Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Literary Corner: The Art of Sinking

This Cannibalistic Cycle
by Victor Davis Hanson

Diane Feinstein, Joe Biden, Nancy
Pelosi, and the Democratic fossils
on the Senate Judiciary Committee
may in their golden years try to lumber
onto the departing progressive train,
but their septuagenarian and octogenarian
creaky efforts to get on board grow sad.
Joe Biden was reduced to threatening
to beat Trump up behind the locker room.
Diane Feinstein staged a clumsy eleventh-
hour ambush of the hearings that proved
pure bathos. Even leftists such
as Nancy Pelosi and Elizabeth Warren
fear that they are suddenly pseudo-revolutionaries,
compared with the new, far more radical Jacobins,
who in cyclical French Revolutionary style
call for massive repeals of all student debt,
free tuition, packing the Supreme Court,
Medicare for all, a specified end to fossil
fuels, quotas based on identity politics,
and an abolishment of Immigration and
Custom Enforcement. No one quite knows
how far this cannibalistic cycle will go.

The unique badness of Victor Davis Hanson's writing is built out of attention to the tiniest detail—spelling Dianne Feinstein's name wrong (twice!) and using the bizarre "abolishment" instead of "abolition", moving the descriptive adjective ("creaky") out of its natural position ahead of the classificatory ones ("septuagenarian and octogenarian"), treating trash-talk that Biden has been deploying since March 2016 as some desperate new development, the trotting out of randomly chosen clichés ("golden years", "eleventh hour") mixed with phrases so new you can't guess what they mean ("ambush of the hearings", "specified end"). And the use of exotic words of whose meanings he's not entirely sure, like "cyclical", "Jacobin", "cannibalistic".

Especially "bathos", used here to mean, I think, that Feinstein's fiendish underhanded attempt to blow up the Kavanaugh nomination at the last minute (the allegation that she failed to reveal Christine Blasey Ford's accusations and then leaked them, obviously a plot to confuse Republicans) didn't work out, did it, suckers.

"Bathos", from the ancient Greek for "depth" or maybe sort of "underwater-ness", was introduced to the terminology of rhetoric by Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, and their friends in the Scriblerus Club in the 1727 ΠΕΡΙ ΒΑΘΟΥΣ, or, Of the Art of Sinking in Poetry, a parody of the 1st-century Peri Hypsous (On the Sublime), and perhaps the greatest prose text ever written on the subject of bad writing.

Bathos is the opposite of the sublime, the literary method of lowering a subject into ridiculousness, and the authors list all techniques and rhetorical by which it can be done, in a format that sometimes looks just like a fisking blogpost:
Under the Article of the confounding [figures] we rank,

1. The Mixture of Figures,
which raises so many images, as to give you no image at all. But its principal beauty is, when it gives an idea just opposite to what it seemed meant to describe. Thus an ingenious artist, painting the spring, talks of a snow of blossoms, and thereby raises an unexpected picture of winter. Of this sort is the following:
The gaping clouds pour lakes of sulphur down,
Whose livid flashes sickning sunbeams drown[43].
What a noble confusion! clouds, lakes, brimstone, flames, sun-beams, gaping, pouring, sickning, drowning! all in two lines.

2. The Jargon.
Thy head shall rise, tho' buried in the dust,
And 'midst the clouds his glittering turrets thrust[44].
Quære, What are the glittering turrets of a man's head?
Upon the shore; as frequent as the sand,
To meet the prince, the glad Dimetians stand[45].
Quære, Where these Dimetians stood? and of what size they were?
The Hyperbole, or impossible.
For instance, of a Lion.
He roar'd so loud, and look'd so wond'rous grim,
His very shadow durst not follow him[56].
Of a Lady at Dinner.
The silver whiteness that adorns thy neck,
Sullies the plate and makes the napkin black.

III. The last class remains; of the diminishing. 1. the Anticlimax, and figures where the second line drops quite short of the first, than which nothing creates greater surprize.
On the Extent of the British Arms.
Under the tropicks is our language spoke,
And part of Flanders hath receiv'd our yoke[61].
On a Warrior.
And thou Dalhoussy the great God of war,
Lieutenant colonel to the earl of Mar[62].

It's the magnificent anticlimax that Hanson assembles so well in today's piece, when he summons up the horrors of the French Revolution, Jacobins even more revolutionary than Pelosi and Warren (gasp!), and when you think he's about to threaten us all with the tossing of the government, the abolition of the priestly and monastic orders, the new calendar and the cult of the Supreme Being and the public beheading of all the aristocrats, it turns out to be free college and medical care that we're in danger of instead, and an end to fossil fuels, and "quotas based on identity politics", whatever those may be (as I've explained before, the only identity politics being practiced in this country is practiced by the the party that's 86% white).

Pope and Swift would have made mincemeat out of the cyclicality theme, too—what's "cyclical" about the French Revolution (other than the fact that it failed, in the long run, to put an end to inequality)? Or the "progressive train" that Pelosi and Biden are trying to "lumber" on to? Or hurtling over the abyss into debt forgiveness (that's pretty cyclical, to be sure, in Deuteronomy 15:1, where it's mandated for everybody every seven years) and a packed Supreme Court? What's he talking about? Where are the cannibals? And you know how far the cannibalistic cycle will go? If it's a cycle, nowhere. Bathos, in any event, is Victor Davis Hanson's specialty.

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