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February 11, 2007

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose

Commenting on the dismaying experience of reading the official publications of the French Academy, Voltaire writes:

The cause why all these academical discourses have unhappily done so little honour to this body is evident enough. Vitium est temporis potiùs quam hominis (the fault is owing to the age rather than to particular persons). It grew up insensibly into a custom for every academician to repeat these eulogiums at his reception; it was laid down as a kind of law that the public should be indulged from time to time in the sullen satisfaction of yawning over these productions. If the reason should afterwards be sought, why the greatest geniuses who have been incorporated into that body have sometimes made the worst speeches, I answer, that it is wholly owing to a strong propension, the gentlemen in question had to shine, and to display a thread-bare, worn-out subject in a new and uncommon light. The necessity of saying something, the perplexity of having nothing to say, and a desire of being witty, are three circumstances which alone are capable of making even the greatest writer ridiculous. These gentlemen, not being able to strike out any new thoughts, hunted after a new play of words, and delivered themselves without thinking at all: in like manner as people who should seem to chew with great eagerness, and make as though they were eating, at the same time that they were just starved.

Sounds like some sessions at 21st century academic conferences -- or any of several university-press offerings on the shelf now, three feet away.... (Via Rough Theory)

Posted by smclemee at February 11, 2007 7:04 AM

COMMENTS

...in like manner as people who should seem to chew with great eagerness, and make as though they were eating, at the same time that they were just starved.

What an unusual comparison. Appeals to the same kind of disgust that one might think of reading the mostly unrelated quote:

The thought of two thousand people crunching celery at the same time horrifies me.

Posted by: zs at February 12, 2007 10:45 AM