At the risk of dignifying an absurdity with attention, I happen to remember exactly when I first heard about pigs who wore lipstick. I first came across the turn of phrase in the Reagan-appointed Chief Judge of the Seventh Circuit Richard A. Posner’s book Public Intellectuals: A Study in Decline, which I reviewed for The Nation in 2002. In chapter 6, a reprint of an essay originally published in 1998, Posner discussed the literary criticism of Wayne Booth and why he found it heavy-handed:
To prove the inescapability of the ethical in any final aesthetic judgment on a work of literature, even when it is a brief lyric, Booth does something very strange—I am tempted to say desperate: he changes the end of the second stanza of Keats’s “Ode on Melancholy” so that feeding on peerless eyes becomes stroking peerless thighs. But this is aesthetic butchery. The imagery of devouring (mostly poison) is pervasive in the poem, and this gives the image of feeding on the peerless eyes a resonance and hint of menace that Booth’s image of stroking thighs lacks. The substitution changes an image of great emotional power—because of the fusion of devouring with seeing—that is integral to the poem’s pattern of imagery into an irruption of soft-core porn that breaks the spell created by the poet. Not that pornography can’t be literature; but the “Ode on Melancholy” is not improved by being made risqué, just as a pig is not enhanced by wearing lipstick. Everything in its place.
To which one today feels obliged to assent, grimly, Indeed. In my review, “License to Ink,” I called these moments of bravura by Posner “highly entertaining” and I wrote of this passage in particular that it contained “a simile that becomes more disturbing the more it is considered.” Lipsticked pigs were new to me at the time, but since then I’ve seen them often in the prose of pundits, no doubt because they all make a point of reading my reviews and Posner’s books. (Kidding! I understand the image has been around for ages. I’m only pretending to be grandiose.) I leave it to John McCain to demonstrate that Posner was actually thinking neither of John Keats nor Wayne Booth nor even Immanuel Kant but only of a certain Alaskan.