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Glory, Jest, Riddle

Glory is one of those words it’s hard to find a use for anymore. It’s like ‘hero’. I’m not suggesting the word hero should be kept only for sword-wavers like Ajax and Achilles. All I mean is that a discriminatory scale is required if words like this are to have their proper effect. Ever since hyperbolism became endemic, with mediapersons unable to speak two sentences without four fantastics, our higher encomia have become meaningless. In cricket an average batsman’s stroke is always magnificent. In daily life everything from a full moon to a bar of soap is fabulous. And a policeman just doing his duty is a hero.

Though what has happened to ‘glory’ is worse than that. It always implied honorable pre-eminence of some kind. But today we live in the age of Jerry Springer: our times being inglorious, any sort of distinction will do—as the irresistible rise of Dr Kakatoscopy shows. Her solemn scatologizing may well give the University of Queensland a degree of prominence; the Centre for the History of European Discourses will now enjoy a raised if rather seamy profile; and at a time when no-one can tell the difference between notoriety and genuine scholarly achievement, the dim refulgence of an exercise in academic bum-wiping will quite possibly bestow glory on her institution… of a kind.

Which brings us to the word ‘jest’. And with the University of Queensland the jest is at the expense of the taxpayer. There are still people alive who remember when humanities departments were concerned with higher thought—not nether regions. I am reliably informed that some Vice-Chancellors remember those days too. Fifty years ago, as a student, I heard professors of modern languages who were not only memorable lecturers, they were so theatrically gifted, so sure in their grasp of their material and so culturally well-rounded, that the campus productions of Molière and Beaumarchais they staged were almost of professional standard.

And the joke is that today large numbers of otherwise sensible mums and dads think nothing has changed. They imagine that just because the names of humanities departments still sound much the same—English, French, Modern Languages or whatever—that the staff in these departments are still teaching what they used to teach; and they happily send their children to such places for what is still called higher education. Yet in some cases little is left but the hollow shell of a once distinguished institution, an Arts Faculty in name only, with whole departments full of gabbling mountebanks.

They are supposedly teaching the humanities. More often, in the aftermath of postmodernism, they give courses in prestigitation and necromancy. Like the criminal classes they have invented an argot that keeps their true activities obscure. Like the criminal classes they will continue these activities, however intellectually corrupt, until they are forcibly stopped. And like everyone else who is up to no good they prefer to be left alone. All this is obvious: how does the world not know? But if you think the top international universities have been spared, read “The Truth About Harvard” in the March 2005 Atlantic Monthly.

The three words of our title are Alexander Pope’s. In his Essay on Man they refer to humanity’s gift for mixing the absurd, the wicked, the virtuous, and the sublime. That is what Pope meant when he wrote of the ‘riddle’ of mankind. And for a three-dimensional flesh and blood illustration we might turn to the India of the Maharaja and his wife. Winston Churchill seems to have regarded Russia as uniquely enigmatic; but to my mind the true enigma is the Indian subcontinent—largely because it combines the infinitely old and the utterly new side by side, a contrast producing contradictions difficult to comprehend.

Born to great wealth and unchallenged privilege, master of countless peasants in numerous towns, educated at Oxford, the Maharaja remained a boor in his own house, adopting an unpardonable tone toward helpless, wretched servants, who shrank against the wall as he spoke, and who would probably have been lucky to receive a handful of rupees each day.

While this is puzzling, perhaps it’s no more than that. Brutes of exalted background are a dime a dozen. The Maharani on the other hand was a genuine riddle of the kind that might have intrigued Alexander Pope. One half of her was sensible, humane, cultivated, modern and rational. Engaging to talk to, she performed her aristocratic role in local life impeccably, and though not without an appropriate hauteur, she was always perfectly civil. I remember in particular a draper spreading bolts of cloth over a large living room floor, a man who squatted deferentially before her as she expertly fingered fabrics of green and gold, questioned him about prices, and discreetly concluded a deal.

But that calm and practical woman was only her visible side. The secular, domestic persona, as it were. She had also a spiritual side too, spending long hours alone at puja in a darkened shrine, chanting before incarnations of Vishnu, the darkness lit dimly with candles and tapers and incense sticks. When questioned on religious matters she said she might end her life as a sati, and commit herself to fiery self-immolation. How serious was this? Hard to say, though every now and then we still read of some pious woman suiciding on a Hindu pyre. It is difficult for a modern mind to grasp such an event… The living flesh in flames—the body fats igniting and blazing up; pain beyond belief; agony unimaginable—in order to achieve sainthood. In his ‘Proem’ to his Essay on Man Pope speaks of the human spectacle as a mighty maze—yet not without a plan. With the act of sati, it is the plan that puzzles rather than the maze. But it’s time to let Pope speak for himself:

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan,
The proper study of Mankind is Man.
Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A Being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the Sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the Stoic’s pride,
He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest;
In doubt his Mind or Body to prefer;
Born but to die, and reasoning but to err;
Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little, or too much:
Chaos of Thought and Passion, all confused;
Still by himself abused, or disabused;
Created half to rise, and half to fall;
Great Lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of Truth, in endless Error hurled:
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!

Posted in For the Record, Notes, Poetry.

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