Wednesday, June 16, 2010

`The Departure of a Once-Useful Word'

Kingsley Amis was surely the wisest, funniest drunk ever to grace belle-lettres, except for Flann O’Brien. As a revivifying break from Emerson I’ve been browsing in the steroidal Letters of Kingsley Amis (2000), edited by Zachary Leader, and finding much to laugh out loud about. In a 1993 letter to Paul Fussell, the American critic then working on The Anti-Egoist: Kingsley Amis, Man of Letters (1994), after referring to Jane Austen as “a 2nd-rate pisser while still at school,” Amis writes:

“While I’m about it, I’ll take you to task for your trendy use of perception. When Sam J[ohnson] said of whomever, `Sir, I perceive that you are a vile Whig,’ he meant not `My view of you is that you are a v.W.’ (whereas Bozzy’s [James Boswell’s] view of you might be something else), but `I see through to the truth, which is that you are a v.W.’ There used to be only one true perception, now there are as many as the people doing the perceiving, One more tiny but revealing example of the lefty movement to dethrone absolute or objective truth and institute a republic of equally `valid’ relative truths. So watch it, Jack.”

Amis refers to a well-known episode in Boswell’s Life of Johnson. It’s 1772, Johnson is sixty-three years old, and Boswell has just introduced him to Sir Adam Ferguson (1723-1816), a Scottish philosopher and historian:

“Sir Adam suggested, that luxury corrupts a people, and destroys the spirit of liberty. JOHNSON. `Sir, that is all visionary. I would not give half a guinea to live under one form of Government rather than another. It is of no moment to the happiness of an individual. Sir, the danger of the abuse of power is nothing to a private man….SIR ADAM. `But, Sir, in the British constitution it is surely of importance to keep up a spirit in a people, so as to preserve a balance against the crown. JOHNSON. `Sir, I perceive you are a vile Whig.—Why all this childish jealousy of the power of the crown? The crown has not power enough. When I say that all governments are alike, I consider that in no government power can be abused long. Mankind will not bear it. If a sovereign oppresses his people to a great degree, they will rise and cut off his head. There is a remedy in human nature against tyranny, that will keep us safe under every form of government.”

Hardly the words of a stereotypical monarchist. How long since you’ve heard such straight talk about government? Recall, too, that Johnson had never met Ferguson when he launched this verbal cannonade. It’s easy to dispense with social niceties when people utter idiocies with conviction. Amis is right: In his Dictionary, Johnson’s second definition of “perception” is “knowledge” – not “opinion.” not “feeling.”

Amis includes the same Johnsonian example in his entry for “Perceive, perception” in The King’s English: A Guide to Modern Usage (1997). He writes:

“[Perceive] is almost a synonym for see, except that a degree of effort or special ability is implied. But whatever you perceived was understood to be really there.”

Of Johnson’s reply to Ferguson, Amis writes:

“…he certainly did not mean to say anything as wishy-washy as that his uneven and temporary view of the chap took him to be some sort of vile Whig; he meant he now knew the other chap was a depraved supporter of parliament rather than crown, etc. As Johnson would have known, the Latin roots of perceive indicate that it meant to grasp thoroughly.”

Amis concludes the entry like this:

“Such is a common result of verbal innovation: instead of anything valuable, it causes either muddle or the departure of a once-useful word.”

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