The Highest Form of Flattery

Previously on the topic of dullards and fools, I mentioned a Far Side cartoon whose caption read, “Yes, they’re all fools, gentlemen … But the questions remains, ‘What KIND of fools are they?’”  Similarly, I might ask, “Yes, the character of Henry in Absalom, Absalom! has been established as a puritan—way past the point of any doubt, God knows—but what kind of puritan is he?”

He is the sort, we read on page 86, whose “puritan heritage” gives him “that ability to be ashamed of ignorance and inexperience.”  Fine-tuning this, the author explains two pages later that this is a “puritan heritage which must show disapproval instead of surprise or even despair” and “nothing at all rather than have the disapprobation construed as surprise or despair.”

Tuned even more finely a page after this, the character is referred to as “Henry the puritan who must show nothing at all rather than surprise or incomprehension.”  This is because of his—same paragraph—“puritan’s provincial horror of revealing surprise or ignorance.”  (Fortunately, “Henry [is] not showing either.”)  Two pages later and just what kind of puritanism is Henry’s particular brand is left little in question—it is “that puritan character which must show neither surprise nor despair.”  (Surprise!)

Henry’s method for dealing with his up-and-comer’s socioeconomic anxiety is to pattern himself after his highfalutin college friend Charles Bon, who, big phony though he may be, is a very sophisticated big phony—Henry is among a number of star-struck fellow students who “aped his clothing and manner and (to the extent which they were able) his very manner of living.”

Yes, “Henry aped his clothing and speech.”  Nor were these the only subjects for his mimicry, which also occurred “while they rode together (and Henry aping him here too, who was the better horseman).”  Nor did it go without notice: “Bon…for a year and a half now had been watching Henry ape his clothing and speech.”  Bon, then, was “the mentor…whose clothing and walk and speech he had tried to ape.”*

One could say that Bon was “the sybarite…which Henry had begun to ape at the University.”  Or that Henry was the person “whom he watched aping his clothing carriage speech.”  Or that the give-and-take of their entire relationship was a “proffering of the spirit of which the unconscious aping of clothes and speech and mannerisms was but the shell.”  Or that there was a mystique “about Bon to be, not envied but aped if that had been possible, if there had been time and peace to ape it in.”

And even the longing sentiment and mellifluous poetry of a phrase like “time and peace to ape it in” cannot distract from the fact that this is all clearly just too much monkey business.

• • •

*A.k.a. “the mentor, the corruptor”; “the mentor, the guide”; “the mentor…the gambler”; “the friend, the mentor”; he with “the mentor’s voice”—these all within the space of pages 88 to 91.

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One comment on “The Highest Form of Flattery

  1. A.C. says:

    What a sententious old poop.

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