A Journal of Keeping Up

This year I hope to learn diligence.

Often, at the start of a semester, I transcribe a line by Samuel Johnson. More aptly, I appropriate one of his goals. According to his friend, James Boswell, during the year that Johnson wrote a popular series of essays (The Idler), “in his private memorandums…we find ‘This year I hope to learn diligence.’” Boswell offers up this archival material as evidence that Johnson’s essay describes “the miseries of idleness, with the lively sensations of one who has felt them.” In this new year’s resolution lurks a strange feeling between languor and intensity, at once lively and miserable.

My transcription of this mantra into planners, journal entries, and motivational sticky notes decontextualizes the line from its temporal moment in 1759 and incorporates it into my own effort towards a literary and scholarly life. These acts of removal and mediation match the cadence of the resolution itself as it prefaces the goal of diligence with two verbs: “hope” and “learn.” Hard work, perseverance, dedication, or just the simple ability to maintain a work routine are skills to be yearned after. In a sense, diligence is not quite accessible yet, perhaps not found in the present.

Each time I complete this little ritual, this ritual that now marks my passage through school and through graduate school—seven transcriptions down and five to go—I wonder what it offers me. What I think I’ve found is an awkward identification with James Boswell despite the historical, gender, class, and national distances between us. Like Boswell, I moved to a big city at twenty-two to study the life, manners, and art of the eighteen century. Like Boswell, I moved with literary hopes and a more realistic sense that on the other side of that experience might be something otherwise. Finally, like Bowell, like many others, I lost a period of my brief time to live out that fantasy to the isolations of illness.

The other awkward attachment I have is yet another one that links me to Boswell; perhaps he saw it linking him to Johnson when he noticed this line among his papers. We share an impulse to schedule, plan, accomplish, and move on to the next thing—or, at least, to represent these impulses. As bullet journal trends rise and fall, I believe I am not alone in either my distaste for idleness or in indulging in mechanisms I have at my disposal for coping.

Be determined – Beware of bad habits.

For years, Boswell kept hopeful to-do lists. Composed of a series of commands, linked with a series of &s and dashes, these short lines never settle down. Visually, the lists resemble dense paragraphs and seem indistinguishable from the journal he also kept, except for the fragmented sentence structures and the verb tense. Diligence takes on a form in Boswell’s journal and in what the Beinecke labels as his memoranda from the same period.

The injunctive places these actions in a near-present future, a close but not yet. They are named but not realized. The naming itself does not resemble any measurable and demonstrable goals–– key features of any realistic objectives—but rather leans into unattainable and ongoing self-making projects. At one point, Boswell simply tells himself to “Be literary.”

Speak little – make no intimates. Be in earnest to improve.

The other line I find myself repeating each semester must be one that other graduate students have their own version of, one of those lines that gets conjured by a particular circumstance that goes something like this:

I’m seeing one of those odd social connections nowadays, an acquaintance. What they know is that I’m in graduate school and studying the humanities, and they have a vague sense that the humanities are in crisis. They ask me if I will be a professor, and I give my practiced response and defense mechanism:

“I made the choice feeling that when I get to the end, I will be able to look back and feel happy even if I have to redirect.”

It recently dawned on me that this phrasing of “looking backwards” and “redirecting” imagines that I move along a path: the sequence of the department and university’s requirements, another kind of to-do list. Yet I move with the capability of surveying. I “look back” as if from a vantage point both temporal and spatial, as if from a mountain top at the end of the pathway, the Ph.D. in hand as the pinnacle of achievement; maybe the vantage point is the graduation stage.

To learn french; to be an œconomist. To stay no longer in a place than you find it agreable by seeing their manners, and yt. you are at a distance from idle connections & acquiring proper dignity. 

Boswell lived my figure of speech as he looked backward from a boat, floating along the North Sea, sailing away from England and to law school. He looked back at the shore and at Samuel Johnson. In what would become his role for much of his literary life, Boswell observed the journey Johnson took:

I kept my eyes upon him, for a considerable time while he remained rowling his majestic frame in his usual manner. At last I perceived him walk back into the town, and he disappeared.

The last glimpse of Boswell’s life in London was the last glimpse of the literary figure, moving away from him as well. Despite the sadness ambient in the scene, I can’t help but imagine that Boswell might have spoken aloud about this retrospective moment in the breezy way that I’ve tried to perform nonchalance—accepting that a life of studying Johnson might be meandering away from me. That he was able to look back and feel happy even though he had redirected.

The end goal wasn’t the point anyways. The purpose of the journal as Boswell tells himself was to create a record for “fitting myself for a pleasing life in old age, by laying up agreable ideas to feast upon in recollection.”

Let this be a laborious day, & stay in all day. Be wt. Johnson at 2 & dress at 3. Give out linnens & pack up — & be placid & get into grave humour for Journey & write out Instructions &c.

But, how “agreable” is this life? The day before he leaves England, Boswell writes the above agenda, which mainly consists of writing more to-do lists, staying inside, further dedicating himself.

Let’s look at his city living as if a schedule.

Boswell arrived in London on November 19, 1762. He began a sexual relationship about two months later on January 12, 1763. Less than a week after, on January 18, he experienced the first symptoms of gonorrhea. Two days later, the infection became unbearable, disrupting his sleep and requiring medical attention. He delayed beginning his medication to go to a party. On January 22, his “indolent confinement” began. A full month later, his quarantine ended February 27.  He would leave London August 6 of the same year, less than six months later. The period of agreeable life makes up less than a year, only the briefest of windows.

Resolve by all means to keep up to Plan, & run no risqué of Disease. As it is not worth the high price.

Poor Boswell cannot seem to enjoy his fantasies. His moments of ecstasy are almost always marked with melancholy. I wonder if the reverse can be true. Is there a possibility of finding ecstasy in plans during a period of melancholy? What do we keep in keeping to a routine in the face of past and future loss? I ask this question selfishly because, from still within the present ecstasy of studying, I anticipate the melancholy ahead. I hope in my identification with Boswell I might find solace in this split tense. I yearn to wring some lessons—further productivity—from my reading.

Keep up spirit & dignit[y] & be shaved.

The loss of a month to illness occasions another kind of failure for Boswell, perhaps a failure familiar to us: a failure to keep to our routines. During his confinement, Boswell tells himself to “keep up the plan.” The plan was a set of readings, mainly from Dryden and Hume. These men were meant to serve as Boswell’s “companions” during his convalescence. The repetition to “keep up”—“Resolve by all means to keep up to Plan,” and now again, to “keep up spirit & dignit[y]”—speaks to an unrelenting pace but also visually resembles a frequent trick of modern scheduling: moving a task to the next day when left undone the day before. With this form in mind, the reiteration reads less like routine effort and more like a memory trick that isn’t quite working. Fin[ish] Hume he instructs himself on Monday. On Tuesday, and then again on Wednesday, and yet again on Thursday, go on wt. Hume. On Friday, more specifically, Fin[ish] Vol Hume today. In his month of learning diligence, Boswell may come across like a bad student of habit-keeping. But I ask that we don’t judge too much. I got through his thousand-paged Life of Johnson in fifty to one-hundred-page increments, and each one was recorded in my planner.

Skype w/ mom + dad – drinks w/ cohort@9pm – finish “Piers Plowman” – resoak black dress – read Leapor – make schedule – read some Montague criticism

When it comes to my own personal archive, my memoranda of notes to self, I can never seem to throw my old notebooks away—even the ones filled with to-do lists. In moments when I flip through these, the only moments where I feel justified in this hoarding, I’m able to look back at my productivity and backward towards Boswell.

The forward-looking tense remains the same (I too plan to make more plans!). I also recognize some pleasure in sharing that forward-looking tense both across time and among peers. I have no reason to believe that Boswell’s agenda would have been private. Boswell may as well have posted his journal layouts on Instagram; it was a subject for small talk. He entertained his friends and especially “the Ladies” by being “open” about his budgeting and his intentions to eat only cheese. He tells everyone he meets of his plans for future employment, to be in the guards. Publicly, he undergoes these acts of recitation, ones that offer the pleasure of other’s laughter and expose him to possible public failure. In one of the last conversations that Boswell records sharing with Johnson in London, they bond over an “inclination to do nothing” and debate a better timetable for completing Johnson’s celebrated dictionary.

My own acts of reiteration of Johnson’s line and of my defense of graduate school, one that affirms my desire to learn diligence and one asserts that I have surveyed a period of literary study happily if not forever, one forward-looking and the other backward, ask me to split my own tenses. I am not sure it is possible for graduate students (or perhaps for any of us ruled by to-do lists set by ourselves or others) to live in the moment. It seems that we and Boswell share even more so the experience of moving between the anticipatory mourning of years already lost to unagreeable circumstances and the pace of our tasks still to do.

Yes, Boswell offers us a dinner table seat for chatting about our economizing, our efforts to create a store of knowledge and experience, a vague desire to be literary. Sometimes, eighteenth-century authors can make for decent substitute companions as Boswell hoped; having someone’s name, qualified or unqualified with “to read” on a list day after day is almost like keeping company with them. To be offered a seat at the table is also an offer to sit down and rest for a while. Somewhere vacillating between tenses must be near-presence. The productive lesson may be to adopt different small talk material about the value of graduate school, the value of a years spent living in a city studying the eighteenth century alongside our lists of plans that seem to keep moving onto the next day’s to-dos. At that table, we may mention our schedules, kept and unkept.

Lilith Todd is a PhD candidate in English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, where she studies seventeenth- and eighteenth-century English and Transatlantic Literature. Her dissertation describes the rhetoric and labor of eighteenth-century nursing, and she has an article on the poetics of the nurse and washerwoman Mary Collier forthcoming in The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation. Currently, she also serves as the managing editor for Synapsis: A Journal of Health Humanities.

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