Friday, 18 December 2009

The Idea of Order at West Quay

A lot of people are secret aristocrats. I don't mean that they are really titled folk, who choose not to make a fuss about it. I mean they believe that certain Truths offer a hotline to reality, and that these Truths -- though they can and should be learned and respected by everyone -- are found in their purest form ready-made in the hearts of an Elect.

For example, consider this slightly bonkers, boy-scoutish view of aristocracy:
I believe in aristocracy, though — if that is the right word, and if a democrat may use it. Not an aristocracy of power, based upon rank and influence, but an aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate and the plucky. Its members are to be found in all nations and classes, and all through the ages, and there is a secret understanding between them when they meet. They represent the true human tradition, the one permanent victory of our queer race over cruelty and chaos.

The aristocrats, the elect, the chosen, the Best People — all the words that describe them are false, and all attempts to organize them fail. Again and again Authority, seeing their value, has tried to net them and to utilize them as the Egyptian Priesthood or the Christian Church or the
Chinese Civil Service or the Group Movement, or some other worthy stunt. But they slip through the net and are gone; when the door is shut, they are no longer in the room; their temple, as one of them remarked, is the holiness of the Heart’s affections, and their kingdom, though they never possess it, is the wide-open world.

E. M. Forster, Two Cheers for Democracy, “What I Believe” (1938)
You might say, there are a minority of people who have discovered -- reluctantly, perhaps, and with an appropriate level of humility -- that they already know everything that matters. The rest is just information. It's like the difference between inherited and acquired wealth. You're simply starting from a different point, and this brings with it certain privileges and responsibilities. Like, say, running the world. Or even running away from it.

As a lapsed member of the Elitists' Club (motto: "Tell Me Something I Don't Already Know"), I am not immune to this madness. I feel it most acutely at weekends (and especially in these weekends in the run up to Christmas) if I go shopping in the shopping mall in Southampton known as West Quay. The sensation that I am walking like a delegate from another planet through so many people's idea of Heaven sends me into an inner rage. In the face of so much negative sensory input I enter a kind of trance state, an ecstasy of disdain for this Bosch-like spectacle of idiotic purchases and hollow desires. Needless to say, this can be quite fun.

Now, if you recognise the allusion in the title of this piece (West Quay? Key West?), you and I have already exchanged an aristocratic wink. Wallace Stevens is not for everyone. But then neither is cage fighting. The problem is, that those of us who read Wallace Stevens (or at least know who he is and what he represents) believe in our hearts that this civilisation is ours, just as those who live in the swankier postcodes of a town believe that the town really belongs to them.

Delusional, obviously, in both cases. Cage fighting may belong in the grimier neighbourhoods of the broader culture, but has as much of a claim on its participants' hearts as poetry does on ours. And, of course, it forms its own parallel aristocracy (something Lord Byron, for one, would have understood). Indeed, the overlappings, frictions and negotiations between the various aristocracies -- the "players" -- is, in this aristocratic view of the world, the true engine of society. Everyone else is just a spectator or a consumer or a victim -- mere "civilians".

Our culture seems to be undergoing a profound struggle at the moment, one which may be much more important than any "war on terrorism". It's a battle for control over our values, over our history, and nothing less than an attempt to disempower the majority by encouraging us to despise the very people -- teachers, public servants, politicians, artists and writers -- who would seek to empower us. A neat trick. The nature of the struggle is heavily disguised as a shrink-wrapped celebrity-worshipping consumerism, a false democracy in which you need not feel uncomfortable if you settle for lowest common denominator choices, or guilty if you opt to spectate rather than participate, or foolish if you have come to believe that, in essence, life is a lottery.

Indeed, the whole point of a celebrity culture is to create a shop-front aristocracy whose very superficiality is their primary value: when the content of aspiration has been hollowed out, peddlers of aspirational values (those boring teachers, those dull politicians, those unreadable writers) end up with nothing to sell that anybody wants to buy. Who needs to concentrate, or to pay close attention, or to learn any history, when we all already are, in essence, celebrities-in-waiting, simply minus the cash? There's nothing to learn or achieve -- just spin the Wheel of Fortune, and keep your fingers crossed! Life is a lottery, isn't it?

But, oddly, no-one seems to be baffled or troubled by the cornucopia of improbably and disposably cheap goods that is emptied over us daily like animal feed in our shopping malls. No-one asks, "What have I really done to deserve or to earn this bounty?" No-one wonders, "Is someone else, somewhere else, paying the true price of these cheap clothes, this abundant food, this ceaseless churning of brands and colourways? Can it go on forever like this?" Too many questions! Perhaps, like the girl in the haircare adverts, we simply feel entitled because "we're worth it."

Maybe it is just the way of the world. The Wheel of Fortune has spun, and it happens to be our turn on top. But have you also noticed how in the background, well behind the ephemeral celebs and the steady shower of fool's gold, the same old aristocrats -- the ones with wealth, with control, those with something to lose -- are securing their grip on power ever more tightly, invisibly and with the active encouragement and participation of the majority, by the simple device of dressing down? No conspiracies, no tanks on the corner, no manifestos, no burnings at the stake... No smoke, just some conveniently-placed mirrors -- simple!

"Down with a world in which the guarantee that we will not die of starvation has been purchased with the guarantee that we will die of boredom."
Raoul Vaneigem, The Revolution Of Everyday Life

Whether you celebrate it, tolerate it, or simply can't avoid it, do have an endurable Christmas, and may I wish you a happy New Year! And, if you meet the Buddha on the road, you know what to do.


Bronislaus Janulis said...

A post most dense, with some quite nice images ... in a few days I may have a proper response, and an endurable holidays to you, too.

unfente? word verification.

Martin H. said...

Very readable post Mike. Thanks for the introduction to Wallace Stevens.

A former broadcaster and friend of mine recently wrote of the sad fact that "..aspiration has been replaced by insistence. If we see it we must have it."

We appear to be living through an age of anti-intellectualism.

From a recent interview with The Independent, "Gore Vidal shares the
populist belief that the people are being shafted by the rich – but he thinks the population is too cretinous and drugged by television and fast food to figure it out."

Have a peaceful Christmas.

Mike C. said...


"aspiration has been replaced by insistence" -- damn, a whole post replaced by six words...

Wallace Stevens is difficult, but rewarding. Poems like "The Blue Guitar", "The Anecdote of the Jar", "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" and "The Idea of Order at Key West" are about as famous as poems ever get, but a fresh challenge every time you read them.

Treat yourself to the Collected Poems for Christmas and spend the rest of your life trying to figure them out...