Wednesday, 29 February 2012

40BFL 6: Mythologies

Intelligent journalism. Now that would be a thing. There is of course the reliably amusing school boy Charlie Brooker - though he does get a bit repetitive while 10 o’clock live’s on - and his counterpart Hadley Freeman who is to be commended for her devotion to Zoolander.

Then there’s Simon Hoggart who makes Westminster politics actually seem amusing and interesting. Larry Elliott is a good writer but he’s rather reverted into a prophet of doom role that just seems a bit bleak. I haven’t so far found a Times journalist I really enjoy. Ann Treneman has potential and to be fair their editorial is far superior to the Guardian’s, and then of course the Times does have its piece de resistance in Caitlin Moran’s Celebrity Watch. There are a couple of FT (weekend) writers who I like - Tim Harford and Robert Shrimsley particularly - and the best journalist at the moment is certainly Simon Kuper. But I think there is a great art in producing a short piece of writing that genuinely tells you something; changes how you see something. Sermons of course attempt this - as do blogs - but a writer with a real eye for this is something to be treasured.

Mythologies is a wonderful collection of short observations. Barthes purpose is really one of demythologising - of taking instances from every day life and showing where something cultural is paraded as natural, where familiarity has stopped us seeing the world as it is. Taking in all parts of culture - from wrestling to wine, Roman haircuts to toys, striptease to soap adverts, he needles out the little lies that cloud the way we see the world.

There is a telling piece on Elle that Roaring would no doubt approve of. It describes an article on women novelists that notes each woman by how many novels she havs written and how many children she has had - presumably in a sort of “woo! You can have it all, ladies” maneuver. Barthes ironically celebrates, “Women, be therefore courageous, free; play at being men, write like them; but never get far from them; live under their gaze, compensate for your books by your children; enjoy a free rein for a while, but quickly come back to your condition. One novel, one child, a little feminism, a little connubiality.” The world of Elle is “a world without men, but entirely constituted by the gaze of man”.

And each of the pieces adds a little observation - ways in which something is romanticized in order to sell it or slip it past you. It is an expose of conservatism - undermining the easiness of the nostalgic and quaint, to see the injustice that is perpetrated unnoticed. God knows what he’d have made of the Church of England!

What he sees is that there is a persistent thread running through history that attempts to make you think, “it was ever thus” - and it’s really tempting because change is exhausting and it threatens your security. The idea that you can say anything is eternal is immensely appealing and gets you out of all the contradictions of your historical situation. The church of course celebrates this as a virtue. It is the only institution that would comfortably say “well we’ve been doing this for two thousand years so why change now?” A friend in fact said that to me just last week in defense of his refusal to support gay marriage or blessing civil partnerships. It’s not that slavery, sexism, exploitation of colonies, the working class, anti-semitism, homophobia, witch hunts, crusades, various popes, Henry VIII, &c. had passed him by, but the appeal to tradition does rather exonerate you from thinking.

The book is pretty polemical and you should immediately read Ricoeur afterwards who reminds us that myth is communication as well as distortion, and that ideology is what gives us our place in the world as well as politically bullying us. Still the book is a reminder that observation is imperative and that thinking clearly and writing well are gifts to society that unlock its own truths. More writers like this are needed! His conclusion, which is set in a realist view of the world that recognizes the essential role of the imagination, summarizes the task neatly: “this is what we must seek: a reconciliation between reality and men, between description and explanation, between object and knowledge.”

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