Thursday, March 31, 2022

The insulted and the injured or, the politics of the insult

 

William Cobbett hangs on like a ghost in that ghostly gallery, the Penguin paperback classics. He is known now for Rural Rides. In his time, though, the early part of the 19th century in Britain,  he was a great self-constituted political and moral brass band, producing a weekly paper that  is of a vastness such that few who dive in there swim very far – in short, a man tied body and soul to his time. William Hazlitt, who shared many of his political opinions, is always being rediscovered – Cobbett, not so much.


Hazlitt’s essay on Cobbett begins by comparing him to a boxer, and goes on to foreswear comparison at all:

“One has no notion of him as making use of a fine pen, but a great mutton-fist; his style stuns his readers, and he 'fillips the ear of the public with a three-man beetle.'3 He is too much for any single newspaper antagonist; 'lays waste' a city orator or Member of Parliament, and bears hard upon the Government itself. He is a kind of fourth estate in the politics of the country. He is not only unquestionably the most powerful political writer of the present day, but one of the best writers in the language. He speaks and thinks plain, broad, downright English. He might be said to have the clearness of Swift, the naturalness of Defoe, and the picturesque satirical description of Mandeville; if all such comparisons were not impertinent. A really great and original writer is like nobody but himself. In one sense, Sterne was not a wit, nor Shakespear a poet. It is easy to describe second-rate talents, because they fall into a class and enlist under a standard; but first-rate powers defy calculation or comparison, and can be defined only by themselves. They are sui generis, and make the class to which they belong. I have tried half a dozen times to describe Burke's style without ever succeeding, -- its severe extravagance; its literal boldness; its matter-of-fact hyperboles; its running away with a subject, and from it at the same time, -- but there is no making it out, for there is no example of the same thing anywhere else. We have no common measure to refer to; and his qualities contradict even themselves.”

One thing, though, Hazlitt picks out in Cobbett – his ability to abuse. He was an artist of the insult, the nickname: If anything is ever quoted from him, it is an epithet of abuse or a nickname. He is an excellent hand at invention in that way, and has 'damnable iteration' in him.” In other words, once he fastens on an insult, he sticks to it.

Although American politics in the last six or seven years has turned, very much, on insults – Trump being both insulter in chief and the target of insults of every variety – it is odd that we have no genealogy of the political insult, or even the broader category of insult in America. The recent Oscar dust-up came about when a comedian insulted one of the members of the audience. Normally, a glittering throng would be up in arms against a random insulter, but this was a patronized and paid insulter, the type that often, when given to preening, compares his or herself to the jester who tells the truth. Of course, that is bullshit – the fool in King Lear was no millionaire celebrity, and our pardoned and cossetted insulters are in it for the cheap laughs and the usual micro-aggression.

The root of “insult” is found in the Latin saltere, to leap – the word contains a gesture. Leaping upon is a form of attack not reserved for cats – monkey and humanoids do it too. The verbal leaping upon of the insult has something hungry about it. The best insults leave the victim feeling chewed, or eaten. As well, the victim begins to eat him or herself, since the response to an insult – other than to insult back – is unclear. I have read many a post or tweet about how Will Smith should have calmly challenged his insulter to a debate, or given a sort of opening speech appealing to the better angels of our nature, etc., etc. Typical euphemism liberalism, I think, which dances around old social facts in order not to confront them. Leaping into ratiocination is no kinda leap.

Of course, the insulter does have the advantage of leaping first. Trump, for one, has damnable iteration in him: after  he has called Elizabeth Warren Pocahontas once, it evidently engraved itself in his mind to the extent that I wonder, in that syphilis haunted wilderness, if he even remembers her real name. In any case, the taunt is maddening for those who think politics should be “above” childish insults. The problem with that position is that it is out of joint with historic reality. American history is a parade of one insult after another, and a historian could map a rather accurate map of who was who and what was what just by looking at the insults heaped on presidents and the insults presidents – as candidates – heaped back. We could also map who is marginalized: the taunt “Pocahontas” reverberates with both Disney and ethnocide, the lyncher’s version of the American story out of which we have all, with our various properties, crawled.

It is interesting, to me, that out of the culture of insult comedy that has become a cable standard, a man who was a reality star on a show where he played a sort of insult comedian boss has become the leading figure in American politics today. It is the honor culture turned toxic, as there is no honor there. Perhaps this is why it leaves behind such a bitter aftertaste.

Tuesday, March 29, 2022

will smith and the male fugue

 

“And I would like to say”, Julian said to himself, “that I thought it was about time someone shut him up.”

This is a key line in John O’Hara’s first and tightest novel, Appointment in Samarra. Julien English is a man who is going down in the little bourgeois court society of Gibbsville, Pennsylvania. The act that precipitates and quickens the fall happens in the country club, as he stands there listening to an ascending boss figure named Harry Reilly, who owns a good chunk of Julian English’s car lot. Reilly is telling a dirty story in a fake Irish accent and is surrounded by suckups who say things like, Harry, I don’t know how you remember all them stories! A Ring Lardner scene, Lardner would have dispatched the entire book in 15 pages, but O’hara is not a humorist, nor does he favor going short on material like this.

The American novel – even one in which the characters are all white burgomeister types with Caddies and country club memberships – does a wonderful job of tracing the male fugue within the precincts of an ethos of success that has begun to fatigue its a regulars, even as they fail to imagine any other ethos. Winner or loser, that is not only how the game ends, it defines the game’s purpose.

Will Smith slapping a comedian whose line is that ur-American trope, the roast, is very much the Julian English figure. My sympathies are with Smith – whose slap musta hurt and, in some metaphysical accounting, must have equaled or topped the little bit of shit the comedian wanted Smith to swallow before he got his award. However, the country club has rules, and will ring them down swiftly like the grating over a jewelry store display window.  

Biden's foreign policy: let's bet everything on authoritarianism!

  And watch it all slip away (Por fin se va acabar) Or leave a garden for your kids to play (Jamás van a alcanzar)  --- The Black Angels, El...