident, regarding his misfortune as ‘merely the chance of war’. And so the affair is over. But what happens next sheds fresh light on the relationship between Boswell’s rival selves.
On leaving Louisa, he calls on someone much older than himself, the actor David Garrick. Boswell was to seek the approval of fatherly men all his life and is terribly flattered when this rich and famous figure confidently predicts that one day his visitor will be ‘very great’. Yet Boswell is too anxious and disconsolate to allow himself to imagine such a future. Instead, he becomes ‘what the French call un etourdi and gives ‘free vent’ to his feelings of admiration for Garrick, seizing him by the hand and heaping affection and gratitude upon the actor. This emotional outburst raises ‘a charming flutter of spirits’ and relieves his depression. Nevertheless, on returning to his lodgings at the end of the day, he again feels ‘very bad’ (160—2).
In the eyes of the modern reader Boswell might appear as a muddled, rather vain individual, prone to overpowering moodswings. However, what distinguishes Boswell’s psychological universe from our own is the way in which he has to tack between contrasting styles of masculinity in order to neutralize his feelings of guilt and shame and continue to believe in his own selfworth. Boswell’s emotional economy is a tangle of nuances and discriminations, a delicate balancing act that can easily fall apart. To be ‘un etourdi can be compromising, but it is not necessarily to be despised, so long as a sense of proportion is maintained. There is a world of difference between the warm eloquent (not to say, homosocial) candour that passes between men, whether among one’s peers or one’s betters, and finding oneself unmanned in the presence of a woman. In one desperate episode, Boswell deliberately kits himself out in the scruffy attire of ‘a blackguard’, pretending to be ‘a disbanded officer of the Royal Volunteers’, though he also describes himself to the prostitutes he is seeking as ‘a barber’ and ‘a highwayman’. After a dispiriting tale of rejection turning to rape, Boswell is pleased to report that his clothes and his lies never prevented him from being recognized as ‘a gentleman in disguise’ by those on whom he bestows his favours (272—3). If self-loathing is never very far away, some of his most dissolute nocturnal adventures can still occasionally confirm him in his preferred identity.
In Boswell’s journals, despite the desire for an essential or ‘natural character’, we see the author repeatedly returning to the idea that the self is not fixed, but ‘may be continually revised and remade’ (Nussbaum 1989: 107). In his Life of Johnson Boswell produced an account of an exemplary life, ‘a man whose talents, acquirements, and virtues, were so extraordinary, that the more his character is considered, the more he will be regarded by the present age, and by posterity, with admiration and reverence’ (Boswell 1953: 1402). Above all others, Dr Johnson was the companion whose advice most consistently helped to raise Boswell’s spirits and to give him a sense of purpose, for Johnson’s pre-eminence as a writer and scholar had only been achieved after many setbacks. In return, Boswell’s biography aimed to establish Johnson as a literary icon, an inspiration for future generations.