Nausea, Henry James, and Lord Byron

What they have in common

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"Concerning the job numbers from May, one can almost echo Henry James's exclamation after examining letters pertaining to Lord Byron's incest: 'Nauseating perhaps, but how quite inexpressibly significant.'"

--George Will, in the Thursday Washington Post

Under certain circumstances, there are few pleasures in life greater than that institution of journalism known as the pretentious quote. And in recent decades, there is no one who has practiced the art of the pretentious quote with more élan -indeed, more je ne sais quoi, as Talleyrand labeled it, than the columnist best described as George Will. What other description could be more suitable, more comme il faut? What other columnist has a better claim to this inexpressible distinction? In any contest to see how irrelevant a pretentious quote can be, or how pretentious a relevant quote can be, and still get published, Mr. Will would win, dare one say it, hands down.

It was not without a frisson of schadenfreude, or does one mean gemütlichkeit? or possibly weltschmerz? Yes, definitely weltshmerz--no, wait, make that schadenfreude after all--that one came to appreciate the wisdom beneath the surface wit of Mr. Will's classic description of politics as "the ineluctable in hot pursuit of the unelectable," which says it all, really, although not without a certain characteristically Jamesian ambiguity about what exactly the fuck he means. It is typical of the modern liberal, Mr. Will might observe, that he seeks meaning where there is little or nothing beyond sheer verbiage. "If you want meaning in Washington," as Mr. Will once, long ago, famously aphorized, "buy a dictionary."

When one has studied monthly job statistics for any length of time, it is all but inevitable that one's stomach will turn nauseous and one's mind will turn gratefully to almost any other subject. Nevertheless it is a triumph that cannot be denied to Mr. Will to have found a reason to bring the topic of what has been called "the love with the same last name" into a discussion of unemployment statistics. What is especially remarkable is that Mr. Will, after calling upon Henry James and Lord Byron to tart up the first sentence of his column, takes it all back in his second sentence. "[T]he May numbers' significance can be expressed" after all, he reveals. One, for one, will never trust Henry James ever again.

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