"Those wonderful Berlin cabarets which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler and prevent the Second World War"
"Hitler brings nothing to my mind"
Is it possible (and I am only wondering, not asserting) that the responsible artistic attitude to an imminent and overwhelming catastrophe is to leave it alone? While I was giving Cormac McCarthy the treatment
a few days ago, and again when I read Buck Theorem's response
justifying it as a fairy tale, I was put in mind of my initial, visceral reaction to The Road:
beyond my intellectual and aesthetic objections, and even beyond my boundless personal prejudice against ordinary decent folks and their charming little children, I thought the book was irresponsible
. It reminded me of my reaction to Nevil Shute's post-nuclear Harlequin romance, On the Beach,
which I read during my teens, at a time
when nuclear catastrophe appeared to me as inevitable as climate catastrophe now appears to mere scientists. I am also reminded of certain critics' objections to Holocaust films like Life is Beautiful
and Schindler's List:
that they reduce a vast and terrible human tragedy to light entertainment or Hollywood kitsch
. Having ended the world a couple of times, and having also used the Holocaust as a literary device (in an alternate-historical horror story, to boot), I am open to similar charges myself.
There is a difference between a historical event, however appalling, and the global catastrophe towards which we are now so eagerly toddling. Historical events have already happened; they are part of our common heritage and we may use them as we please, though it is arguable that in certain cases we should wait a decent interval before doing so. The Beyond the Fringe
company received a certain amount of criticism when they poked fun at the Blitz myth in the early sixties; even two decades later, there were letters of complaint about 'Allo 'Allo!
- a BBC comedy series set in Nazi-occupied France, whose humour relied almost entirely on doubles entendres
and funny foreign accents - from those who felt it trivialised the war itself rather than the BBC melodrama, Secret Army,
of which it was a parody.
Historical events are digested, mythologised, simplified, re-assessed and recycled for each generation; in Britain this is generally known as "learning the lessons of the past" or as "pride in our island's story", or occasionally as fashionable denigration of the magnificent achievements of our island's various pirates, bigots, tyrants and slavers. In the end, historical events are forgotten. One day, even the Holocaust will be forgotten. We of today have learned the lesson that it is better to kill people for their oil than for their Jewishness, and of course we are much the better for it; but even if by chance the human species should survive beyond Hitler's two hundredth birthday, one day the Holocaust will be surpassed in human atrocity and eclipsed in human memory. When that happens, the victims of the camps and the Einsatzgruppen
will not be any more dead than they are now, whereas at the moment most casualties of global warming have yet to occur and are thereby preventable, at least in theory. Therein lies the difference between trivialising past calamities and trivialising future ones.
was first broadcast, a critic or one of its makers was quoted as saying that films of that kind are inevitably over-optimistic in that they show survivors. When we are led to identify with characters who survive a disaster, we lead ourselves to believe that the disaster may not be so bad after all. No work of art or entertainment can instil the sense of urgency required by our present situation, because the ability to consume a work of art or entertainment implies a level of comfort, or at least security, which militates against that very sense of urgency. One does not watch a thriller to feel a thrill of real death. Works of art and entertainment induce emotions safely, at second hand; that is their whole purpose. The disadvantage is that, however one may feel about the pen being mightier than the sword, no satire can make quite the same impression as a truncheon, a bullet or a bomb, just as no horror story can quite rival a terminal diagnosis from a qualified physician, whether for oneself, one's family or one's everything. Even when we are led to identify with characters who die at the end, even when the world is destroyed before our eyes, we are still here. We still get to switch off the DVD player or close the book, and go merrily on about our business of scoffing up the planet and defecating out the means of our demise.
No work of art, let alone entertainment, can give anything approaching an adequate perspective on the scale of the catastrophe that awaits us. The democratic majority of today's audiences have approximately as much idea of what is going to hit their children and grandchildren, let alone of what to do about it, as Jewish Germans in 1903 or the good people of Pompeii in 49 CE or, for that matter, the average hard-working family of dinosaurs at the wrong end of the Mesozoic. All that a work of art can do is depict the calamity and its consequences from a necessarily limited perspective, whereby the very act of depiction becomes a means for the audience to digest, minimise, accept, forget and continue bringing about the calamity.
Assuming for the sake of argument (and against all the most basic tenets of capitalism and Christianity) that human misery is undesirable, what justification can there be for works that underestimate the misery to come? There is one, of course: namely that when irrevocably faced by the gates of Hell
and with only one direction in which to move, it is more pleasant to see the gates painted with pretty pictures, or even with improving slogans about work and freedom, than with advice to abandon all hope.
Should one make entertainment out of the approaching climate catastrophe? Should one make art? The death and immiseration of millions, probably thousands of millions, is now virtually inevitable; the end of civilisation fairly likely; the reduction of the human species to a few tribes scattered around the poles a distinct possibility; the extinction of all or most of life on earth a not entirely unreasonable projection. Should one write fairy tales