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This is probably the pinnacle of the Franco-Belgian school of comic strips, which is tantamount to saying that nothing better has ever been produced in comic strip form. Beneath the suave, classical serenity and balance of the visual presentation, symbolized by Captain Haddock’s elegant, XVIII Century Château de Moulinsart, there is a current of sunny but subversive humour, as genial as P. G. Wodehouse’s yet as mordant as Saki’s. Les bijoux de la Castafiore is puzzling to children and an anomaly among Tintin’s adventures, since it’s not an adventure at all: nothing really happens. It is a masterpiece of warm, ever-so-gentle irony that illustrates the futility of all human effort and endeavours. We cannot truly achieve anything, Hergé is telling us, so let us accept that life is impossibly confusing, messy and intractable, and that we are doomed to fail; but let us fail with kindness, decency and humanity.
Les bijoux de la Castafiore is visually and textually rich and polished, and should be savoured frame by frame, much in the same manner as one might make one’s way, sip by sip, through a bottle of the finest, most mellow Margaux. Unlike the latter, however, Les bijoux contains delightfully incongruous and provocative surprises, rather like tasting some cod liver oil or McDonald’s milkshake in your Margaux. What is one to think when Bianca Castafiore (i.e. “White Chasteflower”), the exuberant Milanese opera singer, thrusts a rose under the nose of Captain Haddock, a confirmed and misogynistic bachelor, whereupon a wasp concealed within the flower stings Haddock’s nose, and the latter promptly swells to colossal proportions? I have lost count of the number of psychoanalytical studies that Les bijoux de la Castafiore has generated.
Have you spotted a tautology in the title? A pleonasm? A redundant juxtaposition of words? You’re so right – but how else can one get across to the tiresomely insistent and perennial hawkers of eternal life (a motley group that includes not only predictable ignoramuses but also scholars, scientists and self-styled sages) what immortality really means?
The gross conceptual blunder of applying the term “immortal” to what is unavoidably finite has most recently been perpetrated by Time (which, it is true, generates no great expectations of intellectual refinement). Its February 21, 2011 cover is dedicated to “2045: The Year Man Becomes Immortal”. Yes, that’s right: “immortal” as in “living forever”, or “existing eternally” – which is (Time’s editors please note) essentially, radically, fundamentally different from prolonging existence for a very, very long time. Forgive me for dispelling the pipe-dreams of those who yearn for the day (preferably before they die) that we’ll be able to extend human life indefinitely, but if one way or another it finally comes to an end, then – sorry, folks – it ain’t immortality. And come to an end it will.
Can it be so difficult to understand that immortality is an absolute, everything-or-nothing concept, like eternity or infinity? You can’t get close to it; it’s nonsensical and oxymoronic to think in terms of quasi-immortality, just like something can’t be almost eternal or on the verge of infinity. Even if a person managed to stretch his lifespan in some unimaginable form to a zillion years, if ultimately he dies, he will have been no more immortal than one of those gnats that reputedly live only for a single day.
Death, which is also an absolute condition (no one can be slightly dead), comes for us all; as Sir Thomas More says in Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, “Yes, even for Kings he comes, to whom amidst all their Royalty and brute strength he will neither kneel nor make them any reverence nor pleasantly desire them to come forth, but roughly grasp them by the very breast and rattle them until they be stark dead!” Even for the most fervent futurologists, who fantasize about uploading their mind into one supercomputer after another (surely a nightmarish notion for most people), he will come, and corner them in whatever faltering software their tenuous consciousness may linger. Lewis Thomas[i], from his sober scientific perspective, reaches the same inescapable conclusion in his essay “The Long Habit”: “If we ever do achieve freedom from most of today’s diseases, or even complete freedom from disease, we will perhaps terminate by drying out and blowing away on a light breeze, but we will still die.” And, as usual, no one grasps the crux of the matter quite like Shakespeare: “Death, a necessary end, / Will come when it will come.”[ii] And when it does come, better to give in gracefully and with dignity than cling on to a phantasmagorical existence, cowering in some temporary, prosthetic refuge.
To a certain Aubrey de Grey, quoted with awe (possibly because of his impressive name) in the above-mentioned Time article, it is nonetheless obvious that death can be forever held at arm’s length: “People have begun to realize that the view of aging being something immutable – rather like the heat death of the universe – is something ridiculous. It’s just childish.” But wait a minute: isn’t this tantamount to saying that although the universe itself is doomed, human ingenuity will find a way of outliving it, in some organic – or, at any rate, physical – form? One can admire the dogged optimism that inspires such an absurd outlook, but not the fallacious thought processes in which it is grounded. The end of everything will extinguish even mankind’s futile search for physical immortality.
Metaphysical survival is an entirely separate issue, but one – alas – concerning which we have little empirically verifiable data. (In any case, most stalwart proponents of immortality in the literal sense scornfully reject the concept of soul as a primitive superstition, or at best – ironically – as wishful thinking. Perhaps this is what motivates them to search so urgently for ways of outfoxing the Grim Reaper.) Needless to say, I have nothing to add to millennia of speculation about the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns. One can always hope that all manner of thing shall be well. In the meantime, there is nothing to prevent us from making the best, in every sense, of what life we have. An elegant variation of the clichéd carpe diem is dum vivimus, vivamus – while we live, let us live. “Thus, though we cannot make our sun / Stand still, yet we will make him run”.[iii]
That evil exists as an objective reality, we know only too well – the human-generated horrors of the 20th Century (the most appalling one in the history of mankind, hallmarked with Auschwitz and Hiroshima) put paid to any illusions that anyone could have had on that score.
Purely for the sake of argument, let us assume that all evil has a specific source of inspiration in the form of the Devil, who is at least a useful metaphor for the mysterious phenomenon of pure wickedness, even if we do not believe in his existence as a concrete physical or spiritual entity (although, as C. S. Lewis wisely pointed out, it suits the Devil equally that we should be either fascinated by or totally unaware of him).
If there were a Devil, clearly one of his principal goals in all the cultures and civilizations originally rooted in Christianity would be to suppress everything that serves to remind people of Jesus, God who made himself human to share our condition, take upon himself all the sins of mankind, offer us redemption and salvation, and urge us to love our neighbours as ourselves. Even if you don’t literally believe in this story, it is at least movingly beautiful, uplifting and morally beneficial.
However, as we say in Spanish, “el Diablo sabe mucho por ser Diablo, pero más sabe por ser viejo.” (“The Devil knows a lot because he’s the Devil, but even more because he’s so old.”) The Devil would be only too aware of how the occasionally systematic (depending on who was in power) but always ruthless persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire backfired. For reasons fair or foul, owing to saintliness or perversity, as the case may be, human beings tend to cling tenaciously to all that is forbidden; prohibition and censorship serve only to whet their appetite for whatever is branded as a taboo. Our hypothetical Prince of Darkness is far too astute and experienced to imagine that he could eradicate interest in Christ through mere repression.
Far cleverer, then, to foster the commemoration of Jesus’ birth by stealthily blurring its focus and gradually turning it into a mega-celebration of nothing in particular. However, since people still crave some central symbol or figure, let’s first take a fairly obscure saint from European folklore – Saint Nicholas (or Sinterklaas, in Dutch) – and then let’s subtly strip him of all religious or spiritual associations by corrupting his name into “Santa Claus” (a grotesque linguistic concoction that has nevertheless spread like wildfire throughout the world, since he is thereby divested of any ethnocentric, politically incorrect associations, not to mention undertones of genuine piety or moral earnestness), and finally – the stroke of genius – let’s get Coca Cola, a purely commercial, profit-centred concern, to determine his definitive traits and disseminate them far and wide. (The Coca-Cola Company proudly boasts of its 89-year-old role in annihilating the original Saint Nicholas and replacing him with the spiritually vacuous, hollowly jolly, overweight, red-and-white standard-bearer of frenetic hedonism who relentlessly assaults our senses everywhere on this planet from early November onwards. Una santa barbuda y obesa, as one might define him – or her – in Spanish).
You’d think that somewhere there was a master-plan to fuel the celebration of Christmas into an orgy of “getting and spending” (as Wordsworth puts it in “The World Is Too Much with Us”), whilst simultaneously playing down and eventually eliminating altogether any reference to Christ, so that we end up linguistically with limp salutations such as “Happy Holidays” and “Season’s Greetings” – a vacuous and tautological celebration of celebration. Visually we are besieged with irrelevant, fatuous displays of fairy-lights, decorated pine trees, dwarves, gnomes, elves, snowmen, penguins, polar bears, reindeer, gingerbread men, striped stick-candy – anything, anything at all except a crib or maternity scene, which might hypothetically offend the religious or non-religious sensibilities of others, even in countries whose Christian culture goes back over one and a half thousand years: this then, would be the great Machiavellian triumph of Satan (interestingly enough, an anagram of “Santa”); if he exists, that is.
It’s almost worse for us if he doesn’t, because then it’s entirely our own greedy, materialistic, obsessively sensual stupidity and short-sightedness that has brought us to this pretty pass. And rarely is it even “pretty”, for that matter – the Lord of the Flies, or our own increasingly decadent taste, is making sure that each year it becomes more garish, meretricious, trivial and plainly absurd. In the midst of this mindless, amoral display, scarcely a thought is spared for what matters most: reaching out to those who are lonely, marginalized and in need.
I loathe Santa Claus. And to make matters worse, the sonofabitch didn’t even bring me anything last night.
As if mankind were not beset with enough inescapable catastrophes – earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, drought, plagues – and self-inflicted ones, such as war, famine and exploitation, an additional, unforeseeably cruel calamity has made headline news today in the Spanish newspaper El País. A “treasure trove” (to quote the paper’s savagely sarcastic terminology) of 270 hitherto unknown, late Picasso works has been exposed (mercifully not yet exhibited, though one fears the worst) in France. This devastating blow to the world of art would be comparable, in the medical field, to the Pasteur Institute stumbling across 270 new deadly strains of virus on the verge of mass dissemination.
Do we learn nothing from history? Did not the barbaric bombing of Guernica in 1937 and its frightful pictorial legacy suffice as a warning to future generations? Does Barceló’s blood-curdling dome in the “Chamber for Human Rights and for the Alliance of Civilizations” not serve its purpose of daily reminding the world’s delegates in Geneva’s United Nations headquarters of the depraved refinement with which human beings can perpetrate aesthetic atrocities on each other?
Let us pray that the French authorities are endowed with the decisiveness, courage and competence to isolate this sinister outbreak of posthumous Picassos in a secure environment – such as the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, if the Spanish state honourably accepts some moral accountability for the disaster – where only hardened masochists risk being exposed to it.
Such are the sad limitations of human perception, especially when unaided by the most advanced video and electronic technology, that on Saturday 3rd July Argentina were scandalously deprived of a 5 – 4 victory over Germany. Five sensational goals (two by Messi, two by Tévez, and one by Higuaín) were not merely disallowed – they went completely unnoticed by the referees, the spectators in the stadium and the hundreds of millions of viewers throughout the world; even the multitude of cameras focusing on the action failed miserably to record the grace and subtlety of the balletic movements that culminated in the five superb Argentine goals. In the face of such persistently blinkered, monolithic indifference to their achievements, the scoring players themselves lacked the self-confidence to muster even a mild (and, as is almost invariably the case in international football, ultimately futile) protest, and towards the end of the match their morale understandably collapsed.
It is high time that FIFA should monitor matches at World Cup level with the assistance of the latest metaphysical technology, which would have duly confirmed and credited the five goals that were generated by Messi’s sublime skills, Tévez’s superhumanly iron-willed commitment, Higuaín’s preternatural ability to lodge the ball within the net and, most of all, Maradona’s inspired fervour from the touchline. Until we introduce and systematically employ equipment that is at the cutting-edge of subliminal football verification, we will continue to end up with results that are blatantly unfair and grotesquely distorted, and thereby reward rustic teams, such as Germany, that merely run around quickly, pass the ball effectively and manage to push it past the goal line. Has football irreversibly declined to no more than this?
Some profess to be worried about how recklessly wide-ranging in its prosecutions the International Criminal Court could become. I, and others, are increasingly concerned that its role is limited to hounding relatively small-scale, third-world scoundrels (Omar al-Bashir may be a president, but despite its vastness Sudan is a weak and isolated nation). This is singularly convenient for the world’s major powers, many of whose leaders – current or retired, going as far back as Henry Kissinger – have so much blood on their hands that all great Neptune’s ocean could not wash them clean.
The real “ghost” raised by Robert Harris’ intelligently compelling novel and Roman Polanski’s no less skilful film – in which the ICC exhilaratingly corners a former British prime minister, Adam Lang (a.k.a. Tony Blair) – is the ICC itself, which in fact haunts only the nightmares of African war-lords and petty tyrants. If the ICC’s Prosecutor, my eminent compatriot Luis Moreno-Ocampo, is prevented by realpolitik from targeting the world’s most nefarious criminals (we all know who they are), he should denounce this situation and resign in disgust, rather than help sustain a spectral ICC that brings to justice only a picturesque assortment of thugs whose principal common denominator appears to be the colour of their skin.
Published in a slightly modified form in The International Herald Tribune on April 8, 2010.
Everyone knows the famous story of how, in 1633, the Catholic Church obliged Galileo to recant his confirmation of the Copernican theory that the Earth is not the centre of the universe – as in the Ptolemaic conception that had prevailed for over a thousand years – but that it in fact orbits the Sun, and not the other way round. An apocryphal detail is frequently added to the tale: having humbly “abjured, cursed and detested” his past errors, Galileo muttered under his breath, as he rose from his knees: “Eppur, si muove” (“And yet it moves” – “it” being, of course, the Earth).
That he should have got into trouble with the Church is not altogether surprising. In his 1632 Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, which expounds the heliocentric conclusions of his astronomical observations, Galileo adopted a provocative rather than scientifically sober approach, venturing into Biblical interpretation and implicitly taunting Pope Urban VIII. The latter was, in fact, generally well-disposed towards Galileo and, like other members of the Church’s hierarchy, well-informed about and interested in scientific matters. Along with its not unnatural reluctance to reinterpret scripture in the light of heliocentricity, there was in Catholic establishment some bona fide scientific scepticism regarding Galileo’s proofs and arguments.
Today it is taken for granted that the Church’s repressive (though not brutal) reaction to Galileo’s writings was motivated primarily by its obscurantist attitude and urge to preserve its monopoly on truth and power. This is to overlook a subtler but more crucial consideration: if the religious authorities were gracefully to accept that Galileo was correct – even in a purely (some might say trivially) material sense – what might be the long-term consequences of this new-fangled vision of the universe? It was feared that the repercussions of the “discovery”, when disseminated far and wide, would generate facile, half-baked philosophical conclusions about the incidental status of mankind that eventually would undermine our understanding and appreciation of ourselves. This in turn might lead to the nightmarish scenario we are in fact facing in the XXI Century, when much of the scientific establishment and its Mephistophelian acolytes in education, politics and the media are relentlessly browbeating human beings into regarding themselves as no more than congregations of molecules, assembled by chance – mere “quintessence of dust”, as Hamlet puts it. Man today is actively “deconstructing” himself, rapidly shedding any last vestige of his transcendental, spiritual, sacred dimension, and thereby exposing himself to the designs of those who cynically may wish to use him as a slave, sex-aid, source of spare parts or compost, as the case may be.
What does poor Galileo have to do with any of this, you may ask? Well, let us examine his proposition that the Earth is not the stationary centre of the universe, and that it in fact revolves around the Sun. Physicists today inform us that nothing in the universe is fixed; everything is in movement and gyrates around something else. If nothing can be regarded as the immovable centre, “Of whose true fix’d and resting quality / There is no fellow in the firmament” (Shakespeare again), then anything can – depending on its perspective – claim the title of centricity. And here is my point: there is, as far as can be ascertained, no perspective in the universe other than the human perspective. Ours is not only a point of view, to be considered and assessed in conjunction with the points of view of Jupiter, Canopus and the Milky Way; it is the only point of view. Each day the Sun appears to rise in the east and set in west, and so it does – simply because we say so. The Sun cannot put forward an alternative interpretation of reality, as it is only a massive, inorganic, incandescent object that has no awareness of anything at all, and no will. In that respect, even the most humble invertebrate is to be taken more into account than the Sun, as it has an animus which enables it to perceive and to act.
Of all the animals, only human beings – as far as we can reasonably judge through all the empirical evidence available to us – have consciousness (i.e. philosophical self-awareness; the ability to think “I am”, and to conceptualize past, present and future) and a conscience (i.e. an understanding of good and evil). Scientists who make headlines with the revelation that human beings share 92% of their chromosomes with earthworms or 98% with chimpanzees have really nothing more profound to say than Copernicus or Galileo. What is truly remarkable and spectacularly obvious about human beings in comparison with earthworms and chimpanzees is our essential, intrinsic, immeasurable difference. Evidently chromosomes cannot be so important after all. (I might add that I happen to regard our primate cousins as intelligent and sensitive creatures, worthy of our respect and protection. However, since they are not endowed with moral awareness, they can have no duties, and consequently no rights – but that is a topic for another article.)
As astronomers have gradually revealed to us the unimaginable immensity of the universe, Man’s loss of confidence in his own significance, so feared by the Church in the 1600s, has accelerated exponentially. “How arrogant and self-centred it is,” the standard argument goes, “to believe that God created a seemingly infinite universe just for the insignificant creatures that we are. Clearly we are no more than a minute and meaningless by-product of the blind, cosmic forces that shaped reality.” Those who put forward this line of reasoning rarely provide us with details of the kind of universe they think would be a plausible, tailor-made environment for human beings. Perhaps they feel that if there were a God, he would necessarily be less wasteful, more responsibly economical in his design. Doubtless he would limit the universe to a sensible celestial dome hovering not too far above our heads. But what would happen when you reached – conceptually or, as in “The Truman Show”, physically – the edge of such a universe? What lies beyond? “Nothing” is not a very meaningful answer. In fact, any conceivable universe in which we might find ourselves would be equally sensible or absurd, and would prove nothing about God or our place in the overall scheme of things. Personally, I think that one could regard the vastness of the universe we inhabit as a homage to human beings, or an affirmation of their importance: all this endlessly expanding immensity was necessary, from the “Big Bang” onwards, just so that we could exist. This would be a purely poetic or emotional, rather than a scientific or rational, truth – but no less valid a perception for all that.
After all, it is only our perception of ourselves and of the world that surrounds us that is definitive, conclusive and real, for there is no other – save that of God, if he is more than just a concept. “Man is the measure of all things”, wrote the Greek philosopher Protagoras in the V Century B.C.
I couldn’t have put it better myself.
One would think that the editors of such a prestigious scientific journal as The Lancet might be endowed with the sufficient lucidity not to interpret Benedict XVI’s comment on condoms in the most obtusely literal way. The Roman Catholic Church’s doctrine on sexual relationships is doubtless idealistic and difficult to live up to for many, but at least it has the merit of being clear-cut and well-known: fidelity within marriage or abstinence. As it happens, there is no better recipe than this for limiting dramatically the number of sexually-transmitted diseases – something that not even the most eminent scientists writing for The Lancet can deny.
Regardless of their positive or negative idiosyncrasies, popes are at least refreshingly free from the constraints of demagogic crowd-pleasing with an eye on re-election, an unfortunate and distasteful by-product of democracy. Al Gore was careful to postpone his “inconvenient truth” till after he’d retired from his political career, and it was his genial persistence in telling fellow citizens what they didn’t want to hear that led to Socrates’ democratically determined execution. As for the Pope’s mentor, historical records suggest that he got on people’s nerves to such an extent that he came in a very poor second to a notorious criminal during a popularity contest in Jerusalem, and was subsequently tortured and executed with the crowd’s approval. Benedict XVI clearly has no aspirations to mass appeal for its own sake; his duty, as he sees it, is to express his faith-based convictions, even if they happen not to fit in with the prevailing cultural or social climate – a climate that is notoriously allergic to any notion of sexual restraint, and is aptly symbolized by the giant condom that was fitted over the obelisk in Paris’ Place de la Concorde in 1993 (preferable though it was to the guillotine).
As it happens, the Pope was very obviously not stating that in each discrete instance of sexual intercourse, the wearing of a condom actually increases the probability of STD propagation. Clearly, he was attacking the attitude towards sexuality that is disseminated through “condom culture”: the notion that a lifestyle involving mindless promiscuity, and the demotion of other human beings to the status of disposable tools by means of which ephemeral sexual gratification is achieved, is perfectly acceptable as long as a latex membrane insulates the most intimate forms of contact during the proceedings. Leaving aside the moral consideration that using another human being merely as a means to an orgasm, whilst maintaining a physical barrier between oneself and the other person, is odious, this approach to sexual relations patently cannot lead in the long term to the eradication of STDs – quite the contrary. Juggling short-term desire for someone else’s body with the need to keep that body (not to mention the person to whom the body belongs) at arm’s length, as it were, can scarcely be regarded as a realistic formula for epidemiological success.
This evident analysis seems valid to dispassionate scientists who don’t instinctively reject every pronouncement that happens to emanate from the Roman Catholic Church. For instance, as reported by London’s The Times on March 27, 2009, Edward C. Green, director of the AIDS Prevention Center at the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies, said this week that “the best evidence we have supports the Pope’s comments”, a perspective that is shared by the molecular biologist Dr. Helen Epstein, author of The Invisible Cure, Why We Are Losing the Fight Against AIDS in Africa, also quoted by The Times.
The Lancet’s editors seem conceptually to reduce fully-fledged sexual encounters to penetration (with a perfectly adjusted condom in place), ejaculation and withdrawal, conducted with clinical precision in prissily aseptic conditions. Sex is gloriously messy; the messier it is, the better it is. Good sex involves momentarily taking leave of self-conscious restraints, and in such circumstances the determination to avoid contact with bodily fluids is soon cast aside – or else it ends up ruining the whole experience. Either the lives of The Lancet’s editors are cursed with woefully mediocre, mechanical and unimaginative sex, or – let’s face it – they simply have it in for the Pope.
Moreover, it is patronizing – indeed, patronizing to an almost racist degree – towards Benedict XVI’s African audience to assume that they cannot understand the true import of his words, and to imagine that Africans are so moronically lustful and promiscuous that, upon hearing the Pope condemn the dissemination of condoms as a genuinely effective means of preventing AIDS in the long run, they will instantly jettison their boxes of freely-distributed prophylactics and continue cheerfully, indiscriminately and condomlessly to bonk their way through life. The distinguished doctors of The Lancet might kindly credit Africans with the intelligence to understand that it was the general approach to sexual relationships epitomized by systematic condom usage that was being questioned, and not the banal fact that in a given sexual encounter a condom will make infection less likely. Clearly, the less direct carnal contact between human beings there is, the lower the chances of STD contagion will be – there needs no ghost come from the grave to tell us this! The Vatican’s position on the proper context of sex may not be everyone’s cup of tea; for all the reader knows, it may not be mine, and for all I know, it may not be the reader’s – but that’s beside the point. As a recipe for avoiding the propagation of AIDS it is peerless. And at least faithfully monogamous couples can indulge in the full range of uninhibited sexual possibilities without elaborate precautions (and with a papal blessing – should they want it).
What is most unforgivably disingenuous and cowardly about The Lancet’s editors, however, is to focus their attack on Benedict XVI – a facile target – instead of tackling head-on the real and glaringly obvious cause of the catastrophic dissemination of STDs in Africa and elsewhere (starting with chic communities in California and New York, where AIDS first became a noteworthy illness, unlike malaria, because it affected affluent, stylish Americans), lest they alienate some of their politically correct, sexually liberated readers and patrons: reckless promiscuity. They can hardly blame the Pope for instigating that.
Published in an abridged form in The Catholic Herald
in April 2009
2009 is the 500th anniversary of Jean Calvin’s birth, and from all over Europe pilgrims in their hundreds of thousands are currently pouring into Geneva in a state of fervent anticipation. I am generally tolerant of the transcendental emotions of others, but from my viewpoint, as a commuter between the small lakeside town of Nyon (founded by Julius Caesar in 50 B.C. for the veterans of his cavalry) and Geneva, this phenomenon is something of a nuisance.
Traffic on my 20 km. stretch of autoroute is far from fluid at the best of times. Typically, up to half of it is generated by drivers from Ain and the Haute-Savoie, the two neighbouring départements in France, as one can tell from their license plate numbers. But this week, every region of France is represented in the terminally congested motorway. So are all 26 Swiss cantons, from mighty Zurich to tiny Appenzell Innerrhoden. So is every far-flung European country you can think of: Norway and Greece, Portugal and Ukraine, and everything in between – not to mention a sprinkling of Turkish or Qatari vehicles spicing up the air with their exotic fumes. Indeed, the traffic right now is so dense that, paradoxically, there is no particular advantage to be gained by taking the train; you can read, say, the International Herald Tribune on your way to work even more comfortably at the steering wheel of your immobile car, which at least guarantees you a seat.
I rather suspect that Calvin would have frowned on pilgrimages as an idolatrous, papist practice, and would in no way have wanted his name to be associated with them. If so, he can rest in peace within his austere, almost anonymous grave in the Cimetière des Rois: I daresay that no more than a few hundred faithful are likely to drift into Geneva this year with him in mind. The mass migration of people in their automobiles to which I refer, notwithstanding its rituals, its zeal and its ecstasy, is untainted by misguided Christian impulses. Its source of inspiration is solely the Car, and its shrine the colossal Palexpo centre, where the Geneva Motor Show is held every March.
In The Canterbury Tales, horses are fairly prominent, and it’s obvious that Chaucer expects readers (or listeners) readily to deduce from the description of each pilgrim’s steed his or her social rank or pretensions. But frivolous displays of status notwithstanding, the formal pretext that made “folk longen to goon on pilgrimages” was religious – in this particular case, to pay their respects to the martyr St. Thomas à Becket, and not to ogle in reverential awe every deity in the equine pantheon, from the Anglo-Arabian thoroughbred to the Lithuanian Heavy Draught.
You might argue that at least there is no whiff of pious hypocrisy in the Geneva Motor Show; it’s all about pure, unabashed, in-your-face hedonism. The state-of-the-art characteristics of most of the cars clogging up like cholesterol the arteries, veins and capillaries of Switzerland’s small-scale highway network is such that, by the time they reach the Motor Show itself, drivers will already have seen, crawling alongside them, just about every conceivable and insolently ostentatious model of Porsche, Audi, Jaguar, Maserati, Mercedes, Cadillac, Bentley – you name it – hot off the assembly line. As part of a bizarre onanistic rite, thousands of people flock to Geneva to see on display the cars they have already bought.
And, one should add, endlessly to photograph them with their compact cameras and mobile ‘phones, rather like earnest Catholics might point their lenses at Benedict XVI. But surely there is a key difference in the underlying motivation. Futile though their best digitally recorded efforts might be, the worshippers in the Vatican are trying to capture and preserve a glimpse of the successor of St. Peter, whom they regard as their only tangible link with Christ; there is a perhaps naïve but spiritually sincere purpose in collecting blurred pictures of the Holy Father. What exactly the 700,000 Geneva Motor Show pilgrims do with the vast archives of sleazy supercar snapshots that they take back home is anyone’s guess.
I grant you that in Europe, at any rate, faith-based pilgrimages nowadays are not necessarily bona fide, and possibly they never have been. Millions visit Lourdes or Fatima in a pragmatic frame of mind, seeking miraculous cures when medical science fails. Many, if not most, of the amiable eccentrics who still trek to Santiago de Compostela in the 21st Century are anxious to make it clear that they are not satisfying a specifically religious need (God forbid!) but merely an ineffable craving for something different. All this is eminently harmless, however, when compared with the Geneva Motor Show’s annual transhumance. From an ecological perspective, to drive hundreds or thousands of miles, bumper-to-bumper with other cars, in order to see yet more cars, is rather like hobbling lepers congregating from all over the world to admire the multifarious disfigurements their disease can cause, with a view to spreading new and improved strains of the illness.
Have you ever paused to wonder, when you notice in the supermarket that a long-established item on your shopping list has been repackaged with the brash slogan “NEW AND IMPROVED” (and, more often than not, a modified price tag), what might have been inadequate about the product that had given you satisfaction for years? In the case of, say, a washing powder or detergent, bona fide scientific advances leading to enhanced effectiveness and biodegradability are conceivable, but how would you respond to “new and improved” eggs, or milk, or honey? Leaving aside minor differences that arise from variations among chickens, or cows, or bees, and how they have been bred and fed or – heaven forbid – genetically manipulated, eggs, milk and honey are surely prototypes of food not subject to improvement. We do not spend our shopping lives seeking endlessly better milk, eggs or honey; good milk, eggs or honey – in other words, what is closest to the prototype our taste buds recognize and appreciate – will satisfy utterly our longing for that type of food. No sensible person will demand that farmers should constantly be experimenting with novel approaches to produce improved milk, eggs and honey, using consumers as gustative guinea pigs in the process; it suffices that they take every care and precaution to provide chickens, cows and bees with whatever they need to generate naturally the substances that are unimprovable, staple essences in human gastronomy.
I need surely not add that the association of the terms “new” and “improved”, with the fallacious implication that the former necessarily entails the latter, is no more than a transparent marketing ploy. Yet it is also an assumption that has permeated much contemporary thinking – or rather, conditioned contemporary reflexes (thinking hardly comes into it, alas) – to an alarming degree.
Some years ago I was the recipient of a form designed to serve in the appraisal of a senior administrator in an educational establishment that shall remain anonymous. Virtually every criterion by which this person’s professional performance was to be evaluated hinged on his or her ability to deliver novelty in one way or another. I was filled with a combination of dread and compassion at the thought of this hapless victim of neophilia, striving desperately each day to come up with something new and improved in the field of education as though his job depended on it (and, it would appear, it did). Of course, the educational damage an administrator can do is fortunately limited. But what if teachers were put under similar pressure or, even more perniciously, were contaminated with the neophiliac virus and embarked spontaneously and fervently on a never-ending quest for a “new and improved” education?
There was a time when immutability was the norm in educational matters. Ancient sources and assumptions were revered uncritically, and antiquity was synonymous with quality and reliability. (There is, of course, a valid case for revering and inculcating Plato and Aristotle, Cicero and Seneca, Augustine and Aquinas, which need not apply to every charlatan, quack and alchemist who happened to be alive a millennium or two ago.) Greek and Latin were the only acceptable languages of instruction, and for Ben Jonson affectionately to mock Shakespeare for his “small Latin, and less Greek” was tantamount in 1623 to alleging today that Seamus Heaney, great poet though he may be, can’t be trusted to spell correctly half of the words he employs. The prevailing dogmas of the educational establishment, hypnotized by the mindless mantra that newer is better, have undergone a sea-change in recent decades, with the depressing result that today hardly anyone can even decipher – let alone read, write or speak – ancient Greek or Latin. Worse still, scarcely anyone is even remotely interested in doing so. Plato, Aristotle and company are fast becoming vestigial names, hollow sounds devoid of identity and meaning.
But surely such irrelevant expertise in archaic languages and authors was jettisoned to make way for updated and upgraded forms of knowledge, some will argue. Perhaps they have a point – but only if we give precedence to, say, information technology – a mere medium, a humble tool – over the wisdom of mankind as crystallized in the minds of its greatest thinkers.
The current cult of modernity is, of course, not new. It is a spin-off of the so-called “Age of Enlightenment”, of the Industrial Revolution, and of dramatic XIX and XX Century developments in science and technology – two fields in which genuine, cumulative and unlimited advances seem possible. The trouble is that this assumption of exponential progress has been laid like a cuckoo’s egg in other areas of human endeavour, such as the humanities, the arts and – need I add – education, where it has hatched and swelled into a monster that is displacing the authentic, core values of these disciplines. There can be no unlimited progress in, say, history, literature or pedagogy; this is an uninformed and arrogant illusion. There are changes and fashions, there are rises and falls, there are scrupulous and slapdash practices, there is excellence and decadence, there is waxing and waning, but there is no steady, systematic, infinite process of improvement. The particular priorities of one generation simply replace the preferences of the previous one; the latest batch of freshly indoctrinated, jargon-spouting smart-asses, clutching diplomas on which the ink is not yet dry, browbeats its predecessors into acquiescence. Veterans in any educational institution have seen fad after fad come and go and come again, but when they point out that today’s “new and improved” strategy had already been introduced 30 years previously and then substituted by a refurbished version of the status quo ante ten years later, no one listens to them.
Moreover, novelty tends rudely and arrogantly to displace existing virtues or strengths rather than aggregate with them, and the putative advantages of what is new are gained only at the expense of established qualities. Learning by rote was a sacrosanct educational strategy in the late 1800s – never mind whether anything was understood. Today, in contrast, self-awareness, spontaneous self-expression and self-confidence are what is cultivated – never mind content or facts. Consequently, an increasing proportion of students is leaving school (or university, for that matter) without a clue about, for example, who Dante or Cervantes or Milton or Goethe were, when they lived or what they wrote. But at least they will be in touch with their inner selves, and speak or write with illiterate confidence about, like, whatever, and stuff like that. Know what I mean? One prays that they know what they mean.
Knowledge is, indeed, the crux of the matter. Endless soul-searching and hypothesizing in a vacuum about educational methodology and “learning to learn” is no substitute for the transmission of concrete knowledge. Thinking processes are doomed to banality and shallowness when the thinker is devoid of knowledge, of anything substantive to think about. Hence the danger of neophilia, which is inimical to knowledge, because – with the possible exception of ongoing scientific research* – knowledge is rooted in the past and is largely retrospective, whereas neophiles are indiscriminately and demagogically prospective. Neophilia is doubly damaging, because it also camouflages, packages and markets mediocrity and ignorance. Their obsession with modernity overlooks the fact that whatever is happening now is modern by definition; accordingly, the reactionary views I am expressing in this article could not be more up-to-date.
Neophilia can be harmful to your mental health, and fatal to your students’ education. But take comfort: regular doses of Dostoevsky, capsules of Confucius, potions of Pascal and shots of Shakespeare should suffice to inoculate you against its most deleterious manifestations.
* Not even scientific research, however, is immune to neophilia. Professor Jérôme Biollaz, médecin chef à la division de pharmacologie clinique in Lausanne’s Centre Hospitalier Universitaire Vaudois, deprecates the lucrative trend towards medical innovation for its own sake and adds, “ Nous vivons dans une société où l’on pense que ce qui est nouveau est forcément mieux.”(“Les géants de la pharma sont-ils des menteurs ?”, Tribune de Genève, 6th November 2004, p. 4)