With Marty Peretz of The New Republic in the dock on a charge of producing overwrought prose, I’d normally be ready enough to serve as witness for the prosecution, but Jack Shafer’s attempted takedown in Slate charges in without probable cause, even if there is a good chance Peretz has Bill Buckley’s contraband thesaurus stashed in the basement. Weirdly, Shafer opens with a case where I think Peretz’s choice of semi-obscure words works just fine:
As for its successor, the ultramontane Sunni Hamas, and its even more chiliastic Shia half-ally in Lebanon, Hezbollah, they do not want any accommodation or compromise, and they do not pretend to. [All emphasis in this article added.]
Shafer’s complaint—that ultramontane means “following the pope” and chiliastic means “believing in the Christian millennium”—sort of misses the point. Peretz is maybe being a little cutesy here, but not incoherent. He’s making the strikingly novel argument that Islamists are fanatical nutjobs who don’t behave according to the ordinary rules of pragmatic political rationality, and expressing it here in a slightly twee way by using a pair of self-consciously incongruous Christian adjectives, much as you might tweak American fundamentalists by calling Rick Santorum a mujahideen in the jihad against gay rights, or by referring to their belief in a batin Constitution inaccessible to kafir judges. Ultramontane literally refers to something “over the mountains,” historically referred to those who had more allegiance to a far-off pope than their own domestic temporal rulers, and going up a level of abstraction, to the idea of spiritual authority trumping secular authority, which is presumably what Peretz had in mind. Pace Shafer, chiliastic does seem to be more or less a synonym for millenarian in the strict sense of the latter term—it’s just that we’ve become so used to the (originally) figurative use to describe any belief in an apocalyptic transition to some new utopia that I assume Peretz went with the less familiar chiliastic because it’s retained the explicitly Christian association and so makes for a fresher metaphor.
A couple other examples Shafer picks out seem to fall flat too. Schadenfreude has by this point, I think, become almost as much an ordinary English word as angst—and arguably a far more useful one, insofar as it lacks even rough single-word synonyms in English. Peretz isn’t being hoity-toity when he refers to Jerusalem as a corpus separatum, he’s invoking the language of the United Nations resolution that partitioned Palestine, using the term in the same way. And irredentist? Well, if you write about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict nonstop, as Peretz does, you’re probably just going to have a lot more occasion to use it than most of us—think of the Eskimos’ apocryphal 20 or 57 or 100 words for snow.
In other cases, of course, Shafer does hit home. But really, isn’t there enough to go after in the contents of Marty Peretz’s columns without bothering so much about the form?