Friday, September 29, 2006

IN PRAISE OF INVECTIVE. I've had the phrase incomplete in my head for years, but finally thought to search it online, and found the prize. From a 1983 New York Times article on "Literary Invective" by the late Walter Goodman -- almost certainly where I first saw it -- comes this ancient judgment by Horace Walpole on Samuel Johnson:
...prejudice and bigotry, and pride and presumption, and arrogance and pedantry are the hags that brew his ink.
Regular readers will know how I value le mot brutally juste, and this is about as good as English has to offer, though Goodman gives others:

Carlyle on Emerson: "a gap-toothed and hoary-headed ape ... who now in his dotage spits and chatters from a dirtier perch of his own finding and fouling."

Dr. Johnson on Lord Chesterfield's letters to his son: "They teach the morals of a whore and the manners of a dancing master."

And Mary McCarthy's famously palpable hit on Lillian Hellman, which inspires Goodman's essay: "Every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the.'"

Ahhhh, that's good invective, or, to use the current term, snark. Top-shelf writing can be animated by any sort of passion, including contempt. Contempt can also animate the speed-rack stuff, of course. But what a difference in results between the high and the low! Bad angry writing leaves only a sulfurous match-stink, whereas the right combination of author and animus makes an incandescent glare. It burns off obfuscating details, revealing the underlying folly of its victim.

Take, for example, this immortal precis by H.L. Mencken of the speeches of Warren G. Harding:
He writes the worst English that I have ever encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm of pish, and crawls insanely up to the topmost pinnacle of tosh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash.
You needn't know Harding, specifically, to appreciate this, but if you have any experience at all of boosterish political prose, you will know how true this hits the mark. The confident opening pricks your ears. The metaphors suit both the blandness of the subject and the imbecilic vigor of the execution. The final decompounded words are sharp flamenco steps that tamp the dirt on the grave of the unfortunate subject. This is not mere insult. This is artistry enlisted in the service of spite; and, like all true artistry, it exalts its purpose.

Not everyone approves, of course. The Pajamas Media people recently held a playdate to consider "How Partisan Is Too Partisan?" Readers of PJM websites -- including those of frequent alicublog subjects Jeff Goldstein, Roger L. Simon, and of course the Ole Perfesser -- will be unamazed to hear that the difference between good and bad partisanship is, in the participants' estimation, roughly the difference between the party they support and the party they don't:
...there is a difference between "smart partisanship" and a much less attractive alternative that relies on invective rather than argument and employs the widespread use of insults and obscenities. This is a problem the left continues to struggle with given that the new media revolution (to use a pretentious phrase) has taken place almost entirely in the last five years under the tenure of George W. Bush and given voice to a core of the most active liberal partisans who A) believe he wasn't legitimately elected in the first place...
Etc. The ideological bias I can forgive -- we are all sinners, and that remains true even when we are reminded of it by ideologues. But that they can sit, study, and spew on the subject without recognizing (much less celebrating) the rich historical tradition of political invective confirms something I have long suspected: that they write as poorly as they do because they do not even know what good writing is.

Indeed, the few right-wing writers they sometimes have the nerve to celebrate for their skill are either logorrheic buffoons who compensate for their lack of style and substance with MLA gibberish and feeble absurdist tropes, or addlepated wordsmiths whose streams always proceed from, meander around, and return to the same tiny backyard pool of chlorinated cliches.

I cannot imagine such people would recognize a literary brickbat if it split their thick skulls -- in fact, having thrown many such, I can attest they would not.

Still. We are not here to deride -- at least not in the main -- but to celebrate. Let me know what invective has pleased you. The subject or the politics does not matter. If the slur is sure or the sneer sheer, share please. Let us give praise to the belittlers, and pet the rich coat of savage beastly speech. Let us exalt the humblers of the exalted.

UPDATE. Comments are especially good here, full of great quotes and observations. I was glad to see a ripe, contemporary denunciation of Beethoven's 9th Symphony. We all love the glorious Ninth, but one is forced to admit that the critic has a point, and if we honestly disagree we must, at least in our own minds, answer it. Sometimes harsh criticism provides shocks that are not just tittilating, but salutary as well: they force the mind to encounter a contradictory point of view (as with, say, Christopher Hitchens on Mother Teresa). There is much to recommend the more patient and polite kind of criticism, but when attitudes have hardened, the discussion can always use a swift kick in the ass.

It may be that there is more than one reason for all the shrill language in political blogs, and one may be that many of us have little faith that our opponents are listening to us, and that we are trying to get their attention, or someone's at least. That's not unprecedented. The Chernow biography of Hamilton I mentioned before, along with some commenters, reminds me that the pre- and (especially) post-Revolutionary American Press was often savage, and Hamilton himself did not disdain the employment of slander.

I should say now that I was unfairly hard on Lileks in this post. He is actually very good at word management, as his non-political writing shows, and his skills do not disappear when he lectures us traitors at the Bleat. But he cannot leave snark enough alone, and his creditable insults are usually cool raisins in an overbaked rage, which is why he can be so much fun to make fun of. Goldstein remains worthless on every level.

Musical and literary insults are mentioned in comments, as is Dorothy Parker's theatre criticism, but I feel duty-bound to add Diana Rigg's No Turn Unstoned, a collection of mostly British stage reviews that are hair-raisingly mean, and Michael Green's The Art of Coarse Acting, nominally a celebration of hammy, incompetent playing (one chapter heading: "How to Steal the Scene, Even Though Unconscious").


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