Friday Ramblings: The Elitist Edition
The cultural phenomenon of grossly overrating the mediocre never ceases to fascinate me. Some of these are easy targets: Spectator sports. Weddings. Traditional family values. But there are some rather meh people, stories and cultural widgets that have truly achieved the status of sacred cows, and I would like to devote this Friday to tearing some of them down. And so, a random selection from my list of horribly overrated, but actually mediocre, people, events, places and phenomena:
1. Charles Dickens. I realize I am jeopardizing my credentials as an overeducated elitist liberal by criticizing Charles Dickens, but it needs to be said: Charles Dickens was a hack. And understand, this is coming from someone who actually enjoys reading “serious” books, where hundreds of pages can go by without sex or violence, and that are written in archaic, not always easily understood language.
It is not just that he was unthinkingly, cutesy-ly religious, though his hateful attitude towards skepticism is made clear in A Christmas Carol. It’s not just that he was unabashedly anglocentric, anti-Semitic and racist — though it is, of course, relevant to his reputation as a moralist and a champion of social justice. It is not only that he engaged in the crudest form of gaslighting when called on his anti-Semitism by an upset fan, although the whole affair does paint him in a light not altogether favorable. Assuming that no genius is without his flaws and putting all this aside, the fact remains that he was a mediocre writer. He created wooden, two-dimensional characters — cartoonish villains (he almost broke the mold with Madame Defarge, but not quite), saintly women, angelic children, and self-effacing good guys (once again, he almost broke the mold with Sydney Carton, and once again, not quite). He built one contrivance upon another, repeatedly calling on the reader to suspend disbelief — of which exercise Oliver Twist is but the most egregious example. He wrote ridiculous dialogue that does not in any way, shape or form resemble the way people actually converse in real life. (Thackeray’s novels are proof that no, Dickens’ contemporaries did not talk like that.) His writing in general was insufferably dense, needlessly convoluted, heaped with triple, quadruple and quintuple metaphors, florid, bombastic, and alternating between lurid and cloyingly sweet. At his best, he wrote cheap emotional pornography. At his worst, he wrote like someone who gets paid by the kilo, rather than by the page. Somewhere in the middle, between these two extremes, you find lots of pseudo-intellectual wanking.
So why did he become so popular? Dickens happened to do the right type of hack-work at the right place at the right time. He successfully tapped into disingenuous privileged class guilt, and people with money were only too happy to compensate for being parties to horrific social injustices by buying his saccharine drek and getting themselves virtuously sad. Dickens did not “raise awareness” about the appalling conditions of prisons and work houses. Everyone knew those were hellish places. His main contribution to culture was providing the bourgeoisie a way to feel good about themselves without giving up much of anything. And this is still pretty much the role his novels play today. Were it that they were a tad less tedious.
2. The Spartans. The Spartans are viewed as the epitome of military prowess, heroic sacrifice and omygod, the abs! The abs!!(Be still, my beating heart.) A famous last stand and an infinitely lame movie made them into a powerful symbol for a society whose ideals have nothing whatsoever to do with Spartan culture. In reality, the Spartans were a small, weird group whose customs were considered so bizarre even in antiquity, that travelers were known to come to Sparta just to gawk at them.
It is a well-established fact that the Spartans evolved into the most insanely militarized society history has ever known. Contrary to popular belief, the practical reason for this wasn’t that the Spartans were particularly willing to sacrifice themselves for the greater good — for in truth, they had nothing to sacrifice themselves FOR, and saw no greater good than to die in battle. They did not value life the way their contemporaries did, or the way our society does today. They created no art, no music, no poetry, no architecture. Their society had no room for thinkers. They brought up their children to be soldiers and wives of soldiers, and any child who was weak or sickly, or demonstrated a marked inclination towards other pursuits was killed without a moment’s hesitation. They took pride in rejecting all things of beauty or pleasure, taking their ascetic purity so far as to have newlywed brides’ heads shaved for the wedding night. Their food was famously nasty. Their city was ugly and rustic, at a time when other Greeks were building temples and theaters that still awe us today. Their world was cold, barren and miserable.
They didn’t lay down their lives in defense or their “way of life”, because war WAS their way of life. What triggered their evolution as a warrior culture was that in the course of a series of local conflicts, Sparta conquered all of the Peloponnese. This was not unusual in the ancient world, but in this particular case, a few thousand Spartiates found themselves ruling over a subjugated helot population numbering in excess of a million. To address the need to control the much larger slave population, they enacted radical reforms that placed such onerous military obligations on Spartan males that it became necessary to alter the very consciousness of the people and squelch every other interest or pursuit.
They were a violent society — not in the same sense as the Romans, for example, who had a culture of violence, but in the sense that being personally violent, in and of itself, was considered a virtue. Going on a murder spree of defenseless helot farmers was an important rite of passage for Spartan youths, without which they could not become full-fledged Spartiates. They ritually, ostentatiously humiliated the helots, and declared war on them every year. The only other virtue they cultivated was fierce loyalty to each other. Which sounds nice, until you realize that this was to the absolute exclusion of every other consideration or ideal — justice, fairness, mercy, compassion.
The combination of their extreme ethnocentrism, massive infanticide and legal obligations that kept men separate from women for most of their reproductive years, resulted in a steady population decline and eventual extinction of the Spartan people. It’s not a problem in and of itself for a population to keep itself small — such societies can certainly thrive and achieve greatness (see, post-Black-Death Florence, for instance), but when a society obsessed with its own superiority disappears under the weight of self-imposed reproductive restrictions, the irony is undeniable. After all the massacres and the wanton killing sprees and the ritual humiliations, it was the lowly helots and northern barbarians who ultimately inherited the Peloponnese. The Spartans’ view of their own purpose in the Universe was hopelessly stupid and circular: they fought to fight; they lived to die. And in the end, they did entirely too much killing and dying, and not nearly enough lovin’.
No thing in the world is either completely evil or completely good. The Spartan society did have one or two redeeming qualities. But on the whole, these people were nasty, uncultured, vulgar assholes. And the degree to which they are romanticised today is utterly baffling.
3. Monaco. Ahh, Monaco. The place where you luxuriate in a Beaux Arts hotel, bathe in Cristal and wear an evening gown to dinner. Once upon a time, a long time ago, jaded rich Parisians and Lyonnais were happy to discover this tiny anachronistic oddity, with its provincial charm, lush northern Mediterranean scenery and low taxes.
That’s mostly ancient history, though. Today, Monaco is an oppressive jumble of ash- and dust-colored highrises (but thank heavens for Photoshop). Its densely packed towers jut out of the sea like a tiny Miami, if Miami was designed by Satan while in the grips of major depression. Urban, crowded, noisy and dusty, it is also extraordinarily overpriced. Note, I didn’t say “expensive” — that goes without saying — but offering its wares at prices that are ridiculously inflated. Customer service is atrocious here. That’s a problem throughout most of Western Europe, but whereas it’s often worth it to put up with the attitude for the sake of beautiful sights or great food, Monaco has nothing to offer a visitor EXCEPT services, and those are terrible. They don’t even care if you have money; unless you are a high-level aristocrat or a Hollywood celebrity, you will be treated like shit regardless of how much you spend. Amazingly, Monaco continues to thrive on this bizarre business model, predicated on tapping into outdated social anxieties: visitors are nickled-and-dimed just for the privilege of being there, while constantly reminded of their low worth as mere mortals.
If you ask me, should you have money to burn and want to indulge in a riot of delights for sophisticated adults, don’t overthink it and just go to Vegas.