Sunday, November 14, 2010

GK Chesterton and William Shatner

At around the same time I rediscovered Christmas, which I had pretended to dislike for many years. I slipped into a carol service on a winter evening, diffident and anxious not to be seen. I knew perfectly well that I was enjoying it, though I was unwilling to admit it. A few days later, I went to another one, this time with more confidence, and actually sang.

Peter Hitchens, The Rage Against God, 2010

For, paradoxical as it sounds, men shrink from enjoyment; they make one automatic step backwards from the brink of hilarity; because they know that it means the loss of dignity and a certain furious self-effacement. It is to get over this first reluctance of every reveller that men have created also coercive festivals such as Christmas Day.

GK Chesterton, The Alleged Decline of Christmas, The Illustrated London News, January 8 1910

Two quotations a century apart, both touching a subject I find increasingly fascinating. It’s extraordinary how everything that really matters—everything that ennobles, uplifts and affirms life—is intensely embarrassing.

I can’t avoid being autobiographical here. Thomas Hobbes famously wrote that, “Fear and I were born twins.” Well, I sometimes think I was born Siamese twins with embarrassment. This might be one source of my longstanding anglophilia, as England sometimes seems like a society built on social discomfort. The English tendency to embarrassment is well described by Kate Fox in her excellent Watching the English, most amusingly in this passage about the English attitude to greeting:

But even among those with no class prejudice about ‘Pleased to meet you’, who believe it is the correct and polite thing to say, this greeting is rarely delivered with ringing confidence: it is usually mumbled rather awkwardly, and as quickly as possible – ‘Plstmtye’. This awkwardness may, perversely, occur precisely because people believe they are saying the ‘correct’ thing. Formality is embarrassing. But then, informality is embarrassing. Everything is embarrassing.

Everything is indeed embarrasing; but some things are much more embarrassing than others. Poetry, for instance (and taking poetry seriously). Sentimentality. Unfashionable opinions. Ritual. Ceremony. Honouring the past. Making a stand and consciously departing from convention.

In fact, all the things I came to care about more and more as I made my way through my teens and twenties were painfully embarrassing. It was a bit of a pickle; I bewailed the modern world’s lack of ritual and ceremony, while I found so much as shaking hands or clinking glasses mortifying. I bitterly regretted that I could not kneel to a monarch, agreeing with Yeats that “my medieval knees lack health until they bend”, while even saying “good morning” made me blush. I longed for a revival of my country’s national traditions, but couldn’t even say Dia dhuit (God be with you, an Irish greeting) without squirming.

Perhaps the phenomenon of “cultural cringe” is most noticeable in post-colonial nations such as Ireland, but we should remember what George Orwell said about English patriotism and the intellectual class:

England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality. In left-wing circles it is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution, from horse racing to suet puddings. It is a strange fact, but it is unquestionably true that almost any English intellectual would feel more ashamed of standing to attention during God save the King than of stealing from a poor box.

Whatever about other great nations and major powers, there’s no doubt that Ireland suffers to an even greater extent from the same sniggering mentality. We often use the term Oirish to denote any institution, custom or tradition that is not “forward-looking”, metropolitan and self-consciously sophisticated. Before Riverdance made it cool, Irish dancing made us want to hide our faces. I feel panicky if someone starts speaking the Irish language around me, and I know other Irish people have the same reaction. Writers like Thomas Moore, Percy French and John D. Sheridan are patronised for using a “stage Irish” stereotype. (Patrick Kavanagh would call such writers "buckleppers".) I remember a female friend of mine (an enthusiast for the Irish language) marvelling that a mutual friend would actually wear an Aran sweater (a very handsome and practical garment) on a night out.

Of course, when it comes to religion, the squirm-o-meter goes off the charts. Samuel Johnson said: “My poor friend Smart showed the disturbance of his mind by falling upon his knees, and saying his prayers in the street, or in any unusual place. Now, although rationally speaking, it is a greater madness not to pray at all, than to pray as Smart did, I am afraid that there are so many that do not pray, that their understanding is not called into question”. I can’t help believing that even many religious people, these days, would feel intensely self-conscious in praying in public, or suggesting a prayer at some public event. I know I would.

But the irony is that most of us, even agnostics and non-belligerent atheists, seem to value the cultural and aesthetic elements of religion. The Marian shrines dotted around Ireland, even (touchingly) in the most prosaic of suburbs, are a favourite with tourists and photographers. I can’t pass the (admittedly tacky) statue of Jesus on Dublin’s O’Connell Street, erected by taxi-drivers, without feeling a pang for the time when such a public display of piety was entirely natural. And who could regret the hundreds of thousands of St. Bridget’s crosses in doorways and car windows all over Ireland, or the houses named after saints? There is a Dublin football team called Stella Maris, formed during the Second World War. I think the entire social, cultural and religious decline of the Irish nation can be illustrated by the fact that a football team could, sixty years ago, choose such a poetic and reverential name for itself, and that such a tribute would be unthinkable in today’s Ireland. We would be far too embarrassed.

What has all this to do with William Shatner? Well, not much, to be honest; I just thought it would be a snappy and eye-catching title. But there is some connection. Over the past few years, I’ve spent a lot of time (far too much) laughing over William Shatner’s spoken-word rendition of Elton John’s Rocket Man at the 1978 Science Fiction Film Awards (available on Youtube). It’s hammy beyond belief, cringe-inducing, fist-biting, and—I slowly began to realise, over months—utterly inspired and brilliant. Precisely because it throws caution to the wind and dares to be mortifying. The very thing makes us cringe makes it compelling.

We cannot aim at profundity without risking (and maybe achieving) bathos. We cannot strive after splendour and grandeur without being accused of kitsch and camp. We cannot show reverence without risking a titter-- and the more reverence, the more titters.

We might even say that, the more something makes us embarrassed, the more worthwhile it's likely to be. Perhaps we should practice mortifications in more sense than one.

Incidentally, the first review for Shatner’s original, and much-mocked, spoken-word album, The Transformed Man (contributed by a star reviewer, and not tongue-in-cheek) begins: “Let me just come right out and say it: I think William Shatner's The Transformed Man is brilliant - brilliant, I say….Call it a novelty album if you like, but I sincerely believe this is one of the most underappreciated works of musical genius ever recorded. Heaven help me, but I really and truly love this album.”

That might be overstating it, but I wouldn’t mind hearing The Transformed Man (and I love the title, too, especially since it reminds me of The Everlasting Man). In fact, if anyone feels like getting me a Christmas present…

posted by Maolsheachlann

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