How do you feel about derision? I don’t mean what do you think about me coming round your place and being rude to you. We can do that, too, if you like, but I was thinking rather more of derision as a motor of conversation and writing. I ask because I am occasionally reproached for ridicule, an allegation that makes me a tad uneasy.
I don’t mind being ridiculous, which is just as well, all things considered. Nor do I mind making myself ridiculous, or ridiculing myself, though Jeannette can get a bit uptight about it, perhaps fearing she is the ultimate butt of that particular joke. However, I have my doubts about being more generally derisive. First, though, I should declare an interest, or, at least, a prejudice: some things merit as much derision as a body can muster.
Most people who are rich and powerful, for instance, ought to be scoffed at. This is not mere envy, though that may play its part. But when somebody has a lot of money, I always think they should be asked three questions. First, why did you want to get rich? Second, what did you do (and to whom) to get rich? Third, why are you still rich? The reasoning behind the first two questions is obvious, the third perhaps less so.
The thing is, so far as I’ve understood it (not very far, admittedly), money is not hugely interesting unless a. you haven’t got any, or b. have loads of the stuff and are spending it on something worthwhile. Frankly, accumulating the sort of immoderately complicated crap upon which the modern consumer culture is premised and thereafter maintaining yourself in a state of perpetual luxury strikes me as a stunning waste of time. So anybody who stays rich for more than a decade or so seems a bit dubious to me. Getting rich and losing it all, or squandering it all, or giving it all away, that’s interesting. Getting rich and staying rich . . . oh, come on. Shape up now!
Likewise for those with power: Why did you want it? What are you doing with it? and What have you done to hang onto it? If they can’t answer those questions convincingly and coherently, mock them . . . mercilessly. So that’s most of the rich people and pretty well all the politicians sorted then.
Other matters deserving of derision? Well, if you’ve followed this blog, you’ll probably have gathered that I’ve taken considerable pleasure from the humiliation of all those feckless Greedheads behind the credit crunch. Even the language they’ve conjured up to conceal their malfeasance is absurd. ‘Credit crunch’, ha! What sort of a phrase is that? Sounds like a breakfast cereal or a chocolate bar: “Get a head start – begin the day with a delicious bowl of Credit Crunch”; “Credit Crunch, the snack with a bite – it’s so snappy!” What’s the matter with the recession-depression words we used to juggle with in the past? As for the ‘quantitative easing’ euphemism, well, really. I maybe wrong, but I’ve got a vague memory that the Weimar Republic was ‘quantitatively eased’ into the Third Reich, that Hitler himself had a plan for ‘quantitatively easing’ Britain into bankruptcy, and I could have sworn there was some story about Robert Mugabe ‘quantitatively easing’ Zimbabwe into famine. Could be wrong, of course. Anyway, like most people, I reckon the hucksters and hoaxers of the bonus culture richly deserve all the derision heaped on them.
As it happens, I also think the rest of us living in the overdeveloped world merit much the same for pretending we can carry on consuming like we do without infants dying of malnutrition in Africa as a direct consequence of our incontinent appetites or twelve year olds in Southeast Asia spending eighteen hours a day stitching trainers so that we can pounce on a ‘remarkable’ bargain. This is purblindness of a high order warranting a large measure of ridicule. Plenty else does, too, and everybody will have their own list of the deserving risible, so suggestions in the comments box, please. Anything you care to name – apart from me.
That’s settled then. Some stuff is eminently mockable. But it’s all a question of scale. I met a man once (only the once, that was enough) who savaged everything that cropped up in the course of an evening’s conversation. He was reasonably witty, too. He must be clever, I thought, since he’s sneering at everything. I was quite impressed for about half-an-hour. After a while though, it became a little wearing and I got to wondering, “Well if the rest of the world is so rubbish, what have you done with your life that’s so great?” I probed a little, feeling him out on his achievements. He didn’t like that. Bit of a tender spot. In fact, it rapidly became apparent that he was horribly insecure, with some justification it must be said, and that the only way he could feel halfway good about himself was by pouring scorn on everybody and everything outside of himself.
It’s the same in writing. Satire is a great and glorious thing and can be the most tremendous fun, but generally only in small doses, or leavened with some genuine affection for people. Take it too far and it becomes indigestible. That’s one reason I finished Thackeray’s Vanity Fair with a sigh of relief. I was very into the Victorians with their big fat books and big fat themes, and I had been looking forward to reading what was, even by the standards of the time, one very fat Victorian. Would have been better if it had gone on a drastic diet, slimmed down a bit, or at least lightened up in another sense. As it was, I ended up thinking that if pretty much everyone was going to be vicious, asinine, passive to the point of catatonia, or prematurely dead, and the one decent character was a dotard lumbered with a name like Dobbin, there wasn’t a lot of point writing about them. I had a similar sensation more recently with Michael Faber’s disenchanted Victorian pastiche, The Crimson Petal and the White.
Yes, people are greedy, vain, dim, hypocritical, deceitful and snobbish. We all know that. We didn’t invent those words by accident. They are other stuff, too, though. And you can’t expect a reader to enjoy the company of your characters if you spend all your time up on your pedestal lobbing buckets of ordure at them. Playing at God maybe one of the pleasures of writing, but you do need a bit of the tender loving stuff, you can’t just be a gnostic demiurge damning the entire material world. Treat people like shit long enough and they’ll end up thinking you’re an arsehole. Just ask Mr. Bush, he’ll tell you all about it.
Same with sarcasm. It’s not the lowest form of wit. That jibe is merely the riposte of people with intellects too sluggish for repartee. But, it has to be said, it’s not terribly elevated, either, and, as with satire, it is a case of less is more. One well-aimed barb will do everybody, with the possible exception of the target, the world of good. Keep it up for too long, though, and nobody will notice the sarcasm, least of all the person delivering it. The only result will be that they’ll have slightly bitter, twisted looking lips distorted by the taste of asperity.
As for book reviewers . . . well, I’ve spoken about them elsewhere. It’s worth noting, though, that the most entertaining reviews are those that heap abuse on a book. They’re the most fun to write, too, and the easiest because any book in the world can be made ridiculous if you put half a mind to it – and that’s all you need. But again, if it goes too far, it all becomes a bit futile. Read the review section of any given newspaper regularly and you will soon notice that there’s always at least one critic who functions as a sort of literary Texas Chainsaw Massacre, slaughtering all the books the editor wants wasted. And once you’ve spotted the designated Hatchet-Man, the whole thing becomes a bit tedious; unless, of course, the week’s scalping happens to concern a book/subject/author you particularly dislike, in which case it might be rather fun . . . which brings us back to my earlier request.
The comments box, please. What do we want to mock?
Causes Charles Davis Supports
Oxfam, Amnesty International, Greenpeace