Blah Humbug

Doctor Johnson wisely advised writers to strike out those passages in their own work that they found particularly fine; but the opposite of this advice is followed each week by The Lancet, one of the world’s leading medical journals.

Each week, its cover bears in bold letters between quotation marks a quotation from itself. Presumably the words are chosen for their special merit; suffice it to say that they are distinctly sub-Wildean in their wit and in fact constitute by themselves an argument against the benefits of eidetic memory. They are quoted but not quotable. The great Russian neurophysiologist A.R. Luria wrote a book about the case of a man who could forget nothing. It would have been cruel to give him the covers of The Lancet to read.

Whenever the auto-quotations touch upon a political subject, or a subject with a political aspect, they are of such an unctuous sententiousness that they make Mr. Podsnap seem like a neurotic self-doubter. They are usually inexact, flatulent, self-important, and frequently stupid. The editor, I should imagine, is very proud of them.

This week’s immortal words, I noticed, went as follows:

A new agenda for sexual and reproductive rights is needed that recognises the full scope of people’s sexual needs, and enables all people to choose whether, when, and with whom to engage in sexual activity; to choose whether and when to have children; and to access the means to do so in good health.

The late John Gross, who probably had the most profound and extensive knowledge of literature in English of any man who ever lived, said in his book about Shylock that his great speech (“Hath not a Jew eyes,” etc.) never lost its impact however many times it was repeated—and this is true of many other speeches in Shakespeare. The unquenchable impact of The Lancet’s words is similar; except that the emotion they arouse is similar to that aroused by a badly scratched record or a whining child, a mixture of aesthetic dismay and impotent irritation.

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