“Nothing better than covert insults which serve to give vent to the flatulence of pride.”
The speaker is Melissa, a stand-in for Dr. Johnson in The Rambler #75. Once she had all the advantages: “I was born to a large fortune, and bred to the knowledge of those arts which are supposed to accomplish the mind, and adorn the person of a woman.” She knew “universal veneration.” Until misfortune strikes: “the failure of a fund, in which my money was placed, reduced me to a frugal competency, which allowed little beyond neatness and independence.” We return, as always, to Johnson’s perennial theme, vanity and its comeuppance. Melissa learns the hard way what Bessie Smith was singing about. Friends insult and abandon her:
“. . . nor did any of my female acquaintances fail to introduce the mention of my misfortunes, to compare my present and former condition, to tell me how much it must trouble me to want the splendour which I became so well, to look at pleasures which I had formerly enjoyed, and to sink to a level with those by whom I had been considered as moving in a higher sphere, and who had hitherto approached me with reverence and submission, which I was now no longer to expect.”
That’s what Melissa means by “covert insults” giving vent to “the flatulence of pride.” What a perfect way of phrasing everyday human nastiness. We all know what flatulence is and implies, but savor the OED’s poker-face definition: “The state or condition of having the stomach or other portion of the alimentary canal charged with gas.” The word is rooted in the Latin flātus, “blowing.” In other words, hot air. And in still other words, blowhard. Figuratively, in Johnson’s usage: “Inflated or puffed-up condition, windiness, vanity; pomposity, pretentiousness.” How perfectly contemporary a word. But Johnson, by way of Melissa, doesn’t let her off the hook. Here is the rest of the sentence, and another, that follow “the flatulence of pride”:
“. . . but they are now and then imprudently uttered by honesty and benevolence, and inflict pain where kindness is intended; I will, therefore, so far maintain my antiquated claim to politeness, as to venture the establishment of this rule, that no one ought to remind another of misfortunes of which the sufferer does not complain, and which there are no means proposed of alleviating. You have no right to excite thoughts which necessarily give pain whenever they return, and which perhaps might not have revived but by absurd and unseasonable compassion.”
It’s the commonest and most pleasing of sins: gratuitous malevolence.