Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Between a speech and a snore


Oftentimes they were asleep, but occasionally might be heard talking together, in voices between a speech and a snore, and with that lack of energy that distinguishes the occupants of alms-houses, and all other human beings who depend for subsistence on charity, on monopolized labour, or anything else but their own independent exertions.

Mighty was their fuss about little matters, and marvellous, sometimes, the obtuseness that allowed greater ones to slip between their fingers
Nathaniel Hawthorne – The Scarlet Letter (1850)

Hawthorne was writing about the staff of the Salem Custom House where he worked for a while, but I wonder how many people reading those words have their own soporific memories. Interminable meetings, dull training courses or over-long speeches.

It is easy to caricature these things, as Hawthorne’s original description was no doubt something of a caricature. It certainly stirred up the citizens of Salem. In many ways, ours is the age of caricature and has been for several centuries at least. From Thomas Rowlandson to the present day, caricature has been used to ridicule social, political and moral mores in a uniquely pointed way.

Caricature works, often being far more powerful than all but the most inspired prose, analysis or trenchant argument. Caricature is fun too, especially when it shows up the venality and stupidities of those who seek to dominate our lives.

Caricature bites hard into the soft tissues of an inadequate elite. Within living memory the elite were largely hidden from view, known only to their family, peers, personal servants and senior underlings. To some extent they could evade caricature by staying out of the public eye, by influencing a comparatively small number of people controlling the press.

Those days have gone, perhaps temporarily, perhaps not. The elite are not special except in their privileges. Too often they are not especially ethical, intelligent, courageous, astute or profound. So they and the social absurdities they foist upon us are fair game.


Demetrius said...

In Norfolk I believe are the villages of Great and Little Snoring. They are said to be very quiet.

A K Haart said...

Demetrius - we were in that area recently and... zzzz