reprinted from Monday, September 25, 2017
Quotes of the Day
"The heroes of declining nations are always the same—the athlete, the singer or the actor. The word ‘celebrity’ today is used to designate a comedian or a football player, not a statesman, a general, or a literary genius."
-- Glubb pasha, (1897-1986)
Interestingly, he based this on his studies of the old Abbasid Caliphate, the Mamluq Empire, the 'Osmanli Turkish Empire, and others, compared cross-culturally.
Sir John's historical analysis may be far too glib. Glubb glib? Say it ain't so! TOF can roll his eyes at some modernist categories used out of context. "Universities" in the 7th century? Forsooth! But recall that a "celebrity" once meant not someone who is merely famous, not to say notorious, but someone in whose honor a formal celebration had been held: a banquet served, scholarly papers read, speeches given. Galileo was given such a fest by the Jesuits shortly after his first book came out and was thereafter referred to as "a celebrated astronomer."
Now some literary geniuses are indeed celebrated in the modern sense of being famed, although genius ought be equated neither with best seller lists nor with the compatibility of their works with one's own prior socio-political commitments. There are surely some generals who can be celebrated -- for their competency in the arts of war, if nothing else. But statesmen? Are there really such things anymore? A slight digression in the sequence of quotes:
"Meanwhile, at the end of the twentieth century a degeneration in the conduct of the relations of states goes on. When I see or hear or read the language or the behavior of foreign ministers and ambassadors, I am a witness of an enormous decline, not only of intelligence but of diplomatic practice (including decorum) and human common sense. I write 'enormous' since the symptoms of a babbling barbarism are all around us... What may succeed it is the rule of tougher barbarians who will not, because they need not, babble."
-- John Lukacs, At the End of an Age
And yes, he wrote that before Twitter was invented. But now let us couple Glubb's observation with two others. Among other signs of the autumn of the Modern world, John Lukacs cited the shift from books to images (movies, TV shows). "Show, don't tell." The celebrities cited by Glubb pasha seem right in line with this. And earlier, Jacques Barzun remarked:
The new pastimes of the educated amateur are the arts of nonarticulate expression: music and painting… Everywhere picture and sound crowd out text. The Word is in disfavor…– Jacques Barzun, The House of Intellect
Barzun also noted the replacement by the 1950s of "I think that..." with "I feel that..." in colloquial speech.
More recently we have this comment from the then-archbishop of Denver which puts some consequences of the shift:
Visual and electronic media, today’s dominant media, need a certain kind of content. They thrive on brevity, speed, change, urgency, variety and feelings. But thinking requires the opposite. Thinking takes time. It needs silence and the methodical skills of logic. ... [This trend is] a very dangerous thing in a democracy, which is a form of government that demands intellectual and moral maturity from its citizens to survive.
--Charles Joseph Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., “Catholics and the ‘Fourth Estate’”
This led one commentor to write:
I guess the Elizabethans were all barbarians, given that every educated person and a lot who weren't, were given to singing partsongs at home and playing lutes. In fact, most of the great cultural periods assumed that you wanted to draw or sketch in ink, write poems, dress gorgeously, and also conquer the world and make wise decisions for the state.which missed the point. Glubb was not noting that many or most people of a time and place enjoyed making music or acting. It was that singers, actors, and athletes were celebrated as heroes. Name a celebrated athlete from the Elizabethan era, or a celebrated singer. Even a celebrated actor: Certainly, Shakespeare worked as an actor, but we was celebrated as a playwright.
None of which has to do with barbarism. Although drawing-and-quartering and spiking decaying heads on Traitors Gate do seem less than genteel. Glubb was writing of the decline of great societies. Elizabethan England did not celebrate its singers as heroes.