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Monday, 26 September 2016

Let's call it a cat

As we waited for a traffic light on upper Broadway, I saw a sporting extra headlined with the score of the game. The green sheet was more real than the afternoon itself--succinct, condensed and clear:

PRINCETON CONQUERS YALE 10-3
SEVENTY THOUSAND WATCH TIGER TRIM
BULLDOG

DEVLIN SCORES ON YALE FUMBLE

There it was--not like the afternoon, muddled, uncertain, patchy and scrappy to the end, but nicely mounted now in the setting of the past:

PRINCETON, 10; YALE, 3

Achievement was a curious thing, I thought. Dolly was largely responsible for that. I wondered if all things that screamed in the headlines were simply arbitrary accents. As if people should ask, "What does it look like?"

"It looks most like a cat."

"Well, then, let's call it a cat."

My mind, brightened by the lights and the cheerful tumult, suddenly grasped the fact that all achievement was a placing of emphasis--a molding of the confusion of life into form.

F. Scott Fitzgerald - The Bowl (1928)

An unusually long quote but the context is important - an American football game - muddled, uncertain, patchy and scrappy to the end, but nicely mounted now in the setting of the past. And here again is the conclusion Fitzgerald's character draws from all the tidying up so that everything is nicely mounted.

My mind, brightened by the lights and the cheerful tumult, suddenly grasped the fact that all achievement was a placing of emphasis--a molding of the confusion of life into form.

Not particularly easy to generalise as an insight into the essentially artificial nature of achievement because there are obvious caveats. Eliminating hunger globally would be more than a mere placing of emphasis. So expanding Fitzgerald’s observation to wider achievements is not so easy. As well as the caveats it requires a kind of lateral cynicism, a willingness and even a desire to step away from the social clamour and focus on the artificial aspects of achievement. Perhaps it is also easy to see such an attitude as overdone, as envy or misanthropy taken too far.

And yet... and yet all achievement is a placing of emphasis because it must be. We have to define what counts as achievement and what does not, even if we are eliminating hunger or aiming to cure cancer. We have to emphasise the necessary qualities of achievement before it counts as achievement, even if that emphasis is perfectly obvious to the entire world.

Staying with sporting achievement - suppose the rules of soccer were to be changed. Smaller or bigger pitches, a different number of players, changes to the scoring, kick-ins instead of throw-ins, no offside rule. Whatever we do we have to say how the game is to be won or lost, we have to define the achievement of winning by a placing of emphasis. As we all know the emphasis on winning has become so overblown that even the idea of football as a sporting contest seems naive. The emphasis has shifted.

A more tricky example might be Jeremy Corbyn winning the general election for Labour in 2020. That would certainly be a remarkable achievement by conventional standards, yet the man probably doesn’t expect to win. His notion of achievement may be centred around a different placing of emphasis, shifting the Labour party towards the more totalitarian politics he and his supporters favour.

The internet is a remarkable achievement by conventional standards, but again we could step aside so that this too becomes a placing of emphasis. The power of almost instant global communication is emphasised over a range of more sedate alternatives such as talking, doing and taking part. This does not imply that the internet is a malign influence. It merely reminds us that popular emphasis is merely that – emphasis - and that one achievement often precludes another. 

2 comments:

Roger said...

A jewel or a painting is generally enhanced by a good setting or frame. As fashions change so the frame may change but the jewel or painting stays the same and with luck shines through into new eyes more beautifully.

Ideas also need a setting, sometimes they sort of grow one through time and context. More often a framework gets created with a view to influencing the impression placed into the minds of those perceiving the idea.

Recently drifted through a corner of the wealthy world and was struck by how vulgar all but the very best creations seem - and I feel much the same about ideas. No matter how much you polish a turd.....

A K Haart said...

Roger - have you seen pictures of Donald Trump's decor?