[ed note: Paul is responding to my post below about how the corps fulfills the modernist project of impersonality in art, which our current age of non-stop confessional threatens.]
This thing you said is extremely important:
I think [the impersonality that the corps supplies] is a big deal in this age of reality TV and memoir craziness, with the prevalent notion that the closer one gets to the personal, the closer one gets to epiphany, the truth, yadda yadda.
I’m totally with you on this– and also with you in agreeing with Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent.”
I think we all need to compare notes on this phenomenon. The thing that strikes ME about it is the craving for fame and the envy of another’s fame. There are many angles you could go at it from.
You could look at it as marketing, a latter-day star system of building up celebrities and knocking them down in order to sell a NEW star (which got its start at the Paris Opera Ballet with its claques and system of deliberately obsolescing its stars way back in the days when Giselle was new, in the mid 19th century). Or, even more important, is the number of people WILLING to go on Jerry Springer or Sally Jessie Raphael or whatever her name is and get set up and made fools of, and for FREE. The networks don’t need talent, they can get sensational sensationalism out of “ordinary” people without paying for anything except plane fare and some dramaturg’s fee. Sometimes they’ll even KILL each other after having their secrets exposed and ridiculed. Can hardly get more sensational than that. It’s front page news, hard news, not just fiction.
And the reasons for that lie in two places. First, the capitalists who’ve grabbed the culture have shortsightedly set envy loose like a mad dog, and believe that keeping the consumer addicted to consuming can’t continue without constantly amping up the seduction by adding a sharper drug, which is the threat of status-loss if you DON’T take the knee-jerk upgrade. SO we have to see celebrities taken down for anything they get caught at, and blamed for not being perfect role models, and ALSO ordinary people get offered, Babylonian-lottery style, the chance to win A) the solid-gold Cadillac or B) the Blow on The Head.
Any culture that cannot moderate the operation of envy is heading to Hell in a handbasket.
The other and even larger factor — excuse me, you’re going to hate this, but I got it from George Orwell, and he was right — is what happens to a basically Christian culture when the belief in the afterlife decays to the point that it no longer serves as a sustaining force in the polity. Orwell was no Christian, but he confessed that after seeing what was happening in his time in central Europe, he realized that the general decency of English civil life depended on the hope in most people of reaching that great living room in the sky where you’d see again all those people who’d died whom it was so hard to live without.
This is certainly an inflammatory issue right now. A decade ago I certainly thought we lived in a post-Christian era. Indeed, back in 1968 I told an interviewer that we lived in a post-Christian era, where there was widespread lip service given to Christianity but most people felt like the singer of “Old Man River” — don’t believe in Heaven, but hope there ain’t no Hell. I think it’s still so, but with Islamic enemies, our lip service has gotten stiffer.
In a post-Christian culture that no longer knows what death means, statesmen spout boilerplate phrases about why our boys are dying in Iraq but advertisers really run the culture — and what is an advertiser but a hypocrite? — and fame has to replace the afterlife. Your name on a black marble wall in Washington, your name on you-name-it.
“Naming opportunities” is a whole new racket with development directors. In the last 10 years, UC Berkeley has had an explosion of development directors; every department now has one. No extra professors, probably fewer, but at least a hundred development specialists.
Fame can be merchandised a thousand times better than salvation.
The kind of fame that Beowulf sought — “mildest of men, and most eager for praise” — depended (as it did in ancient Greece) on doing something remarkable, like killing a monster that threatened the polity and whom nobody else could face. (Same with Oedipus and the Sphynx). That makes descendants grateful, and the “aefter-cwethendra” tell his tale forever.
But if you crave to be famous without having DONE anything, you COULD still make a fool of yourself on Jerry Springer, who’s savvy (and indeed compassionate) enough to put his instinctive populism to some civic purpose. (I have to say, I like Jerry Springer.) There’s no need to be literate to enjoy this entertainment, since TV will show it to you and tell you about it……
oh what the hell, it’s too late to continue this….
Apollinaire responds: No, I don’t hate this–it makes sense, what happens once there’s no single faith holding a culture together. It’s interesting, though, that Christian fundamentalists–the American version of extremists– have simultaneously become ever more powerful. Now that there are fewer moderate believers (I wonder if anyone thinks of themselves as a “moderate” believer, but you know what I mean), the fundamentalists flood the field. Nature abhors a vacuum.
I think where I might differ from you is in finding it depressing that the best we can do, morality-wise, is get goaded to goodness by a God we imagine as Big Daddy in the sky–gonna let us play with our friends for eternity if we act right. Otherwise, everlasting whipping. But maybe you and George Orwell are right, and it’s the best a culture can hope for.
Now let’s see–how does ballet fit into all this? Oh, yeah: We’ve collectively given up on delaying gratification. Art works by distillation and alienation–means more complicated than eating a piece of cake. And its ends are sublimated. So art is doomed–all of it, Paul, not just ballet!
Now that we’ve got that settled…