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Inflated by Beauty
DIFFICULTIES with the meanings of blow were compounded by a local
Babbingtonian teenage slang term derived from it, blow up, which
meant “amaze and delight” with a touch of “impress.” Something that
blew one up came unexpectedly, brought pleasure, and affected one strongly
enough to make one expect that it would leave a lasting memory.
Variations emerged, as you would expect. Inflate
became a more elegant, learned, and formal synonym; so, while one might
say of the doo-wop tune “Trickle, Trickle” by the Videos, “that blows me
up,” one might say of the duettino “Viens, Mallika,” in act one of Delibes’s
Lakmé, “it inflates me,” as I did upon being asked by Dudley
Beaker what I thought of it, following his playing a recording of it, to
which he required me to pay close attention.
“What do you mean by that?” he demanded.
“I mean I liked it,” I said. I also meant,
of course, that I was surprised and delighted to find that I liked it,
in part because I had not expected to, but I wasn’t going to add that.
“What a curious locution,” he said, because he was
not a teenage Babbingtonian.
Naturally, we came to use inflating and inflationary
to describe the things that blew us up, with such elegant variations as
inflationary tendencies and exerting inflationary pressure.
We used gas for the ineffable something that inflationary things
filled us with, or, sometimes, hot air, which put a positive twist
on an expression that our parents used disparagingly. To emphasize
the action of an inflationary thing, we called it a pump or a gasser,
or, sometimes, whispered, with the speaker snickering at his own bit of
wit, a blow job.
People who made a calculated effort to inflate others
we called blowhards; people who were particularly susceptible to
inflation were inflatable or easily inflated; those who were
incapable of feeling wonder and delight were called uninflatable,
of course, and those who were not incapable of being inflated but succumbed
only under conditions of extreme inflationary pressure, we called dogs,
from the old tale about the madman of Seville, well known among the boys
and girls of Babbington, which purports to show how hard it is to inflate
When we suspected people of faking or exaggerating
a response, we said that they were pumping themselves up.
People who tried too hard, particularly those who wanted to make very sure
that everyone saw how blown up they could get in the inflationary presence
of art or nature, we called blimps or gas bags. Those
who deliberately chose not to be easily moved, who set their threshold
high and scoffed at the indiscriminate enthusiasms of gas bags, we called
after Diogenes, the dog of Athens, who famously did not inflate easily.
Of people who so desired the sensation of inflation that they sought it
and aided the inflator in their own blowing-up, we said that they sucked
or inhaled; and of those who brought inflation on themselves we
said that they blew themselves up or
who made a cult of it we called inflationists, on the analogy of
and sentimentalist. We also called such people blowfish
or puffer fish, after a type of fish common in the waters of Bolotomy
Bay that when threatened gulps air to make itself appear larger and more
formidable and, I suppose, harder to swallow.
In fairness to the blowfish, I have to admit that
I was almost one of them; I felt wonderful while being blown up or while
in an inflated state. Just imagine how that dog in Seville must have
felt when the madman inflated it: enlarged; a grander, bigger, better being
than it ordinarily was; full, and so in a sense satisfied, but full of
lightness, in a state of aerostatic buoyancy, light and lightheaded, paradoxically
both bigger and lighter, rising above the common pack of uninflated dogs,
even above the artful madman who inspired this buoyancy; elated, elevated.
The dog must have enjoyed it. I know I did, so much so that I actively
sought inflation. I became a sucker.
Beauty was my pump of choice, the ultimate blow
job. It filled me with helium and nitrous oxide, lifting gas and
laughing gas, lifted me out of time for a while, and filled me with joy.
So I sought beauty. I relished it; it blew me up; I was, as the song
says, a fool for it. I sought it in art and music and sunsets and
moonlight. Some people said that the capacity for being amazed and
delighted by beauty resided in “the soul,” so I supposed that I had begun
to develop a very fine soul, and I seemed to feel it swelling in my chest
when under the influence of beauty.
However, at some point toward the end of my adolescence
I became embarrassed by my affection for beauty and by my tendency to become
so quickly and fully inflated in the presence of it. I felt that
I was in danger of becoming an aesthete, one of those people who is inflated
by his own marvelous susceptibility to inflation, one, ultimately, who
inflates himself, a blowfish.
So I trained myself to play the cynic in the presence
of beauty. I sneered at it and at the swooning blimps who rhapsodized
about it and at the inflationary works that pumped them full of it.
If I had a soul, it seemed to me to be a liability. Applying the
wisdom behind the slang of blow up, I concluded that the soul must
be an inflatable bladder full of hot air, something I neither needed nor
Secretly, though, the truth about me at that time
was that I feared beauty. All beauty, whether it was natural and
accidental or artificial and deliberate, seemed threatening to me, because
beautiful things had the power to rob me of my reason, making me susceptible
to romance and guile. I was a fool for beauty, and anyone who knew
it could use it against me. I could imagine a wily blowhard observing
me, taking the measure of me, and sidling up to me, some moonlit night,
with a whispered, “Pssst—hey, buddy.”
“Wanna buy a dog?”
“Sure. Take a look.”
“You bet it is. It’s a dead dog.”
“And it’s all—bloated.”
“Yeah. I blew it up. Not an easy thing
“But now, you see, you can play this dog like bagpipes.”
“Yep. Squeeze him right and old Shep will
“As sure as the moon’s up there shinin’ down on
And however much he might be asking for the inflated
carcass of old Shep, I’d probably pay it, because for all that I tried
to play the cynic, deep down where the irrational decisions are made I
was a helpless gas bag for beauty.
A BIT OF "TRICKLE,
A BIT OF "VIENS,