Dec/Jan 2008

In Praise of Flattery

Christine Schwartz Hartley


I am not about to flatter Willis Goth Regier by using one of the hundreds of quotations in his latest book, In Praise of Flattery, to start this review in style. Instead, I will begin by saying that in cramming twenty years of research into a precious few pages, he has created a wobbly book.

With its catchy title and easy format—nine short chapters subdivided into 128 rules such as “Flattery is spoiled by excess” (Rule 12) and “To reach high or deep, a flatterer needs time, or many times” (Rule 63)—In Praise of Flattery could almost pass as a point-of-purchase quickie. On the other hand, given that Regier is director of the University of Illinois Press and that the last thirty pages are split equally between a bibliography and notes with additional quotations (most in the original language), this volume could nearly stand its scholarly ground.

Alas, readers looking for a fun ride will be dismayed upon discovering page after page of heavy-duty, back-to-back quotes by famous writers and historical figures. To wit: Rule 92, “Flattery is political,” moves from Juvenal to George Bernard Shaw to Plutarch in the space of one paragraph; Rule 99, “Flattery is contagious,” does the same with Shakespeare, Sir Richard Steele, and Albert Speer. That’s just too dense. The pleasure-seeking reader will surely not be inclined to appreciate the less obvious rules or finer points Regier comes up with, either. Introducing chapter 3 (“Why Flatter?”), for instance, the author quotes Sir Roger L’Estrange, George Wright, Balzac, and Erasmus on the same page, without identifying any of them. He concludes with “Why flatter? For sweetness and savor!” Uh?

The academically inclined will not be satisfied, as the near absence of historical and literary context for most of the quoted material prevents one from fully appreciating it. Stylists will decry the monotony in Regier’s habit of stringing declarative sentences together without establishing clear, logical connections. In combination, these traits are deadly; they manage to make the sentence “In the first few pages of Walden Thoreau set flattery between lying and voting” fail to live up to its promise as the conclusion of Rule 93, “Democracy abets flattery”quite a feat. The glaring absences of reference to present-day America, whose celebrity culture would have illustrated each of these pages, and of women, even though we can flatter (and be flattered) like the best dead white men, are additional reasons why In Praise of Flattery disappoints.

And yet the book contains many gems: exquisite, entertaining, carefully chosen words by the obscure (Laurent Bordelon, Robert Smith Surtees) and the mighty (Plato, Nietzsche). Among the latter, the brilliant duc de La Rochefoucauld, who served Louis XIV, reigns supreme—not just because he “observed hypocrisy on a grand scale” and “flattered the reader by bravely telling the truth,” as Regier rightly puts it, but because his Maxims (1664) are here repeatedly cited, elaborated on, and put in historical and literary perspective. “Self-love is the greatest of all flatterers,” La Rochefoucauld wrote on the first page of his masterpiece. Would Regier, who clearly has much to offer, have written a better book if he’d loved himself less?

Advertisement