On the Threshold of Charlatan Centuries
Ah! oui, devenir légendaire,
Au seuil des siècles charlatans!
Mais où sont les Lunes d’antan?
Et que Dieu n’est-il à refaire? —Jules Laforgue
Few things are sadder than the truly monstrous. —Nathanael West, The Day of The Locust (1939)
A friend recently sent me a copy of Evelyn Waugh’s interview on the BBC’s Face to Face. Recorded in 1960, it’s a startling illustration of how far television has travelled in 50 years. The journey has been relentlessly downhill. Waugh perfectly demonstrated the distinction, now lost on most viewers, between being celebrated and being a celebrity.
His piggy eyes glistening with malice in his plump face, Waugh made no attempt to hide his disdain for the medium. At one point, his interlocuter John Freeman asked the great writer why, given his obvious distaste for self-revelation in particular and television in general, he’d consented to appear. Waugh answered, “… poverty: we’ve both been hired to talk in this deliriously happy way”, and looked thoroughly bemused, as if he couldn’t conceive of any other reason why anyone would appear on television.
I felt like cheering. Such candour in similiar circumstances from a modern novelist is unimaginable. Oh, Will Self or some-such might say it, but they would make clear that they were being ironic, jokey, self-mocking. Waugh was simply being matter-of-fact.
Of course, in those days people who appeared on television were celebrated for things they did that had nothing to do with television. Their celebrity was based on a hinterland of accomplishment, talent and experience that had fuck-all to do with television.
Today’s TV personalities can hardly be said to exist outside television. The likes of Ross, Wogan, Brucie and Paxman don’t, as far as I can tell, actually have personalities. What they have is a thin skin of tics, tropes, catch-phrases and well-worn routines that are thrown over the armature or skeleton of their television personas. Television is their personality.
Does this matter? Yes, it does. It adds to the general de-sensitising and coarsening effect of television, to its discomfort with reality except as a background for cruelty and contempt. Which brings me to Jerry Springer and reality television, my particular bête noirs.
In the 18th century, people used to pay to tour Bedlam (St. Bethlehem Hospital) and be entertained by the lunatics; they would pay to see a bear tormented by dogs; they would pack a picnic lunch to attend a public hanging. The performance of the hangee, if insufficiently entertaining, would be booed. But we’ve outgrown that kind of callous, brutish indifference to the suffering of others. Right? If only…
In Nathanael West’s great novella, Miss Lonelyhearts, a young man working for a Brooklyn newspaper is given the job of being the paper’s agony aunt. His cynical editor, Shrike, assures him that he’ll be entertained by the experience and at first, he is.
Slowly, however, it begins to dawn on the young man that all those illiterate, ungrammatical scrawls written on sheets torn from a child’s excercise book are cries de profundis.
The teenager born without a nose who yearns for love, the boy whose sister has been raped by their father, the woman whose husband wants to add another to their large brood despite her terror that another will kill her…Miss Lonelyhearts begins to understand that these are real people, really suffering and really crying for help.They’re not a freak-show staged for his amusement. The realization drives him mad.
I was reminded of West’s blackly comic satire when I first watched The Jerry Springer Show.
“It’s hilarious,” aquaintances assured me. “You’ll love it. The most unbelievable trailer-trash…the clothes…the hair…the stuff they come out with…hahahaha.” So I watched.
Now, I’m no hot-house flower and I’m not easily sickened but The Jerry Springer Show sickened me.
The people being put on show and goaded into fighting drove the audience into paroxysms of delighted laughter. They laughed at the endless profanity of the uneducated and barely literate. They laughed at the ugly clothes of the poor, at their terrible teeth, their awful hair, their pitiful jobs and their gimcrack trailer homes that would blow away in the next big wind.
But all I saw were people in pain, pain made worse by their inability to properly articulate it. Miserable lives made more so by bafflement and incomprehension. Suffering human beings. To the audience of jackals and hyenas, their minds dulled by television and their hearts licensed to harden by celebrities like the repellent Springer, these poor, fat, ugly, miserable people–who had probably never once in their lives had a lot of anything they liked–were freaks.
Laugh at them or send them to gas-chambers: what did it matter? They weren’t really human, after all.
If, like many educated and articulate people I know, you laughed along with the audience then perhaps you should hold a wake for your humanity.
And don’t give me any of that bullshit about viewing it in a post-modern, ironic way. If you laughed along, you’re just another jackal, another hyena, another degraded and degenerate tool of television’s de-humanizing machine.
There’s really no need to send to know for whom the bell tolls… is there?