BOSWELL’S BELLE

You shall not despair
Because I have forsaken you
or cast your love aside;

Dylan Thomas
_______________

On the third of December, in the year of Our Lord 1764, the Reformed-Church and Scottish laird James Boswell of Auchinleck wrote in his diary, that it gave him great satisfaction to have found that he is able to sustain a character that he had given to himself. For someone who, like Rousseau, was a roman catholic just for a few moments, such an attitude is not all that remarkable.

This much is certain – so-called post-modern cash-and-carry life styling dates back at least to the day before yesterday. The presentation of self in everyday life, as Erving Goffman had it. In the second half of the 18th century people were quite busy to be ‘innocent’ – they most seriously practiced to be ‘naïve’ and trained in ‘naturalness’. The paradox that permeates this endeavor was apparently not all that clear to everyone.

The woman Laird Boswell was considering to marry was herself quite good in this naïveté – the Francophone Dutch damsel Belle van Zuylen, known by her love-name Zélide chosen by herself, which Boswell kept using. Exactly twenty years after Boswell’s diary entry, in an epistolary novel she wrote: “Once you start to lose your sincerity, even when this is not necessary, you know not when to stop. After all, lying should have taken you some trouble…”

 

Emo-culture surely. Then and now, however different now. Boswell was primarily a hysteric, the postmodern management of human emotion is more narcissist.

 

Belle alias Zélide

 

In the 18th century large cities began to develop, in the same time the so-called middling classes multiplied. For many the tension between social appearance and private feeling became intensified. The movement known as Sentimentalism, perhaps best defined as the paradoxical affectation of the naive, resulted as a reaction to such tense predicament.

A quote from the said Boswell may illustrate these new feelings. “What I gave you was natural. It had neither spice nor perfume. It was fresh from the dairy. It was curds and cream.” Publicly, Boswell claimed to be naive indeed, “for I spoke with the honest frankness with which I declare my sentiments on great and on small occasions.”

Boswells inspiration, of course, was Rousseau, whose novels he read but whose Confessions were only completed in 1770, five years that is after Boswell wrote those words in his diary. The great French Sentimentalist also claimed “that man must be artlessly transparent, completely honest, this not just to himself, but also in public.”

In his Dutch Journal Boswell noted: “I was surprised to see that this Dutchman took sugar like an Englishman, because I heard so many jokes about the narrowness of the Dutch in that article.” So he ridicules one nation, while approving of the other. His cronies thought the same. Dempster to Boswell: “For God sake, keep your disgusts a secret. The Dutch are so happy in their own dullness that I fear they can make but small allowance for your dissatisfaction.”

But now for something completely different! Boswell and Love, Boswell and his Dutch Belle, the woman he wanted even though in that same Dutch Journal he had written: “I always wished to marry an English woman …” Belle on her side finds him pedantic, yet also interesting, probably he was a good storyteller.

Out there, in his very own 18th century, James Boswell knew exactly what a man is or perhaps what he should be. A hot bath may be “an agreeable kind of luxury”, yet “luxury is very dangerous; above all things, a young man must guard against effeminacy.” He also knew precisely what a woman should not be. To his desired bride in a letter: “Pray make a firm resolution never to think of metaphysics. Speculations of that kind are absurd in a man, but in a woman are more absurd than I choose to express.”

Yet, while Boswell continues his courtship he has not an inkling of what is in store for him. He writes for his Zélide this poem:

A vulgar bosom may with love inspire
But Art must form the woman I admire
Art which usurps not beauteous Nature’s place
But adds to Nature’s dignity and grace.

Eeekh! It may be that in the end he did not continue his quest for Belle, because he was not the one to have a mistress. From his various diaries, though, he does appear to have been a thorough philanderer, looking for whores galore yet also – the Reformed Church man he was, as well as a Scot – continuously complaining about the price he had to pay for their services and reiterating ad nauseam his fear of syphilis.

Belle, at the time already a full-blown modern feminist, finally sends him off with this answer: “I should be worth nothing as your wife, I have no subaltern talents … I should be pleased with a husband who would take me as his maîtresse.”

Brava, bella Belle – brava!

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Author: rjsiersk

contact: rjsiersk@xs4all.nl Sierksma was born in Friesland, a 'county' in the northern part of the Netherlands with its own language which he does not speak and with an obstinate population to which he both belongs and does not belong. A retired Professor of Social Philosophy and Aesthetics, as a Harkness fellow he taught at Rutgers and Berkeley Universities in the USA, and at GUAmsterdam and TUDelft in the Netherlands. In 1991 he was awarded his PhD from Leiden University on the subject of 'Surveillance and Task: Labour Discipline between Utilitarianism and Pragmatism'. His books include Minima Memoria (1993), Lost View (2002 with Jan van Geest), and Litter Scent (2013). He has published poems and articles in Te Elfder Ure, Nynade, Oasis and the Architectural Annual. Half the year he lives in Haarlem, the other half he spends in la France Profonde, living ‘in his own words’ as the house out there was bought with the winnings from his essay Eternal Sin, written for the ECI Essay Prize (1993). In this blog, Sierksma's Sequences, written in English, he is peeping round his own and other people’s perspectives. Not easily satisfied with answers nor with questions, he turns his wry wit to a number of philosophical and historical issues. His aim in writing: to make parts of the world light up in his perspective - not my will, thine! Not being a thief, he has no cook, one wife, some children, one lover and three cats.

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