The pince-nez glasses worn by James Joyce while he wrote Ulysses were sold at an auction in Dublin this week for €17,000. For years it was thought that Joyce was shortsighted, until research into his prescription specs published in the British Medical Journal in 2011 revealed that in fact he was longsighted. Joyce wore the glasses in many of the most famous photos of him, including the one in his passport, which was itself sold at auction three years ago for €88,000. Nicholas Wroe This week, the government was found to be in contempt of parliament for not releasing the full legal advice on Brexit. But why exactly is it “contempt” rather than scorn, ridicule, or contumely?
The Latin to condemn, derives ultimately from the Greek for “to cut”. The metaphor of negative judgments as cutting emotions, then, goes back all the way. From the early 17th century, the specifically legal use of “contempt” – as in contempt of parliament and contempt of court – has denoted flagrant disobedience or disrespect for the institutions of authority. (In 1722, according to an citation, it was possible to be convicted of contempt by not removing one’s hat in front of the magistrates.)
Charles Darwin, in his
(1872) noted that contempt came in various degrees. “Extreme contempt, or, as it is often called, loathing contempt, hardly differs from disgust,” he wrote. One could hardly fault Theresa May for feeling that way about her own backbenchers, but that in itself should not be a crime. Indeed, if holding parliament and its antics in revulsion, repugnance, odium and execration were really illegal, few of us would escape conviction.
The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals