I saw a familiar face in Marks and Spencers yesterday. None other than Professor Chris Whittey, the Chief Medical Officer and perhaps the most famous face of the UK pandemic. From behind he is surprisingly thick-set. It is only when he turns round to reveal his Elfin features and particularly hirsute eyebrows that you see that it is indeed he. He could very easily be an Elf prince from The Lord of the Rings. His basket was laden with salmon. That figures. I’m sure he eats a lot of fish. All that data tracking requires good brain power. The fish will keep him alert. I looked sheepishly at my own basket with its set of crumpets. They would keep me less alert. Seeing Chris Whittey doing his evening shopping like that made me feel properly connected with the times. More so than when on Wednesday in Mayfair I saw Steven Fry.
Looking through YouTube yesterday I came across a phenomenon I had not registered before: Reaction culture. This is when a young person, mostly of colour, reacts to a piece of music from a classic white band or artiste from the 70s or 80s. So, we see the face of a twenty-year-old hip-hop aficianado as she listens to a track from Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon for the first time, her eyes exploding as the weird sound explorations evolve or tears flowing as she listens to Wish you were here. What is happening? Are they sponsored by record companies wanting to introduce modern youth to classic rock to shift more units? There is something pleasant about communing with another person in listening to a loved piece of music. It flatters a baby-boomer to commune with another generation and another ethnicity maybe. It’s also part of pattern. The mediation of reception through others. We see it in X-factor and co. We are shown how to react by the judges. The programme Gogglebox where we focus on viewers watching telly and their reactions is another example that comes to mind. I suppose we have always had critics pointing us in the right direction; few zero-degree confrontations ever take place in aesthetic judgements. This seems different, however. It’s empathy culture in action. I am a believer that empathy is a more efficient pedagogical system than the magisterial system. A student responds better to a teacher reacting to material spontaneously than to his usage of prepared material. If the teacher sees, say, a text for the first time and reacts to it spontaneously in front of the students you see their process. The teaching is not dead meat; it is dynamic and questing. We like to see a spontaneous reaction, and as with the hip-hop fan reacting to Pink Floyd, we re-experience our first audition of the song through our empathy with the other’s reaction.
There was an incident in my street yesterday. As we were coming back home, a crowd had gathered in the street and was looking up to the block on the other side of the road. On the second floor we could see a man’s arm hammering at a window. There was blood on the wall inside. The window swung open and the man in his thirties on the inside was naked. He started throwing things out of the window and shouting at the people on the street below. He sat out on the ledge as if he was about to throw himself down. Police arrived, an ambulance and a fire-engine. I said he must have a mental health issue. This is the first time I have used this expression. A woman behind me said he was a banker. A gas-man who was working on our building said it wasn’t surprising, him being a banker. Another man said his son played with the banker’s son. I wanted to go home. I said we shouldn’t be gawping. We went back home. From the living room window the banker’s window was just out of sight. I strained my neck but I couldn’t quite see. A couple of hours later the crowd had dispersed.
Montaigne ascribes the quote about philosophy being the act of learning how to die to Cicero; it may well have been Socrates or someone else. It doesn’t matter because it doesn’t tell you much about how you are supposed to think about it. Webster, roughly contemporary with Shakespeare and according to Eliot was much concerned with death. Shakespeare too, if we can interpret him through his characters. Consider Hamlet, constantly musing on it; what happens after death is his issue, ‘the undiscovered land from whose bourne no traveller returns’. Claudio, in Measure for Measure, runs a similar vein (‘Ay, but to die and go we know not where/To lie in cold obstruction and to rot’), written maybe in the year after Hamlet, 1602. Ten years before in Richard III Clarence’s dream of his own death is equally lurid, a mysterious journey inflected by guilt, where he is taunted by the ghosts of his past. At this time we were taught by religion to think on our death, to ponder it in all its gory detail. Shakespeare takes this on board though the religious get-out clause rarely fires his imagination.
The turning point comes with Montaigne after a riding accent. Before that he did what he was told and fretted about death, its torments and particularities. After his brush with death when he was thrown from his horse perhaps by another insouciant rider or perhaps by careless gunfire, where he felt he had drifted unknowingly into death’s ambit, he reviewed this approach. Death was just a few blurry moments at the end of life. Best not worry about it too much. And so to Goethe in the 1820s in his poem on the contemplation of Schiller’s skull. When you compare it with Hamlet contemplating the skull of Yoric it is uplifting. We might be tempted to see the skull and, like Hamlet with Yoiric’s skull, lament the terror of bones where once there was flesh. But no, the skull is a cause for refreshing thoughts because of what the man was and what he did in life. Goethe, unsurprisingly, had little truck with religion; he shook his head at the image of the crucified Christ. For him death was, as for Montaigne, just a nice blur at the end of life.
Cheering you up this post-Easter week.
For reasons too tedious to explain I have found myself sitting through cooking programmes over various lockdown seasons. I watch The Great British Bake off and Masterchef out of the corner of one eye from a lateral position on the settee. If I want to watch the television head-on I will have to lie on the floor like a dog (the armchair is taken). So when I have only a passing interest in the fayre I go lateral. I have found that from this obtuse eye-beam angle you are more receptive to the incidental musical score of the programme: pizzicato for Bake off (pizzicato as wry comic accompaniment was I think invented by the series Desperate Housewives and has since been omnipresent as an ironic narrative voice; and what Adorno in his study of Mahler calls course of life music for Masterchef, as in these contestants are dealing with one challenge after another and taking them all in their stride, they’re dealing with whatever life or Greg Wallace throws at them. Fair play to the producers on this. But what is most offensive to an adult viewer is the simpering puerile masochism of the contestants when a food critic makes a guest appearance, often arriving in slow motion and to the hyperbolic commentary of the voice-off whipping up the guest judge in the high-astounding terms of some World Series All-in Wrestler. Cut, then, to the adoring faces of the contestants, sometimes weeping with joy as some guy from the Waitrose magazine who only got the job because his dad was big in journalism comes in for another free meal. And then there are the interviews after they are kicked off the show (what a privilege it was… I’ve learnt so much... let me coat mud all over myself so much I am not worthy yada yada) or get voted into the next round (I can’t believe it… it’s a dream come true to be standing in this weird industrial kitchen zone for five/tent in the middle of nowhere). The television cooking world is, of course, a complex Escher world of surreal interlocked realities. Best typified by quote unquote Chef Ramsey, now working as a quiz show host on prime time BBC. Television wants to just load him with options. His commitment to cooking is such that he would now rather not touch it and is skipping through formats looking for the best vehicle for his remarkable hybrid talent-basket of bully, foul-mouthed charmer and business-type, reminding me of GCSE students who can’t wait to study Business Studies at A level because they will be doing a no-bullshit subject in which they do not yet have a history of failure. I suppose Chef Ramsey is now taking on the mantle of Donald Trump and like the ex-President, will inevitably soon toxify himself to a frazzle.