Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Peacock's unusual collocation of words and the vulgar error of the reading public

It might be easier, I suppose, to write about Peacock’s novels if I had some sort of point, but I am just aimlessly Appreciating.  I have not really described his books.  That might be useful.

The titles provide a clue.  Headlong Hall (1816), Nightmare Abbey (1818), Crotchet Castle (1831), Gryll Grange (1860).  Peacock uses another title when he wants it, but these tell the tale.  To create a novel, Peacock needs to construct not a story, but a dining room. There he can assemble his cast of humours and crotchets and monomaniacs, ply them with Madeira, and transcribe their pleasant “pseudo-philosophical dialogues about nothing much in particular,” to quote obooki.  Peacock even dispenses, wisely, with the usual novelistic apparatti for speech:

MR. MAC QUEDY.  Metaphysics, sir; metaphysics.  Logic and moral philosophy.  There we are at home.  The Athenians only sought the way, and we have found it; and to all this we have added political economy, the science of sciences.

REV. DR. FOLLIOTT.  A hyperbarbarous technology, that no Athenian ear could have borne.  Premises assumed without evidence, or in spite of it; and conclusions drawn from them so logically, that they must necessarily be erroneous.

MR. SKIONAR.  I cannot agree with you, Mr. Mac Quedy, that you have found the true road of metaphysics, which the Athenians only sought.  The Germans have found it, sir:  the sublime Kant and his disciples.

MR. MAC QUEDY.  I have read the sublime Kant, sir, with an anxious desire to understand him, and I confess I have not succeeded.

REV. DR. FOLLIOTT.  He wants the two great requisites of head and tail. (Crotchet Castle, II)

Different editions use different orthography; I have just pasted in the Gutenberg text.  This is hardly a serious attempt understand or explain Kant or political economy (thus, pseudo-philosophical), but Peacock can set up his jokes and score his points.  As a practitioner of political economy, for example, I refuse to grant the truth of more than 90% of the Reverend Doctor Folliott’s jibes.  No, not more than 95%.

All of the novels I have read contain an equivalent of Rev. Dr. Folliott, the epicurean clergyman, a common-sense classicist.  Nightmare Abbey and Crotchet Castle share Mr. Skionar (aka Mr. Flosky), the transcendental philosopher, poet, and utter fool, a great source of fun.  In Nightmare Abbey he is dragged, much against his will, into the romantic plot:

MR FLOSKY.  Subtleties, my dear Miss O'Carroll!  I am sorry to find you participating in the vulgar error of the reading public, to whom an unusual collocation of words, involving a juxtaposition of antiperistatical ideas, immediately suggests the notion of hyperoxysophistical paradoxology.

MARIONETTA.  Indeed, Mr Flosky, it suggests no such notion to me.  I have sought you for the purpose of obtaining information.

MR FLOSKY.  (shaking his head).  No one ever sought me for such a purpose before.

[more nonsense]

MR FLOSKY.  My dear Miss O'Carroll, it would have given me great pleasure to have said any thing that would have given you pleasure; but if any person living could make report of having obtained any information on any subject from Ferdinando Flosky, my transcendental reputation would be ruined for ever. (Nightmare Abbey, VIII)

Everything will work out fine for Marionetta, and for Flosky \ Skionar, too.  She will marry a wealthy, pliable idiot and he will never be understood by a soul.

What have I done here?  I have hardly written a thing, but just mortared in some of Peacock’s gibberish.  Ah, well, I enjoyed reading it again.


  1. Dazed as I am from my own writing this week, I did manage to smile faintly at Peacock's attempt at wit. It's like a little kid who shows you a badly-drawn picture: "Ah, that's nice, Tommy. We'll just put it on the fridge for everyone to see ..."