July 28, 2007

We’re All so Afraid of Looking Sour That We’re Nothing More Than Cultural Conformists


One should never wish anything not to have been written, but just occasionally I can't help thinking what a better world we'd be living in if only Dickens had thought twice before publishing A Christmas Carol and Aesop had decided that "The Fox and the Grapes" wasn't much of a fable after all.

I don't pick these examples randomly, though on other days my selection would probably be different. But right now conformity holds us captive, and both the above lay flattering unction to con- formity's soul. Both minister to the essential conservatism of our natures. Both give succour to the mass of mankind in its ceaseless war on the individual. Both make it difficult for a critic to demur, because both make demurral look like meanness of spirit.

Why couldn't Scrooge have hated Christmas on cultural and aesthetic grounds alone? Why must a miserliness rooted in childhood misery be adduced to explain an otherwise reasonable objection to false hilarity and insincere emotion? I know the story is the story, but sometimes a story does so much damage you wish it had been otherwise. After Scrooge no man can refuse festivity in good faith. The culture has made its mind up: you join in or you're a damaged skinflint.

Aesop's "The Fox and the Grapes" is more culpable still. In my old Penguin Classics translation it's briefly told. "A hungry fox tried to reach some clusters of grapes which he saw hanging from a vine trained on a tree, but they were too high. So he went off and comforted himself by saying: 'They weren't ripe anyhow."

Moral: "In the same way some men, when they fail through their own incapacity, blame circumstances."

The moral in the Harvard edition of Aesop delivers a heavier punch: "It is easy to despise what you cannot get."

Either way, this is the origin of "sour grapes", that expression so beloved of the common mind. It's significant that Americans tell it more bluntly than we do. A deeper seated regard for market forces is the explanation. Where success is the only measure, any refusal to acknowledge success is inexplicable without the concept of sour grapes. What other possible reason can there be for not coming to the party? Scrooge hates Christmas because he's a miserable, envious, life-denying bastard, and we hate whoever is for no good reason rich and famous because we're the same.

In this way the critic of anything becomes a marginalised figure, held to be incapable of making a judgement that isn't fuelled by failure, self-interest and envy. In a thrusting society we cease to value disinterestedness because we don't believe in its existence. Thus a partial truth becomes the whole truth, a sometimes bad motive is now an always bad motive, and nothing can be judged because no one judges fairly. Until at last the act of criticism itself withers away from suspicion and disuse.

Ah, reader, the brute inert power of what is. We rightly fear those utopists who would blow us into a better world, but no violence can compete with the immovable weight of incumbency. Once in place, it need do nothing. We wear ourselves out in opposition, we rail, we fume, we conjure alternative visions of happiness and beauty, and still it sits. Whoever would change us, it says, is envious. Whoever doesn't like us, only doesn't like us because they can't have what we have. An accusation so shaming that we wilt before it. Rather than be seen to be the fox who says no to grapes he cannot reach, we praise every grape on the vine, whether we can lay a paw on it or not. And so the dread of looking sour makes conformists of us all.

This join 'em since you cannot beat 'em spirit has been gaining on us for some time. Who can now remember when serious newspapers weren't half the time just versions of Hello!? When did the last High Court judge inform the court he didn't have a clue who Shilpa Shetty was? Gone, our once grand indifference to tosh. Blown away, like straw in the wind, all those gradations of society which enabled the weighty to think weighty thoughts and let the trivial go hang.

Of late the capitulation has moved on apace. Only witness the curious cases of Damien Hirst and Harry Potter, where all controversy is snuffed out and only abject deference is left.

There are several reasons why Damien Hirst has become accepted like the monarchy. The immovable weight of cultural conformism is one. Money is another. Quite simply the prices he fetches put him beyond the reach of criticism because criticism dare not show itself as sour. His diamond-encrusted skull looked good in jewellery shops but as a concept - and Hirst is conceptual or he's nothing - it's commonplace. But who's going to risk the opprobrium of saying so? It feels like the critic against the jewels. Wearied by the battle, we join in the applause or turn aside and put our minds to other things; but either way we connive in the brute inertia of what is.

With the latest Harry Potter we have taken the enthralled option. Where once upon a time we'd scratch our heads and wonder what this was all about - adults becoming children and queuing through the night to be the first to read a not very well written book about a wizard - now we play along. Hush, hush, mustn't give the end away, must-n't breathe a word, must marvel hugger-mugger behind the bikeshed: a regression into playground code and cosiness against which scarcely a commentator - and certainly not a newspaper - has dared put up a fight.

Even Michiko Kakutani, that most feared and fearless of American literary critics, scourge of Mailer, Rushdie, Sontag, Atwood, to name but four among a cast of wounded thousands, has acted out of character and leapt aboard the bandwagon, breaking the embargo - naughty, naughty - and making the noises of someone prepubescently impressed. Not noises that persuade me of a genuine enthusiasm, I have to say. "Heart-racing" and "bone-chilling" don't rank with Kakutani's most definitive analyses of English prose, and "The world of Harry Potter is a place where the mundane and the marvelous, the ordinary and the surreal coexist ... and people's lives are defined by love and loss" could have come straight from the publisher's blurb, not to say a fourth-former's essay. But the point is not whether the hard-to-please Kakutani likes it really. The point is that she wishes to be seen liking it at all.

Doesn't want to be a Scrooge, you see. Doesn't want to be accused of sour grapes.

(c) 2007 Independent, The; London (UK). Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.