Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Today, Read Some Vintage "Assassinative Prose"

In a blog that is devoted to Rants & Raves, today's post features this blog's penultimate (thus far) rant. If only Ambrose Bierce lived in our day with the Dumbo poseurs who would be the POTUS 45. If this is (fair & balanced) imaginary invective, so be it.

[x CHE/Lingua Franca]
I Will Never Be A Ranter
By Geoffrey Pullum

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I realized the other day that I’m not qualified as a ranter. I used to think I was, but I was wrong. I’m just a bland, easy-going guy. Things are just great, everyone’s OK, have a nice day. I changed my mind when I chanced on a real piece of rant, on a level I will never attain.

It’s a fairly well known passage, though I happened not to have seen it before. It appeared as an unsigned comment about Oscar Wilde in a column headed “Prattle” in a satirical magazine called Wasp on 31 March 1882. It is known to have been written by Ambrose Bierce (as Ellmann’s biography of Wilde confirms, though without quotation). And quite frankly, after reading it I don’t think I can ever rant ever again. I can’t compete. I am never going to make it as a ranter. Bierce wrote it before Oscar ever had a play on the stage, but it’s hard to believe that a fun evening at "The Importance of Being Earnest" would have mollified a man with opinions as over-the-top negative as this slab of utterly assassinative prose:

That sovereign of insufferables, Oscar Wilde has ensued with his opulence of twaddle and his penury of sense. He has mounted his hind legs and blown crass vapidities through the bowel of his neck, to the capital edification of circumjacent fools and foolesses, fooling with their foolers. He has tossed off the top of his head and uttered himself in copious overflows of ghastly bosh. The ineffable dunce has nothing to say and says it — says it with a liberal embellishment of bad delivery, embroidering it with reasonless vulgarities of attitude, gesture and attire. There never was an impostor so hateful, a blockhead so stupid, a crank so variously and offensively daft. Therefore is the fool enamored of the feel of his tongue in her ear to tickle her understanding.

The limpid and spiritless vacuity of this intellectual jellyfish is in ludicrous contrast with the rude but robust mental activities that he came to quicken and inspire. Not only has he no thoughts, but no thinker. His lecture is mere verbal ditch-water — meaningless, trite and without coherence. It lacks even the nastiness that exalts and refines his verse. Moreover, it is obviously his own; he had not even the energy and independence to steal it. And so, with a knowledge that would equip an idiot to dispute with a cast-iron dog, and eloquence to qualify him for the duties of a caller on a hog-ranch, and an imagination adequate to the conception of a tom-cat, when fired by contemplation of a fiddle-string, this consummate and star-like youth, missing everywhere his heaven-appointed functions and offices, wanders about, posing as a statue of himself, and, like the sun-smitten image of Memnon, emitting meaningless murmurs in the blaze of women’s eyes.

He makes me tired. And this gawky gowk has the divine effrontery to link his name with those of Swinburne, Rossetti and Morris — this dunghill he-hen would fly with eagles. He dares to set his tongue to the honored name of Keats. He is the leader, quoth’a, of a renaissance in art, this man who cannot draw — of a revival of letters, this man who cannot write! This little and looniest of a brotherhood of simpletons, whom the wicked wits of London, haling him dazed from his obscurity, have crowned and crucified as King of the Cranks, has accepted the distinction in stupid good faith and our foolish people take him at his word. Mr. Wilde is pinnacled upon a dazzling eminence but the earth still trembles to the dull thunder of the kicks that set him up.

Great Caesar’s ghost. I don’t ever again want to hear anyone telling me that H. P. Lovecraft’s prose is a bit florid and overwritten. And taste the venom! People really let their hostility hang out back in those days. Today we have Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck as the pinnacle of nastiness; but once there was Ambrose Bierce. Ω

[Geoff Pullum was professor of linguistics at the University of California, Santa Cruz, for many years, and is currently professor of general linguistics at the University of Edinburgh. In 2012 he will take up a position as Gerard Visiting Professor of Cognitive, Linguistic and Psychological Sciences at Brown University. He earned a B.A. in Language with First Class Honors from the University of York (England). Pullum was awarded a Ph.D. in General Linguistics by the University of London.]

Copyright © 2011 The Chronicle of Higher Education

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Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves by Neil Sapper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Based on a work at sapper.blogspot.com. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available here.

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