Saturday, February 2, 2019

A blast from the past

reprinted from Monday, September 25, 2017

Quotes of the Day

Today's quote got TOF thinking -- always a scary thing -- and led him to hunt up a couple of other quotes that seemed in the same vein. First, the quote that started the thought process.
"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’”
But as long as we are attuned to the Spirit of the Age and keep au courant with this morning's fads, all shall be well.


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.


  1. This seems reminiscent of Plato's descent of regimes. A case could be made that what Glubb describes is a culturally democratic period, and that America went through an earlier period (roughly 1880-1930?) corresponding to oligarchy during which the great celebrities were the the very rich, titans of industry in particular. Prior to that, military heroes (e. g. Jackson) or else politicians who proved themselves by overseeing conquest (e. g. Polk). Is our present default exaltation to celebrity of those who hold political power evidence that we are moving from democracy to tyranny?

    I don't fully buy the whole thing myself. Wars and depressions complicate things. The celebrity status of both Roosevelts seems hard to fit in. Jackson's status could be described in Plato's terms as having at least as much in common with democracy-cum-tryanny as with timocracy. Et cetera. Oh, and the descent of regimes is, let's say, best not taken too literally in the first place. But I had enough fun thinking about it that I decided to post it.

  2. Somewhere or other, RE: the singer as hero, Chesterton talks about the tendency, already beginning in his day, of leaving athletic exertions and things like singing to the great athletes and the professional singers, rather than everyone going in for a certain amount of sport and singing, as simply part of being healthy.

    I have a story where a character says something to the effect of, say what you will about karaoke, at least the Japanese still sing when they drink, as our fathers all did when they were happy and free.

  3. It feels like there's something missing, here.

    Coupled with the "I feel" thing*-- maybe it's actually managing to map prosperity?

    You've got to have a lot of spare resources to HAVE entertainment, after all-- and by definition prosperity has to come before a decline, because you've got to have something that was higher than what you're at right now.

    * my logic on that: saying "I feel ____" is an attempt to avoid confrontation; it means that you are prosperous enough to not HAVE to force an issue, to attract folks whose world-view is different enough to incite conflict, and that "don't make people feel bad" is a worthwhile reward.

    1. I personally think that making much of the "I feel" phrasing bears the unmistakable stink of Sapir-Whorf. Lots of languages don't actually distinguish "think" and "feel", and never have. The Japanese, for example, are noticeably less emotionalistic than postmodern Westerners (and in prior eras even more so—there's a reason the idea of marrying for love enters their "polite" society with the postwar existentialists), but they've always said omou for both "think" and "feel"; the gerund, omoi, means both "thought(s)" and "emotion(s)" depending on context.

    2. Eh, I wouldn't put it as mattering if the difference didn't exist before-- but I've observed too many discussions that boil down to someone saying something stupid, someone pointing out the facts against it, and the first person going off about how their "feelings" are inherently valid.

      It's rather cool to find out the Japanese use the same word for thoughts and emotions, that jives really well with the common scifi thing of struggling to convey what telepathy would be like.

  4. The descent can be seen in modern pop-science shows. 30 years ago (just before his death) Feynman gave an interview to BBC Horizon; it wasn't really an interview more a lecture, not on a specific area of physics but rather his life as a physicist and how a physicist ought to think.

    30 years later the same program gave a visual lights display on the debate over the reality of time. I learnt more from that hour with Feynman than the clips of various physicists talking over a light show.

  5. Farewell, O brother, sister, sire!
    O pleasant party round the fire!
    The songs you sing, the tales you tell,
    Till far to-morrow, fare ye well!

    -- North-West Passage, by Robert Louis Stevenson

  6. The idea of opera singers as celebrities goes back quite a ways -- the 1600's, at least. There were also tons of orphanages and convents with celebrity choirs, and then there was the Sistine Choir and its secret unobtainium musical scores.

    But before that, there were celebrity troubadours and jongleurs and minnesangers and harpers.

    Anyway, most of today's celebrity singers cannot actually sing, but rather are the product of Autotune or post-production.

    The Masked Singer was a very silly show, but it was interesting to hear people actually sing and see them actually perform. And the best of the singers (not the winner, but that was a voting artifact) gave a masterclass in the ability to change and deepen a song by "putting it across." It was amazing to see incoherently presented modern songs transform into standards, simply by dint of craft.


O Tempo, O Morae!

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