The Intellectual and the Dog

October 27, 2011

One of he many great things about reading Empson is the regularity with which his intellectual wit produces the most remarkable imaginative conceits and insights. No matter how silly they may occasionally seem, there is always the strong sense of intellectual rigour, so that I disagree only cautiously and often as not find myself a few sentences later revisiting the point to examine further. It happens page upon page.

Of Voltaire calling Dr Johnson a superstitious dog:

The stress, of course, is on superstitious; with the stress on dog it would have seemed as rude then as it does now. Dog is unstressed because the phrase assumes everyone is some kind of dog, so that that is not the distinctive feature of Johnson. It is the pastoral idea, that there is a complete copy of the human world among dogs, as among swains or clowns.

The Structure of Complex Words by William Empson, from The English Dog chapter

The effect is to show how far the robust intellect need not fear either nonsense as obtuse argument or “nonsense!” as an accusation.