Saturday, July 28, 2012

Much Too Cool

After a long trip yesterday exploring some truly interesting spots off the beaten track in north central Mississippi, I returned home tired but happy. I remained tired, but I grew steadily less happy and more puzzled as I watched the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games. To be sure, the matter of rings, forged by mock factory workers meant to evoke the dark grime of Industrial Revolution, was impressive, as was the presence of the RAF jets, but that was almost the only thing about the ceremony that gave unalloyed pleasure. Anything else that might have pleased tended to evoke confusion: why, I wondered, does Queen Elizabeth jump out of a helicopter? I know that James Bond might, but in what possible way is the Queen asociated with skydiving? There, indeed, was the stunt, impressive in its timing and precision, but instead of being able to enjoy it, one was distracted by a question without solution.

Other moments made more sense: dancing aound the maypole is very English, I suppose (though this summer I saw a truly joyful maypole celebration in Bavaria), as was the business with the Dickensian tophats and smokestacks (though again, the Industrian Revolution is also part of German history), but these moments tended to be flat. In a pageant of English history, we were treated to a glimpse of bucolic medieval life, the Industrial Revolution, marching suffrgettes, and a few guys in uniforms from WWI: toward the end, these were all intermixed with redcoats surmounted with three-cornered hats in what was meant either to evoke such London traditions as the Lord Mayor's Parade or to concoct a soup into which bits of British cultural references floated indiscriminately about. What ingredient the large bicycle with the disproportionately menacing tuba was meant to suggest was, once again, a puzzle.

That part of the ceremony concluded with a phantasmagoria stemming from children's literature, with primary reference to Peter Pan, though near the end, J.K. Rowling managed to toss in a few words--too few to make much of an impression, so that, once again, one was left with the impression that she appeared, ad hoc, for good measure, as if to satisfy the expectations of her fans around the world. One might note that the references to children's literature came in the context of a nursery ward of some sort, in which children presumbaly suffering from illness or neglect were shown to be comforted or entertained by, among other touchstones of British nursery culture, dozens of Mary Poppinses floating down, black umbrellas fully opened at the ends of outstreched arms.

Toward the end England treated the world to yet another pageant, this one lossely based around the story of a boy who likes a girl whom he pursues against a backdrop of allusions to popular British music from the 1950s onward. Straightforward as one might expect such a segment to be, even one of the children in my household expressed confusion at how the boy, on finding and picking up the cell phone which the girl had dropped, managed to use her cell phone to call her--by the normal laws of telecommunications, he would have been calling himself (since he was after all holding her phone and she wasn't). As well as I remember, that was the end of the artistic portion of the O.C., after which the pedestrian parade of nations was a positive relief.

Strangely, the O.C. resolutely avoided any refence to anything that might lift the human spirit by alluding to anything truly great in British culture. The only culture refered to was low and popular. No reference (so far as I could see) to Shakespeare, perhaps the greatest writer who has inhabited the planet, no reference to the defiance of the English in WWII, though during the James Bond sequence we were treated to a passing, ironic reference to Winston Churchill. There was no reference to the great British explorations, the truly awesome power of the Royal Navy on the high seas, no sense of Britain for two hundred years the civilized and civilizing seat of commerce and trade, no allusion to Britain which led the fight among the Western powers to free the slaves. The references to British music--Handel, Elgar, Vaughn Williams--was reduced to an interlude in which a small orchestra played the truly inspiring theme from "Chariots of Fire" (cmposed by a Greek, no?), but Rowland Atkinson's gags during that segment had the effect of ridiculing an otherwise fine performance. The main allusion to British literature was to children's literature, though again to the popularly entertaining, since as far as I could see, the truly uplifting "Wind and the Willows" received no homage at all.

More than anything, what the the O.C. conveyed was a culture uncomfortable with itself and utterly disillusioned. The soldiers that presented the British flag seemed sightly out of pace with one another, and even what might have been a spirited rendition of "God Save the Queen" was made made cute and inoffensive by having the anthem led by a group of children that used sign language all the way through. One got the impression that no true cultural tradition could be left untouched by some gesture, however subtle, of distancing comment, that there was nothing included that might threaten to give the audience an unalloyed sense of wonder and excitement. Particularly toward the end, the cultural references were low at best, and they seemed at times to celebrate those whose controversial lives tended to affront traditional values--Amy Winehouse and Queen most prominent among them.

In the end, I was left with the impression of a halfhearted celebration (did anyone note the listless physical motions of the front line of dancers near the end of the pageant of history?) of an anodyne British culture and a much more energetic celebration of its more recent counterculture. It was, perhaps, all in all an exercise in cultural irony, the meaning of which seemed to be that we are comfortable only with popular culture: of anything else we are either ignorant or it produces in us boredom and indifference.

I seem not to remember other O.C.s besides the one in Beijing four years ago, but compared with that, last night's performance was an embarrassment. In Beijing the Chinese celebrated their culture, even to the point of embellishing it (when, exactly, are the Chinese known for having exported their culture by ship?), but then even such embellishment indicates a culture proud enough to view itsef as the stuff of myth and legend that gives shape to life and helps its members make sense of the world and lead meaningful lives in it. I wouldn't say that China celebrated in an imperialistic way, but their military procession that carried and raised their flag was impressive in the sharpness of its movements, and the incandescent energy of the choreographed movements of the large groups assembled on stage was only one of many positive impressions from the ceremony. The sense of wonder when we found out that the impressive display of moveable type was not mechanical but rendered by humans, the amazingly precise and intricate movements of hundreds of dancers on stage, the use fireworks throughout, and the complete lack of ironic comment on all of this was refreshing and left the audience, if not with a feeling of transcendance, at least with a sense that human beings inhabit and are able to help create a world that takes us out of ourselves. The Chinese relished their moment; the British, by contrast, seemed embarrassed--like a bored school child called upon to give a report on British history. What can he do to show that he's above it all, jaded, sophisticated, an untouched in his spirit because he's too busy, too connected even to have a spirit after all? Do as little as possible and then ironize everything to show your chums that you are way too cool to take seriously the thought that anything, anything at all might be bigger than yourself.


  1. For years, at least since the time I researched my dissertation in England in 1989, the British elite have felt embarrassed by their history and culture. In general, they see themselves as oppressors of the world. A few years ago, a policeman was dismissed because he had a tattoo of a union jack and the word "England" on his arm. This was considered offensive to Muslim immigrants. So, yes, they are uncomfortable in their own cultural and historical "skin." On a side note, for China's exportation of its culture by ship, look up Admiral Chen Ho (Zheng He).

  2. Thank you for comment. I was actually aware of the story of Zhengguo He, but historical consensus (as I understand it) has been that while China attempted to export it culture by ship, it wasn't very successful at doing so and eventually ended what was essentially a one-off event. I think that Niall Ferguson discusses this episode at some length. That's an astonishing story about the British cop.

  3. It turns out, that NBC thoughtfully edited out "unimportant" parts of the ceremony, like a tribute to the victims of the 7/7/05 attacks in Britain. Perhaps that's why the opening ceremonies seemed so incoherent. Apparently, if you set up a proxy (I have no idea how to do this), you can access the BBC iPlayer page and see, to all accounts, a much better presentation of the Olympics (tm) than we get to see in this country.

  4. Well, THAT's very interesting. I wonder what it means that the O.C. was edited in that way.