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An essay by Max Beerbohm

A Pathetic Imposture

Title:     A Pathetic Imposture
Author: Max Beerbohm [More Titles by Beerbohm]

Lord Rosebery once annoyed the Press by declaring that his ideal newspaper was one which should give its news without comment. Doubtless he was thinking of the commonweal. Yet a plea for no comments might be made, with equal force, in behalf of the commentators themselves. Occupations that are injurious to the persons engaged in them ought not to be encouraged. The writing of `leaders' and `notes' is one of these occupations. The practice of it, more than of any other, depends on, and fosters hypocrisy, worst of vices. In a sense, every kind of writing is hypocritical. It has to be done with an air of gusto, though no one ever yet enjoyed the act of writing. Even a man with a specific gift for writing, with much to express, with perfect freedom in choice of subject and manner of expression, with indefinite leisure, does not write with real gusto. But in him the pretence is justified: he has enjoyed thinking out his subject, he will delight in his work when it is done. Very different is the pretence of one who writes at top-speed, on a set subject, what he thinks the editor thinks the proprietor thinks the public thinks nice. If he happen to have a talent for writing, his work will be but the more painful, and his hypocrisy the greater. The chances are, though, that the talent has already been sucked out of him by Journalism, that vampire. To her, too, he will have forfeited any fervour he may have had, any learning, any gaiety. How can he, the jaded interpreter, hold any opinion, feel any enthusiasm?--without leisure, keep his mind in cultivation?--be sprightly to order, at unearthly hours in a whir-r- ring office? To order! Yes, sprightliness is compulsory there; so are weightiness, and fervour, and erudition. He must seem to abound in these advantages, or another man will take his place. He must disguise himself at all costs. But disguises are not easy to make; they require time and care, which he cannot afford. So he must snatch up ready-made disguises--unhook them, rather. He must know all the cant-phrases, the cant-references. There are very, very many of them, and belike it is hard to keep them all at one's finger-tips. But, at least, there is no difficulty in collecting them. Plod through the `leaders' and `notes' in half-a-dozen of the daily papers, and you will bag whole coveys of them.

Most of the morning papers still devote much space to the old- fashioned kind of `leader,' in which the pretence is of weightiness, rather than of fervour, sprightliness, or erudition. The effect of weightiness is obtained simply by a stupendous disproportion of language to sense. The longest and most emphatic words are used for the simplest and most trivial statements, and they are always so elaborately qualified as to leave the reader with a vague impression that a very difficult matter, which he himself cannot make head or tail of, has been dealt with in a very judicial and exemplary manner.

A leader-writer would not, for instance, say--

Lord Rosebery has made a paradox.

He would say:--

Lord Rosebery

whether intentionally or otherwise, we leave our readers to decide,
or, with seeming conviction,
or, doubtless giving rein to the playful humour which is
characteristic of him,


expressed a sentiment,
or, taken on himself to enunciate a theory,
or, made himself responsible for a dictum,


we venture to assert,
or, we have little hesitation in declaring,
or, we may be pardoned for thinking,
or, we may say without fear of contradiction,


nearly akin to
or, not very far removed from

the paradoxical.

But I will not examine further the trick of weightiness--it takes up too much of my space. Besides, these long `leaders' are a mere survival, and will soon disappear altogether. The `notes' are the characteristic feature of the modern newspaper, and it is in them that the modern journalist displays his fervour, sprightliness, and erudition. `Note'-writing, like chess, has certain recognised openings, e.g.:

There is no new thing under the sun.
It is always the unexpected that happens.
Nature, as we know, abhors a vacuum.
The late Lord Coleridge once electrified his court by inquiring `Who
is Connie Gilchrist?'

And here are some favourite methods of conclusion:--

A mad world, my masters!
'Tis true 'tis pity, and pity 'tis 'tis true.
There is much virtue in that `if.'
But that, as Mr. Kipling would say, is another story.
Si non e` vero, etc.

or (lighter style)

We fancy we recognise here the hand of Mr. Benjamin Trovato.

Not less inevitable are such parallelisms as:--

Like Topsy, perhaps it `growed.'
Like the late Lord Beaconsfield on a famous occasion, `on the side of
the angels.'
Like Brer Rabbit, `To lie low and say nuffin.'
Like Oliver Twist, `To ask for more.'
Like Sam Weller's knowledge of London, `extensive and peculiar.'
Like Napoleon, a believer in `the big battalions.'

Nor let us forget Pyrrhic victory, Parthian dart, and Homeric laughter; quos deus vult and nil de mortuis; Sturm und Drang; masterly inactivity, unctuous rectitude, mute inglorious Miltons, and damned good-natured friends; the sword of Damocles, the thin edge of the wedge, the long arm of coincidence, and the soul of goodness in things evil; Hobson's choice, Frankenstein's monster, Macaulay's schoolboy, Lord Burleigh's nod, Sir Boyle Roche's bird, Mahomed's coffin, and Davy Jones's locker.

A melancholy catalogue, is it not? But it is less melancholy for you who read it here, than for them whose existence depends on it, who draw from it a desperate means of seeming to accomplish what is impossible. And yet these are the men who shrank in horror from Lord Rosebery's merciful idea. They ought to be saved despite themselves. Might not a short Act of Parliament be passed, making all comment in daily newspapers illegal? In a way, of course, it would be hard on the commentators. Having lost the power of independent thought, having sunk into a state of chronic dulness, apathy and insincerity, they could hardly, be expected to succeed in any of the ordinary ways of life. They could not compete with their fellow-creatures; no door but would be bolted if they knocked on it. What would become of them? Probably they would have to perish in what they would call `what the late Lord Goschen would have called "splendid isolation."' But such an end were sweeter, I suggest to them, than the life they are leading.

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Max Beerbohm's essay: Pathetic Imposture