Wednesday, December 17, 2014

`Fricassee of Dead Dog'

The title is irresistible: An Anthology of Invective and Abuse. Hugh Kingsmill published his collection in a propitious year, 1929, when the impulse to kick mercilessly (or at least watch someone else do the kicking) must have been impossible to resist. Modernism in literature was victorious and the world was going to hell. In his introduction, Kingsmill defines invective as “any direct verbal attack,” and thus exempts irony and satire while admitting that “the line of demarcation is sometimes indistinct.” He notes: “As the detachment of irony makes it a finer weapon, intellectually if not morally, than invective, the transition from irony to invective is even in skillful hands nearly always jarring in effect.” All abuse, whether laser-tipped irony or bare-knuckle fisticuffs, is best delivered coolly, without huffing and puffing. The best abuse looks effortless, the work of a ninja not a WWF wrestler. 

Kingsmill notes that in the fourth section of Gulliver’s Travels, “A Voyage to the Country of the Houyhnhnms,” the proportion of invective to irony is greater than in the earlier sections devoted to Laputa and Brobdingnag, and as a result it is less artistically successful. Kingsmill includes four excerpts from Gulliver, including the king of Brobdingnag’s well-known condemnation of the English: “I cannot but conclude the Bulk of your Natives, to be the most pernicious Race of little odious Vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the Surface of the Earth.” 

None of Kingsmill’s selections are new to this reader, but he brings together many old favorites. Why is intelligent invective, as opposed to rabid frothing, so bracing to the weary spirit? Consider Prince Hal’s evisceration of Falstaff in the great Boar’s-Head Tavern scene (Henry IV, Part I, Act. II Scene 4): 

“…there is a devil haunts thee in the likeness of an old fat man; a tun of man is thy companion. Why dost thou converse with that trunk of humours, that bolting-hutch of beastliness, that swollen parcel of dropsies, that huge bombard of sack, that stuffed cloak-bag of guts, that roasted Manningtree ox with the pudding in his belly, that reverend vice, that  grey iniquity, that father ruffian, that vanity in  years? Wherein is he good, but to taste sack and drink it? wherein neat and cleanly, but to carve a  capon and eat it? wherein cunning, but in craft? wherein crafty, but in villany? wherein villanous, but in all things? wherein worthy, but in nothing?” 

For sheer pleasure nothing compares to the venomous blather of Thomas Carlyle. Right or wrong, the Scotsman is always amusing. Of Keats he writes: “Fricassee of dead dog (Monckton Milnes’ Life of Keats)….A truly unwise little book. The kind of man that Keats was gets more horrible to me. Force of hunger for pleasure of every kind, and want of all other force—such a soul, it would once have been very evident, was a chosen `vessel of Hell’; and truly, for ever there is justice in that feeling.” 

Herbert Spencer he dismisses as “the most contemptible ass in Christendom” and Macaulay’s work as “dictionary literature and erudition,” but Carlyle saves his wittiest take-down for Coleridge: 

“A weak, diffusive, weltering, ineffectual man…a great possibility that has not realised itself. Never did I see such apparatus got  ready for thinking, and so little thought. He mounts scaffolding, pulleys, and tackles, gathers all the tools in the neighbourhood with labour, with noise, demonstration, precept, abuses, and sets—three bricks.” 

How many of our much-vaunted “public intellectuals,” Coleridge's spawn, does that describe with clinical precision?

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