Activating the art of sucking up

Grovelling and Other Vices
November 10, 2000

This is a relatively short publication, but while you are reading it, Grovelling and Other Vices will seem to be the longest book you have read in your life. It is a truly appalling piece of work.

Alphons Silbermann calls it a sociology of sycophancy, but he prefers the term "arselicking" (or perhaps to translate literally from the original German, "arsecreeping" - a term I know otherwise only from Kingsley Amis).

The book's cover blurb gives the game away, with its cautious and unembracing "according to Silbermann, grovelling, or arselicking, is not a character trait but a model for action", and offers us the somewhat pious hope that from all this "we learn much about society".

The book clearly sees itself as the product of a great mind on holiday and - using a deliberately heavy-industrial approach to his airy topic - the author leads us, choking delightedly on his own periwigged whimsy, through an alleged examination of arselicking in the context of everything from lying to love, family life, education, adaptation and "guilt-shedding".

With all the verve and agility of an elephant performing a ballet on tiptoe, Silbermann offers an "analysis" that veers between bad lexicography, questionable linguistic philosophy and execrable sociology.

It is about as amusing as a musical joke. Yet what it adds to the whole business of arselicking is indeed considerable - the breathtaking vision of an arse, blind to the world, delightedly and with relish, licking itself continuously for a whole 184 pages.

The English translation may be a devastatingly accurate rendition of the original German, but it reads like a text that has left the coathanger in its jacket. Why an otherwise reasonable publishing house such as Athlone should have translated and published this dire work is truly mysterious. Who could they possibly have been sucking up to?


Nigel Barley is an anthropologist and assistant keeper of ethnography, British Museum.

Grovelling and Other Vices: The Sociology of Sychophancy

Author - Alphons Silbermann
ISBN - 0 485 11544 1
Publisher - Athlone
Price - £45.00
Pages - 184
Translator - Ladislaus Lob

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