“Like one bemused and in a wistful dream”
Richard Burton, “Allan’s Mother” (1917)
A man is not “bemused” when he takes wry or mordant delight in some spectacle of hypocrisy or folly. A man is “bemused” when he is rendered insensible by an illusionist, daydreaming, speculation, or drink. A bemused man is not wise to what is really going on. Rather, like the amused man, he is lost in a “wistful dream,” and is very likely being duped, hoodwinked and beguiled.
Neither “bemuse” nor “amuse” are connected with the nine Muses of Greek mythology, although the false etymology has certainly colored their more recent usage. Both words rather come from the Old French muser, which meant to stare, and literally meant to keep one’s nose pointed in a single direction. A juggler was said to “amuse” a throng of yokels because he kept the yokel’s noses pointed at himself (while his accomplice picked their pockets). The gape-mouthed yokels whose pockets were being picked were said to be “bemused” by the diversion of the juggler’s juggling.
Both words entered the English lexicon in the seventeenth century, and both were at that time strongly tied to the dishonest tricks of mountebanks, charlatans, and sophists. Swindlers amused the yokels and the bemused yokels were swindled.
Here is an early and delicious description of sophistical swindlers that we could apply, without modification, to the intellectual charlatans of our day. It comes from a biographical sketch of Erasmus published in 1699, and appears in a passage comparing the Dutch humanist to the ancient Assyrian satirist Lucian.
“It was Lucian’s fate to live in an age . . . debauched by a set of sour scoundrels, men of beard and grimace . . . who yet had the impudence to . . . style themselves philosophers; perpetually clashing with one another . . . yet all agreeing in a different way to dupe and amuse the poor people, by the fantastic singularity of their habits, the unintelligible jargon of their schools, and their pretensions to a severe and mortified life.”*
I must pause for a moment and remove my hat to the long-forgotten author of this sentence, Thomas Brown. He was alone, so far as I can tell, in describing sophistical swindlers as “men of beard and grimace,” and I say there is genius in his trenchant phrase.
Returning to my main theme, however, we see in Brown’s sentence that “amuse” was, at first, a synonym for dupe or fool. The sophistical swindlers of Lucian’s day were actors pretending to philosophize in order lay their hands on power, money or the nubile bodies of any young fools who were besotted by their portentous ranting.
In this they differ not one wit from the sophistical swindlers of today.
“Bemuse” had at first the same nefarious associations as “amuse,” but in the eighteenth century took on the additional and equally discreditable meaning of stupefied and fuddled by drink. For instance, this is how it was used in William Combe’s once-popular story of the peripatetic pedant Dr. Syntax.
“Syntax now told his story o’er A story told so oft before; When soon the squire began to feel A slumber o’er his senses steal: The curate, too, bemused in beer, Was more disposed to sleep than hear.”**
The words “amuse” and “bemuse” began to lose their disreputable associations in the nineteenth century, when peddling illusions and nonsense became a respectable profession. But here the two words also to some degree parted ways. Men and women were “amused” by the illusions and nonsense provided by professional entertainers. Those who had sufficient wit were “bemused” by the illusions and nonsense thrown up by their own imaginations. Thus a person who was daydreaming or lost in thought was said to be “bemused.” Here is the Scottish writer Compton Mackenzie in 1907.
“He was bemused by some self-wove romance Of twilight shapes and sounds among the trees.”***
Thus, if a storyteller weaves the romance, we say that we are “amused,” but we are “bemused” when we weave the romance ourselves. There is, needless to say, a great deal of cultural history in the semantic evolution of these words. It reveals the fact that modernity has increased our appetite for illusions, while it has, at the same time, decreased our fear of illusions. Humans have always escaped reality in daydreams and speculations, and yokels have always been taken in by jugglers and thimbleriggers, but modern men are the first to plunge into the forest of illusion and seek to live their entire lives amidst the “twilight shapes and sounds among the trees.”
We are all “amused” and “bemused” by illusions, and we should never use the word “bemused” when we wish to claim we have stepped out of the twilight forest and are eyeing it, sardonically, with a wry and mordant smile on our lips.
* ) Thomas Brown, Seven New Colloquies Translated out of Erasmus Roterodamus (1699)
**) William Combe, “The Tour of Dr. Syntax” (1813)
***) Compton Mackenzie, “An Idyll of the Harvest Moon” (1907)