Or so asked Dr. Johnson after James Boswell had dragged him from Edinburgh to Inverness to Skye and back to the Lowlands. Boswell could, and soon set about immortalizing the tour. …
Among the arts of life, Jean Cocteau once observed, was knowing just how far to go too far, and this was an art that Boswell always practiced in his long relationship with Samuel Johnson. We are sometimes apt to assume that once he had encountered Johnson, at Tom Davies’s bookshop, on May 16,1763, had survived a couple of tremendous knockdown snubs and, soon afterward, had dared to visit the sage at his “uncouth” London lodgings, the affection that sprang up between them ran a fairly simple course, and that Boswell remained the obedient disciple who accepted Johnson’s every word as law.
Another favorite pastime was getting his stubborn old friend into an unaccustomed and, if possible, slightly incongruous situation. Thus, in 1776, he managed to persuade Johnson to dine at the same table with the notorious “patriot” and demagogue John Wilkes. It had required much maneuvering, and when Boswell “had him fairly seated in a hackney-coach” on his way to the party, he felt, he tells us, as exultant “as a fortune hunter who has got an heiress into a post-chaise…to set out for Gretna Green.”
But Boswell’s major coup was one that he achieved during August 1773. He then induced Johnson, who pretended that he detested Scotsmen and despised their barren country, to venture across the Scotish border and, not only spend some days in Edinburgh, but penetrate the barbaric Highlands and undertake a tour around the Hebrides. Johnson’s curiosity, it was true, had already been aroused by reading Martin’s book, Description of the Western Islands of Scotland, which suggested, says Boswell, “that we might there contemplate a system of life almost totally different from what we had been accustomed to see,” and “find simplicity and wildness…” But it needed a great deal of quiet diplomacy to overcome the old man’s natural sloth.
The facts are very different. Though the young Scotsman never lost his profound respect for the magisterial English writer, he refused to adopt a purely passive role, and on occasions even presumed to tease him by throwing off some tendentious remark that might produce a sudden blaze of fury. He loved taking risks. Would not Johnson admit, he had inquired, that Jean Jacques Rousseau was perhaps a good man? And had David Hume that “great Infidel,” been an entirely despicable personage? From the volcanic explosions that he knew were bound to follow, Boswell had derived a keen enjoyment.