GENERATION GAP #4: Sexting in the 18th Century


About a year after the breakup, I started keeping a text message journal.

Until recently, every form of textual communication has had a double, a good twin to keep it alive if not in check. “It would be impossible to say that we are not haunted,” writes Paul Auster in the tremendous final pages of The Invention of Solitude. “It is to say that each thing leads a double life, at once in the world and in our minds, and that to deny either one of these lives is to kill the thing in both its lives at once.”

I cut up some rice paper, folded it, taped the spine, and tried to use pens that didn’t bleed too much. The relationship had ended, was in certain ways continuing to end, with a palpable silence. R___ wanted to keep it that way. I wanted to take notes.

I chose what to include, what only to write down half of. As friends started to learn that I was keeping such a “pointless” journal, they sent things like this is for your text msg journal and haha write dis, but the more surprising thing was how quickly they forgot about the journal altogether and continued writing things that one would not necessarily want recorded, buzzy candidates for (which didn’t exist yet, and now has advertising from American Apparel).

I only transcribed texts with emotional zing–just say my name!, from a musician friend, for example, and messages from R___ that, in context, made me shiver like Shakespeare, and still make me shiver in exactly the same way, even though the context has long since vaporized. It was a controlled affair, but every pen bleeds a little. Especially when you don’t expect the ink to be so thick.

It turns out that in the 18th century there was a verb for this process–journalizing–and that this obsessive but seldom distorting activity birthed what we would come to know as textual intimacy. Adam Sisman’s Boswell’s Presumptuous Task: The Making of the Life of Dr. Johnson is an intricate and often startling biography of the world’s first intimate biographer.

The first thing that startles is James Boswell’s unbridled passion for Samuel Johnson, most stunning because it wasn’t sexual. Many years Boswell’s elder, Johnson quickly became the wayward thinker’s mentor and, in many ways, savior. Not long after the reluctant Scottish lawyer met the established intellectual in London, Boswell wrote to Johnson from Edinburgh, where he had returned to live with his wife for three years. It is clear that Johnson had already replaced the heart of the wife:

I fairly own that after an absence from you for any length of time I feel that I require a renewal of that spirit which your presence always gives me, and which makes me a better and a happier man than I imagined I could be before I was introduced to your acquaintance.

Their relationship was of course delusional, full of projection like all relationships. But it was not entirely delusional, was in some ways remarkably clear from the outset. Where others saw simply a social climber, Johnson somehow glimpsed in Boswell his ideal biographer. In this slight shift from something more like celebrity to something more like friendship, we see the birth of showing people how they really are.

Sisman notes that the bookish guru provided Boswell with unparalleled “access to the heart of literary London,” through Johnson’s daily life as well as membership in the infamous Literary Club, to which Boswell would likely not have been admitted without Johnson’s authority being thrown around. Boswell was a playboy of large, if clumsy, proportions–he would eventually die from a combination of multiple venereal diseases (which were treated with mercury pills and other questionable items) and alcohol-related issues, he might have even slept with Rousseau‘s mistress, Thérèse Le Vasseur, who once accompanied him back to London (he wrote that she seduced him thirteen times)–Johnson, whose self-awareness was rare for the period, kept him in check. Peter Martin’s biography of Johnson reminds us that Johnson tried to cut off trouble before it began: “The breasts and silk stockings of your actresses excite my genitals,” he once said in defense of his refusal to go backstage at one of his own plays. In the early 1980s, R. Crumb would pick up on Boswell’s philandering. Crumb captures the sense that the two men were acting out their own lives, playing off each other, the playboy and the philosopher.

It wasn’t long before Boswell was writing down absolutely everything that Johnson said, sometimes with actual paper and pen, sometimes by recall, and this journalizing began to spark public outcry, cartoons of Boswell as a sycophant hungry for quotes at dinner parties, “anonymous” letters of moral outrage. Boswell was quick to respond with uncharacteristic sass in the Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, his early, raw account of a trip to Scotland with Johnson:

It may be objected by some persons…that he who has the power of thus exhibiting an exact transcript of conversations is not a desirable member of society. I repeat the answer which I made to [a friend who asked:] “Few, very few, need be afraid that their sayings will be recorded. Can it be imagined that I would take the trouble to gather what grows on every hedge…”

It was clear that he was onto something–something dangerously close to reality–but no one yet knew what it was. Soon Johnson was even altering his own speech, live-editing his own phrases to make them sound more “Johnsonian.” Commenting on a play, Johnson once said, “It has not wit enough to keep it sweet,” then gave a cancel-that expression and changed this saying to, “It has not vitality enough to preserve it from putrification.” Johnson greatly distrusted fame and public opinion, and would make such re-statements with a certain humor, but Boswell ate them up. His great talent seems to have been an ability to simultaneously miss the joke and write it down.

This process of Johnsonification would be repeated often during the over seven years Boswell took to write the Life of Johnson, eventually forging a type of editing that we now all do with text messages, what we show each other and what we learn to say, whether we’re trying to be ourselves or to be someone else. The Enlightenment was remarkably unsubtle, full of garish pseudonyms and “anonymous” letters and advertisements where everyone knew who the author was. It is in the annals of intentional miscommunication that Boswell’s Presumptuous Task reaches out to our current age.

Boswell learned a little too late in his writing career that miscommunication in mailed letters could sometimes be cleared up by a little in-person contact. Ironically, actual conversation was his journalizing’s good twin. Soon, when the letters were confusing, he was traveling laboriously around the country, asking for an audience at the person’s estate, rather than simply writing back and making things worse. What a remarkable premonition of our current troubles with emails, whose capacity to inspire misreadings Daniel Goleman, in the New York Times, has blamed in part on the fact that “there are no online channels for the multiple signals the brain uses to calibrate emotions.” A journey by carriage was Boswell’s good ghost’s host; telephone conversations have been ours.

Now some musicians–Nick Cave (just history repeating itself babe u turn me on), Beth Orton (ha wishbone where his backbone shouldve been)–write lyrics that could easily form texts, or come from them, but only if the recipient were deeply engaged with the texter. And on the right is one of the greatest messages I’ve encountered in recent years: Im on vacation with my Boyfriend but Im going to break up with him when we get home. I found it at sitting-eye level in a Brooklyn restroom. This wouldn’t have been possible even ten years ago. It contains an entire story.

Text messages have as their guardian angel, their happy opposite, time itself. They are the first form of communication that works against time and against context. So where do we go next? Where is the carriage house, where is the literary brothel? I was gchatting with R___ around the time that I started that stupid text message journal when she suddenly typed, “stop thinking and just write something!!” or a similar line to that effect. The chat was “off the record.” I don’t know exactly what she asked, but I know that she was right, and that she must have been waiting a long time to say it.

Rumpus contributing editor Ari Messer was a frequent contributor to the San Francisco Bay Guardian from 2006-2010. Here is his web life. More from this author →