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I have a trouble deciphering the meaning of the following sentence, from a C.A. Smith story (the description is of people living in an ancient world):

The people were steeped in the crepuscular gloom of antiquity; and were wise with all manner of accumulated lore; and were subtle in the practise of strange refinements, of erudite perversities, of all that can shroud with artful opulence and grace and variety the bare uncouth cadaver of life, or hide from mortal vision the leering skull of death.

1."strange refinements" - I assumed this refers to "cultivation" (cultivated ways of behavior), but dictionaries state in that sense "refinement" is only uncountable. Is the meaning different here, then?
2."erudite perversities" - I cannot figure out the meaning here. The meaning could be that the people there are perversely erudite (having all the knowledge they accumulated), but then I guess the wording would be different.

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  • It's just a description. erudite perversity would be perversity that involves a person being erudite. Whatever that means.
    – Lambie
    Oct 6, 2020 at 13:34
  • @Lambie which is quite different from what the only answer (so far) suggests..then how can a non-native speaker like me understand it :)
    – John V
    Oct 6, 2020 at 13:40
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    The whole passage is written in an archaic style. I imagine 99% of native speakers (including me) would state that they are unsure exactly what the phrases in bold mean.
    – mdewey
    Oct 6, 2020 at 13:52
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    It's not about whether you knew or didn't know the practice. It is about what the English in the passage evokes. And it could easily evoke that. Refinement often goes to manners (good/bad/refined). Refined manners (try:18th century for that). So, a strange refinement could be something like: delicately drinking animal blood out of a cup! {for example}.
    – Lambie
    Oct 6, 2020 at 14:06
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    It means they did not do it obviously: subtle versus obvious or ostentatious.
    – Lambie
    Oct 6, 2020 at 14:46

2 Answers 2

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If it helps any, this is a really tough paragraph to understand even for a native English speaker. After studying the paragraph, he is basically referring to an ancient people who did things they had down to a fine art (possibly blood sacrifice) which would be unacceptable in our eyes. And not only did they do these things but hid them behind a refined and wealthy culture.

It is a very well constructed English paragraph but the average native English speaker would find it wordy and unclear. Because of that, the author appears to be in love with himself and his knowledge of words.

Just as an example I would almost bet the writer created the phrase "crepuscular gloom of antiquity" to avoid using the cliche "twilight of antiquity."

If you had trouble understanding this paragraph, trust me, you are not alone.

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  • "Subtle" means deliberately not obvious or easily noticeable.

  • "Erudite" refers to knowledge that is not widely known.

  • "Perversity" is the practice of something that is immoral or corrupt.

So to be "subtle in... erudite perversities" would mean to be practice immoral conduct that is not widely known and in a manner that is not obvious.

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  • Uf, that is a tough one for me to understand. Can't erudite be adjective? The word order would imply so.
    – John V
    Oct 6, 2020 at 13:04

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