Hellebore, Nettles and Jimson Weed

Let me begin by confessing that I have edited academic anthologies, and published several chapters in them, so I am guilty of adding my mite of bombast to those miserable magazines of bombastry.

We have the word anthology from the Greek anthologia, which is literally a bouquet or collection of flowers.  The metaphorical nosegays that we call anthologies of literature appeared in the Renaissance, and were collections of the “flowers” of classical poetry, epigram and myth.  The editors of these anthologies collected texts that were scattered, but also selected texts that were best.  It was their selecting of the best that justified the comparison of their collections to bouquets of flowers.

If the modern academic anthology has a botanical analog, it is not a fragrant bouquet, but rather a ragged bundle of hellebore, nettles and jimson weed.  The editor of an academic anthology does not collect the best.  He scrapes together whatever he can find, packages these sweepings under a specious title, and then sells the collected gibberish to saps.  These saps are in most cases graduate students and university libraries.

Bombast was originally the name of the material that tailors and dressmakers used to pad clothing, and thereby give shoulders to gentlemen who were slight, and breasts to ladies who were slim.  In one old poem, a shriveled geezer laments,

My thighs are thin, my body lank and lean,
It hath no bombast now, but skin and bones.*

From this sartorial origin, it was but a short step to the rhetorical bombast of puffed and pretentious words.  Denouncing a book of geography that was more fantastical than most, Eusebius called it,

A huge volume full of bombast and vain ostentation.**

When his argument is weak and lacks all natural charm, the crafty academic reaches for the bombast and stuffs it in.

Consider, for instance, this advertisement, just arrived, for a noisome nosegay of high-flown hoo-ha.  The anthology is titled Defining Landscape Democracy: A Path to Spatial Justice, and you may have a copy from Edward Elgar Press for only fifty dollars on paper, fifteen by download.

This stimulating book explores theories, conceptual frameworks, and cultural approaches with the purpose of uncovering a cross-cultural understanding of landscape democracy, a concept at the intersection of landscape, democracy and spatial justice. The authors of Defining Landscape Democracy address a number of questions that are critical to the contemporary discourse on the right to landscape: Why is democracy relevant to landscape? How do we democratise landscape? How might we achieve landscape and spatial justice?

To a guileless reader, this may sound pretty cerebral; but it is in truth nothing but “bombast and vain ostentation.”  There is, I will venture to say, more substance behind the falsies of a flat-chested street walker, but this blurb is like those falsies insofar as it gives promise of delights that the essays in the anthology cannot deliver.  The blurb promise “theories,” but the essays will deliver speculations.  The blurb promises “conceptual frameworks,” but the essays will deliver jargon.  The blurb promises “discourse,” but the essays will deliver babble.  The blurb promises a “path,” but the essays will take the reader to a vacant lot overgrown with hellebore, nettles and jimson weed.

Tailors and dressmakers stuff garments with bombast to make that which is little appear large, and that which is shriveled appear sleek or strong.  Academics stuff bombast into their prose for the very same reason.  If we pull the padding from the phrase “landscape democracy,” for instance, we find “the skin and bones” is just abolition of private property.  Sing it, Woody!

This land is your land,
This land is my land,
From California,
To the New York Island,
From the redwood forest,
To the Gulf Stream water,
This land was made for you and me.

Woody Guthrie was a communist, but was not, at least, a bombastic communist!

“Spatial justice” is just a bombastic way to say desegregation, and a soothing way to say forced integration.  In this anthology, “justice” will almost certainly mean equality, in which case “spatial justice” will require that every individual is equally likely to occupy any particular “space.”  As a practical matter, it would mean that families were assigned to neighborhoods randomly, and without respect to their wealth or preference.  For there to be thoroughgoing “spatial justice,” each of us would have to request a randomized spatial assignment before we visited a store, a park, or a public amusement.

By “right to landscape,” the authors do not mean that you have a right to plant petunias along your garden path.  They mean that other people have the right to indefinite occupation of public spaces such as parks and sidewalks, this right of course entailing a right to void their bowels and empty their bladders when the need arises, and a right to take refreshment in public without censure or molestation.  In other words, a “right to landscape” means we are livin’ in the Big Rock Candy Mountains.  Sing it, Harry!

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains
You never change your socks
And the little streams of alcohol
Come trickling down the rocks

Harry McClintock was probably a communist, but at least he served it straight.

So, if we strip off the padding and look this blurb in its birthday suit, we see that the advertised anthology is just another dreary bundle of the usual academic weeds.  Communism, desegregation and the Big Rock Candy Mountains!  Hellebore, nettles and Jimson Weed!

*) George Gascoigne, “Dan Bartholomew’s Dolorous Discourses,” (c. 1560).
**) Ecclesiastical History, Trans. Meredith Hanmer (1577).

12 thoughts on “Hellebore, Nettles and Jimson Weed

  1. Pingback: Hellebore, Nettles and Jimson Weed | @the_arv

  2. About ninety-five per cent of academic books are swiftly remaindered and likely pulped. I would imagine that in the case of the anthologies, it’s closer to ninety-nine per cent. In an article at Minding the Campus not too long ago, Marc Bauerlein reported that the average academic journal-article has two readers. Earlier this summer I read and reported on a scholarly anthology in manuscript that had been submitted to a prominent academic publishing house. The topic was ostensibly Christian themes in contemporary television, but there wasn’t really anything Christian about it; the current tropes (e.g., “intersectionality”) were its coin, entirely. You will be interested to know that people who peer at screens as their academic specialization now practice the discipline of “close watching.” I suppose that that’s what the undergraduates are doing with their faces glued ceaselessly to their cellphones: “Close watching.” By the way, Richard Cocks and I went to the local cinema this afternoon to see the new Mission Impossible movie, which, naturally, we close-watched.

    • I think much of this is produced as “print on demand,” so there is no stock to remainder or pulp. The word processing revolution reduced a publisher’s fixed costs to almost nothing in the late 1980s, the result being great catalogues of titles that will turn a profit with sales of a hundred volumes or so. The fixed cost to the publisher is now little more than to pay for some cursory copyediting. After that, they just sit on an electronic file the editors send them until an order comes in. I was showing one of these books to my uncle, who owned an old-style print shop. He said you can tell from the foul smelling ink. I’d noticed that academic journals had begun to smell like sour-milk and cat urine, but though it was just a psychosomatic hallucination. The Orthosphere has more readers than many academic journals and books, even if we discount for bots.

      Wasn’t “close reading” the lit. crit. fad that displaced historical approaches? I seem to remember that it ignored the author and his context, thus placing the spotlight on the critic. If I am remembering correctly, it is a kind of narcissism, which should make it a good fit for those “close watching” phone addicts.

      • Yes, the destruction of the author (“you didn’t write that”), consummated by deconstruction, actually began with the close-reading fad, as promoted in the 1950s by the New Criticism so-called.

  3. Pingback: Hellebore, Nettles and Jimson Weed | Reaction Times

  4. I have never read such an offensive implication on the Orthosphere — comparing lovely and non-fussy Lenten and Christmas roses to demonic scat. I’m very disappointed in you, Professor! Hellebores make great garden friends . . . unlike the po-mo belchers, whose “production” isn’t even useful in the backyard.

    • I’ll have to admit to knowing less about plants than I do about words, and to choosing words as much for their sound as for their sense. I liked the sound of the words “hellebore” and “jimson weed” and knew that both plants are poisonous. I knew jimson weed is also called loco weed, which was a further recommendation. I had a vague memory of reading that “a dose of hellebore” was a homeopathic remedy for madness. The word “nettles” sounded well in my list, and in this case I had personal experience with their unpleasant properties. I once fell from a cliff into a bed of European nettles, which I remember as much worse than those in the New World.

      • Well, then your choice makes sense. Academic anthologies are often a hell’a a bore, for certain. Still, they’re great plants — even Helleborus foetidus, which is much nicer than its name (also known as dungwort). Jimson weed is very beautiful but can be dangerous. Loco weed’s a good name for it, but most common names that I’ve heard have to do with Old Scratch. And not all nettles are of the painful kind (and even those are useful plants). There are many quite charming cultivars of dead nettle, for instance.

  5. During my recent tenure as a graduate student I observed many undergraduate students dispensing with the use of paper based book altogether. Many of them would look for an ebook or some other on line text to skim in order to earn the minimum grade to stay in school and keep their financial aid. I read an article the other day with the author making an argument about academia being so insular. The insularity of many academics leads them to publish articles and books the public has very little interest in or curiosity about for a number of reasons. The author recommended a that academics start seeing the public as their audience.

      • So I should count my blessings???? I still would like to write. Luckily Tom has given me advice. I have just been unable to devote the time to being an essayist (writer) for a variety of reasons.


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