Sunday, May 06, 2018

`Life Is a Barmecide Feast'

Michael Oakeshott, the least fuzzy of prose writers, stumped me for a moment: “Life is a barmecide feast: know it as such.” Killing the barmy? Hardly seems right, especially at a feast. The context is a rumination on immortality. It comes early in Michael Oakeshott: Notebooks, 1922-86 (Imprint Academic, 2014). The OED explains the figure of speech, one I had never encountered, with an unexpected etymology. The dictionary tells us Barmecide is:

“the patronymic of a family of princes ruling at Bagdad just before Haroun-al-Raschid, concerning one of whom the story is told in the Arabian Nights, that he put a succession of empty dishes before a beggar, pretending that they contained a sumptuous repast—a fiction which the beggar humorously accepted.”

The usefulness of the word and phrase is evident. The OED cites Addison and Thackery, but Dickens’ usage in American Notes (1842) is most illuminating: “It is a Barmecide Feast; a pleasant field for the imagination to rove in.” Dickens is describing Washington, D.C., though Oakeshott aims even higher. Here is the rest of his paragraph:

“`Patience & shuffle the cards’ [from Don Quixote] The point is, not whether we have rational grounds for believing in survival, continuance or immortality but that however firmly we are convinced of any of these, we are still subject to the conditions of mortality. Even if we are in some sense immortal, yet we cannot avoid the sufferings of mortals. Immortality & survival only touch the last death.”

1 comment:

Jeff said...

Thank you for this. I wrote a book with an entire chapter about the Barkmakids, who were Harun al-Rashid's viziers, advisors, and friends, but I've never encountered this English expression. I feel as if I've missed out on a decade of trying to find places and reasons to use it...