Category Archives: portentousness

An MBA’s idea of intellectual seriousness

Screen Shot 2015-08-02 at 09.19.55Dalrymple writes that there are two ways

for prose to impress more than it should: by incomprehensibility and by portentousness.

In another post, we looked at how Dalrymple views incomprehensibility as exemplified by the contents of an academic criminological journal. In this post it is the turn of portentousness, a good specimen of which is the British, or mid-Atlantic, Economist news-magazine. The Economist, Dalrymple explains, is

Screen Shot 2015-08-02 at 09.52.49dull and self-congratulatory,

characterising itself as of

the extreme centre.

Its reports at the front of the magazine do not always coincide with the economic data at the back, and its prognostications are belied by events, yet it manages to convey the impression that the disparities, insofar as it acknowledges them, are

Screen Shot 2015-08-02 at 09.51.56the fault of the events rather than of the Economist,

and that the world has a duty to be as the Economist says it is and will be. The articles are written anonymously, which is

intended to create the illusion that the magazine speaks from nothing so vulgar as a perspective, but from some Olympian height from which only the whole truth can be descried. It is the saving grace of every such magazine that no one remembers what he read in it the week before. Only by the amnesia of its readers can it retain its reputation.

Dalrymple finds the Economist‘s style dull, and asks how it is that

Screen Shot 2015-08-02 at 09.38.08correspondents from Lima to Limassol, from Cairo to Kathmandu, write in the same fashion, as if everything that happens everywhere is fundamentally the same.

The Economist, writes Dalrymple, is about as amusing as a speech by David Cameron. Its prose

is the equivalent of Ikea furniture, prefabricated according to a manual of style; it tries to combine accessibility with judiciousness and arrives only at portentousness.

Screen Shot 2015-08-02 at 09.41.59Dalrymple wonders who reads the Economist, and what for.

I suppose there is a type of functionary who does not want to be caught out in ignorance of the latest developments in Phnom Penh, or the supposed reasons for the latest uprising in Ouagadougou. The Economist is intellectual seriousness for middle management and MBAs. To be seen with it is a sign of belonging to, and of identifying with, a certain caste.

But at least the Economist

Screen Shot 2015-08-02 at 09.59.15is comprehensible—even, in its way, lucid. Publications for academic intellectuals are far worse.

Screen Shot 2015-08-02 at 10.01.39

They got that right

They got that right

The secret vineyards of truth and knowledge

The grape English essayist: characterful, sometimes gratifyingly acidic, earthy, supremely well balanced

The grape English essayist: characterful, sometimes gratifyingly tart, earthy, supremely well balanced

Verbal phylloxera

There are two ways, Dalrymple points out,

for prose to impress more than it should: by portentousness and by incomprehensibility.

In another post, we looked at how Dalrymple views portentousness as exemplified by the contents of a Western news-magazine. In this post, it is the turn of incomprehensibility.

Prestige conferred by impenetrability

Picking up a criminological journal, Dalrymple comes across a representatively logorrhœic and polysyllabically incomprehensible passage:

Screen Shot 2015-08-01 at 08.21.40

The handiwork of vile sap-sucking verbal pests

We use this signifier, hypermodernity, instead of, say, postmodernity or high modernity, because the prefix hyper is probably better for conveying the strategic dimension of contemporary modernity. It is precisely this strategic dimension of the contemporary which is producing extreme levels of reflexivity and flexibility. These, in turn, (re)produce a process of socio-cultural hyperdifferentiation, and, as such, feedback into contemporary strategisation….In this article, we have argued for an answer that will try to mobilise hypermodern energies of dislocation to debunk privileged discursively (re)produced Truths and foundations that inevitably block out the voices and hopes of multiple Others. Our answer lies in a radical politic that tries to fertilise the Othered margins of essentialised discourse.…Border-crossing criminology is a permanent process of de(re)construction of discursively constructed, essentialised borders. Border-crossing criminology is a reflexive and flexible (hypermodern) praxis: it evokes infinite Other voices of oppression/suppression, even those that are—inevitably—being silenced in and through specific border-crossing discursive moves.

Screen Shot 2015-08-01 at 08.11.11Humorously, the journal states that it is

committed to publishing only the highest quality of scholarship.

What, asks Dalrymple,

would lower levels of scholarship be like?

Screen Shot 2015-08-01 at 08.35.49

Du fléau qui ravage nos vignes, délivrez-nous Seigneur

Intellectual aphids

That the kind of prose quoted is

not an aberration, a freak, but a manifestation of a widespread academic fashion or disease

is demonstrated by

(a) the fact that it is frequent in the journal, and

(b) the fact that the journal has an editorial board of 49 academics round the world, from Norway to Venezuela, from Poland to Japan.

Lutte contre le phylloxéra

Lutte contre le phylloxéra

Such prose, writes Dalrymple, is to academic life

what phylloxera was to vines in 19th-century France. Whether recovery will ever be possible must be doubtful.

Dalrymple writes that prestige in publications for academic intellectuals

is conferred by impenetrability, where truth and knowledge are kept as secret gardens that would be defiled by the presence of the uninitiated.

Screen Shot 2015-08-01 at 08.59.05Large numbers of fifth-rate academics,

paid from public money, go a long way in polysyllabic incomprehensibility about subject matter that is describable in plain language.

Blight upon academic life

Blight upon academic life


Diagnosed with flatulent portentousness

Flatulent, and humour's worst enemy

Black swan: he suffered from (occasional, but not the less embarrassing for all that) flatulence, and was humour’s worst enemy

Unfortunately Charles Morgan succumbs to this unpleasing condition more than occasionally, according to his critics, from whom Dalrymple says he cannot

entirely demur.

Here is a representative Morgan passage (from ‘La Douceur de Vivre’ in the 1944 essay collection Reflections in a Mirror):

In the imprisonment of routine, in the midst of great labours, in spite of the temporary inconvenience of revolutions, men have always known how to let the instant rest like a petal on the stream of their lives; they have loved and painted and written verses and taken a hand at piquet; and at café tables or beside a river they have meditated on these things.

Screen Shot 2015-04-30 at 07.29.03Such moments of reflective ease,

while the petal floats by, are not for Rembrandt or Milton or the giants, assuredly not for Hugo; for what is in question is la douceur de vivre, and that is by no means the private property of Titans; it is in Tissot and in Fragonard, in the small lanes of history as well as on the great carriage routes; it is a flower as humble as the willow-herb which is springing up from nowhere in all the bomb craters of London, and has never been reserved to the good and great.

Screen Shot 2015-04-29 at 22.26.07Dalrymple points to another Morgan passage that he describes as Maugham minus

the irony or easy elegance.

It is the opening to Morgan’s 1941 novel The Empty Room:

On the last Saturday in November, the third month of the war, Richard Cannock performed, on a woman’s eye, a bold and subtle operation that gave him the satisfaction a writer may have in a flawless paragraph.

Screen Shot 2015-04-29 at 22.37.03Morgan is, writes Dalrymple,

that rara avis, a writer who not only had no sense of humour, but was opposed to humour.

All the same, Dalrymple notes a pleasantly civilised scene in The Empty Room in which the surgeon character lunches at the Garrick, where

Screen Shot 2015-04-30 at 07.36.45the wine steward brought his pint of claret.

This bird, it seems, was more wine and partridge than cakes and ale.

Rara avis in terris nigroque simillima cycno

Screen Shot 2015-04-29 at 23.12.03

Ses femmes