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Unresisting imbecility

On faults both gross and evident

I have had occasion to be reminded of Samuel Johnson’s splendid phrase, “unresisting imbecility”. It occurs in his bracingly splenetic account of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline:

To remark the folly of the fiction, the absurdity of the conduct, the confusion of the names and manners of different times, and the impossibility of the events in any system of life, were to waste criticism upon unresisting imbecility, upon faults too evident for detection, and too gross for aggravation.

This is often shortened in modern citation to something like “There is no point in quarrelling with unresisting imbecility”, which is a useful way to remark that something is extremely stupid (even though this writer goes on to do what he claims there is no point in doing). But the intriguing part of Johnson’s phrase, of course, is that it implies the existence of something that deserves to be characterised as resisting imbecility.

Imbecility that is unresisting, Johnson tells us, is imbecility that fulfils two conditions: its faults are so obvious that it’s not worth pointing them out; and the faults are also so huge that it’s not worth getting annoyed by them [it’s not worth labouring the obvious | they couldn’t be any worse]. ((Thanks to KB Player in comments for pointing out Johnson’s own definition of “aggravate”.)) (Unresisting imbecility is even, you might say, rather cute in a way, like a shockingly ugly puppy, quivering happily in its basket and defenceless against sharp objects.) What is not clear, though, is whether resisting imbecility must negate both of those conditions or only one of them. (Do hidden large faults, or obvious small faults, count?) It is also, I think, highly debatable whether faults so huge that they are not annoying are actually the largest possible faults, which is what Johnson seems to be implying. (Only lesser faults, it seems, would lead to “aggravation”.)

These are not merely idle philological-historical questions, for it seems to me to be crucial to determine into what category of imbecility the work of “Melanie Phillips” falls. Take “her” latest post on Barack Obama and what she terms the “club of terror UN”. Perhaps its faults are too evident for detection and too gross for aggravation, in which case we ought to be guided by Dr Johnson’s ecology of intellectual effort and ignore them. Perhaps its faults are not so large in either dimension, so that it is a case of resisting imbecility, worthy of combat, and we can happily point them out. Or perhaps Johnson was misguided, and the grossest and most evident faults do actually deserve to be held up to intense scorn in the project of making the world a better place. It is a delicate question.

What kind of imbecility do you find resisting, readers?

  1. 1  Dave Weeden  September 25, 2009, 10:11 am 

    There’s a problem with holding Mad Mel up to scorn. She can’t bloody write. Does she expect anyone to get to the end of one of her rants without skimming. She can’t construct a coherent sentence (I said the same a few days ago). Her hostility to Obama is so total that I can’t believe it’s rational: what he says, and what she takes away are so different that she has to motivated by some prejudice. (I mean that literally: she comes to Obama with her mind made up, she has pre-judged him.) Call it what you like.

    Her main source seems to the Moonie Times.

  2. 2  Gregor  September 25, 2009, 7:33 pm 

    ‘She can’t bloody write’

    Agreed. Yet the author of ‘All Must Have Prizes’ has an English literature degree from Oxford. Which I suppose proves Hensher’s point: no polytechnic could produce a satirist of Melanie’s stature.

    Inncidentally, according to Wikipedia I see, ‘In 2009, she was awarded the Sappho Prize (an award given to a ‘journalist who combines excellence in his/her work with courage and a refusal to compromise’)

    WTF? That is Sappho the great poet? Maybe this is itself a practical joke by some hacker but given the ‘Orwell Award’, who knows?

  3. 3  ejh  September 25, 2009, 9:26 pm 

    Philip Hensher really is an extraordinarily irritating and complacent prick. But resistible? Depends what you mean. It’s not the sort of imbecility you can argue with, so you can’t resist it – but what sort of imbecility is the resistible sort?

  4. 4  dave  September 26, 2009, 12:38 am 

    Imbecility seems to have been developing in the C18th from its earlier sense of general weakness to its later sense of specifically mental weakness. The second sense opens up a gap between lacking resistance & imbecility. That the two coincide – that the subrational wield no persistent power – is a pleasant thought but presumably over-optimistic. Bad writers get published.

    But I don’t know how relevant this is to Johnson on Cymbeline – I think he meant little more than weakness by imbecility, & was just relaxing into a pleonasm with “unresisting imbelicity”. Since Cymbeline couldn’t get it together, Johnson thought, there was nothing much for the critic to engage with. The incongruities of the play were failings, but so immediate & gross that they left it unclear what it might be for the play to succeed – they didn’t have sufficient structure to point to their critical correction.

  5. 5  Steven  September 26, 2009, 6:27 am 

    That’s an intriguing suggestion — but if the alternative is faults that reliably suggest or imply their own correction, one might conclude that in that case there would be nothing for the critic to do either (or at least that critics would agree more often than they do).

  6. 6  dave  September 26, 2009, 12:49 pm 

    I guess Johnson wasn’t known for his patience with critical disagreeement – he didn’t e.g. have the romantic idea that critical disagreement about a play showed it was interesting. He seems to have thought that plays should be natural & serve some moral purpose, but I don’t know quite how he thought those two went together. On imbecility, google books points to notes on Johnson’s conversation written up by William Windhain, a young politician. Johnson apparently declared “that there were three ways in which writing may be unnatural ; by being bombastic and above nature, affected and beside it, fringing every event with ornaments which nature did not afford, or weak and below nature. That neither of the first would please long. That the third might indeed please a good while, or at least many ; because imbecility, and consequently a love of imbecility, might be found in many.”

  7. 7  Steven  September 26, 2009, 3:56 pm 

    I love “imbecility, and consequently a love of imbecility”!

    I think his notorious rule (re Sterne), “Nothing odd will do long”, is something like the opposite of the truth.

  8. 8  Gregor  September 26, 2009, 5:28 pm 

    ‘affected and beside it, fringing every event with ornaments which nature did not afford’

    Largely OT but noticed this today:

    ‘It is very much de haut en bas; it says: “I’m a better writer, and therefore a better thinker, than you; so pay attention”, and this enrages the Calibans among us.’

    All this time I’ve been a spelioanthropoid calibanating in jealousy when myalonising the stunning neologisms of the shrunken master. And I had no cognisance until perusing the grafograms of his latriod.

  9. 9  KB Player  September 26, 2009, 10:29 pm 

    You take the aggravation in “too gross for aggravation” as meaning “annoyance” as in “Her tuneless humming was aggravating.” But doesn’t it mean “make worse” as in “trying to placate my girlfriend by telling her she looked cute when angry only aggravated her fury”?

    I’ve checked Johnson’s dictionary and he has two meanings for “aggravate” – 1. To make heavy; in a metaphorical sense; as to aggravate an accusation Milton 2. To make any thing worse. Bacon.

    Aggravation [from aggravate] 1. The act of aggravating. 2. The extrinsical circumstances, which encrease guilt, or calamity. Hammond

    I think the “too gross for aggravation” means “so bad they can’t be made any worse.”

    PS I’m glad you’ve resurrected your blog.

  10. 10  Steven  September 26, 2009, 10:47 pm 


    You are quite right, my reading of “aggravation” was sloppily anachronistic and wrong. It seems to me more likely, in this case, that he means the first sense you cite — ie, the faults are so gross that it’s not worth labouring the subject?

  11. 11  Rob Jubb  September 27, 2009, 8:27 pm 

    What’s particularly amusing about Hensher’s piece is that at the time it was written, Tambini was actually a postdoctoral fellow at Nuffield College, Oxford, as presumably Hensher could have quite easily discovered.

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