Thursday, September 17, 2009

Ye Olde Slapdown

A reading group I participate in read some of Jeremy Bentham's A Fragment on Government yesterday. One of the things that struck the group: if you exchanged this work for Sterne's Tristram Shandy, no one would notice the difference. The work is a fabulous thousand-layer tissue of digressions, exhaustive rambles and denouements.

Still, Bentham has a very particular, baroque style of slapdown which is, in certain contexts, hilarious. He is, for example, apparently the originator of the phrase "nonsense on stilts".

This little gem tickled the fancy of the group. Bentham is discussing/dissing a work by William Blackstone, the English jurist:

It is time this passage of our Author were dismissed—As among the expressions of it are some of the most striking of those which the vocabulary of the subject furnishes, and these ranged in the most harmonious order, on a distant glance nothing can look fairer: a prettier piece of tinsel-work one shall seldom see exhibited from the shew-glass of political erudition. Step close to it, and the delusion vanishes. It is then seen to consist partly of self-evident observations, and partly of contradictions; partly of what every one knows already, and partly of what no one can understand at all.
If I don't use the phrase "a prettier piece of tinsel-work one shall seldom see exhibited" in my thesis, someone should slap me.

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