The Future of History

Saturday, 12 October 2013

The New Heroic Age

A few posts back, I discussed the new Romeo and Juliet movie, for which Julian Fellowes wrote the screenplay.

Mr Fellowes "updated" Shakespeare's language to make it more "accessible".  I queried whether Julian Fellowes was really the right choice for the job - he's not known for being down with the kids.

Well, Mr Fellowes has endeavoured to explain himself.  Apparently, he feels that he's capable of understanding Shakespeare because he had a "very expensive education" and "went to Cambridge".  Since most of us did not enjoy those advantages in life, it goes without saying that we are terminally thick and can only watch a Shakespeare play with our mouths open and our knuckles dragging on the ground.

In just a few words, Fellowes appears to have rendered the entire Shakespeare industry redundant.  If you didn't go to private school and Oxbridge, the chances of you being able to "get" Shakespeare are nil.  So the greatest dramatic works in the English Language become something that only the social elite can possibly appreciate.  The rest of us have to make do with bookmarks, T-shirts, and "adaptations" which are written down to our educational level.

There's nothing new here.  In the very first section of Who Killed William Shakespeare? I examine the intellectual (and social) snobbery of the late-18th century, which determined that the people of Shakespeare's hometown were congenitally stupid and only Londoners with money could comprehend the genius of the Bard (although, when it came to quoting him accurately, the metropolitan elite were rather lax).

So Julian Fellowes's excuses for wrecking Shakespeare's language are true to type.  Basically, he's saying "I'm posh, you're not.  Therefore, I can understand Shakespeare, while you're likely to struggle with the semiotic intricacies of Fifty Shades of Grey."

Now, bear with me here.  I touched on the work of Giambattista Vico at the end of The King Arthur Conspiracy, but it's so important, so relevant, that I revisited Vico's theories very early on in The Grail; Relic of an Ancient Religion for Moon Books.

Giambattista Vico looked back across history and identified three major phases in the development of civilisations.  The first, we might call the Divine age.  This is essentially a primitive or indigenous society.  The gods are all around us; we walk with them and talk with them, and everything we do is designed to appease them.

Then, certain individuals decide that they are descended from the gods.  They lay claim to certain areas of land and found families or dynasties, which likewise claim direct descent from the gods.  At about the same time, a priesthood appears which insists that it, and it alone, has access to those gods (or God).  The priesthood and the aristocracy work hand in hand, claiming privileges which they deny to the rest of the populace.  This, we might call the Heroic age.

Finally, the people wake up to the fact that they are every bit as human as their self-appointed masters.  They demand an equal share in the decision-making process.  We get democracy (and its corollary, scientific materialism).  We might call this the Human age.

Okay, so far so good.  We start out as "superstitious" primitives startled by thunder.  We invent a single god, so that the more wealthy and powerful can claim that there is a divinely-ordained hierarchy which cannot be challenged.  Then we discover Liberty, Egality and Fraternity.

But what happens next?  Giambattista Vico was way ahead of his time, here.  He recognised that all civilisations collapse.  There is what he called a ricorso, a "return" to the start of the process.  From the heights of science and democracy we are rather suddenly propelled back into a state of wonder at the world around us, reliant on the gods for everything.

What causes this ricorso?  Dudley Young, in his wonderful Origins of the Sacred, suggested that democracy is inherently anarchic, and so a period of anarchy results in the demolition of democratic institutions and, inevitably, the end of civilisation.  However, this theory is - I believe - fundamentally flawed.

What destroys civilisations is greed.  Pure and simple.  And how does that greed infect the carefully calibrated mechanisms of science and democracy?  Easy: it does so by reinventing the Heroic age.

In other words, once a society has developed, progressing through the primitive/magical/theocratic Divine age and the religious-aristocratic Heroic age to the democratic and scientific systems of the Human age, a form of regression starts.  Those who always preferred the certainties of the Heroic age (summed up, basically, as a landed aristocracy supported by the Church) begin to fight back against the principles of science and democracy.  They start claiming more - much, much more - for themselves.  And civilisation implodes under the weight of their regressive and selfish demands.

That is what is happening now.  In many ways, we can replace the "Church" with "Corporate Capitalism", because they amount to the same thing.  But anyone seeking enlightenment is recommended to read Naomi Klein's excellent, if chilling, The Shock Doctrine.

The post-war consensus - which was about as scientific and democratic as it is possible to be - began to crumble in the late 1970s.  A small group of fanatical economists sought to undermine the certainties of the Human age.  They argued that the State should have no involvement in everyday life.  Everything should be in private hands.  Their theories (mostly emanating from the Chicago School of Economics, which shall be forever cursed) could only be applied at the point of a gun.  So a clever new step was invented.  Naomi Klein called it "Disaster Capitalism".

Essentially, it works like this.  A group of greedy individuals either invents or quickly moves to exploit a traumatic event (like a civil war, a tsunami or a perceived economic crisis).  While the populace is too shocked to do anything about it, everything they thought they owned is transferred into private hands.  The rich grow immensely richer.  Everybody else suffers - and is tortured or "disappeared" if they dare to speak out.

No end of specious claims are made to justify these atrocities.  Some of these are rather subtle, but they are all part of the ongoing conspiracy to steal from the people what the people once owned.

In cultural terms, we all own Shakespeare.  And though a fairly decent level of education, and an awareness of history, are valuable in making sense of his rich words, there really is no barrier to anybody enjoying his works.

So the new aristocrats seek to claim him as exclusively their own.  Only those who have enjoyed the Heroic age privileges of private education and automatic entry to Oxbridge can understand Shakespeare.  He's not for the likes of you.  He belongs to the rich and powerful.

Shakespeare himself would be utterly horrified by such a suggestion.  He would be mortified.  In fact, he would realise that he was being murdered all over again by such Heroic age fantasists as Mr Julian Fellowes.

(Consider this: Downton Abbey is a worldwide phenomenon, its success proof of the popularity of its cosy vision of the Heroic age in all its pompous finery.  It hit our screens at about the same time as the most right-wing, privileged, "aristocratic" British government in living memory sneaked into office, and shortly before the Heroic age started flexing its muscles in the United States, where federal - i.e. democratic - government has been shut down by a bunch of Bible-bashing conservative fundamentalists from the Tea Party.  In these regards, Downton Abbey is symptomatic of the New Heroic age, which covers up what its real agenda is by flogging us an attractively misleading story of the past.)

Science is under attack, these days (mostly from the fundamenalists of the religious-aristocratic school).  So, too, is democracy - and the assaults are coming from the same direction: the New Heroic age.  Call it jihad.  Call it "Disaster Capitalism".  Call it the New World Order.  It's all the same.

It's the backwards-looking medievalism of the super-privileged eagerly driving us all back into a kind of feudalism.  It's the special pleading of corporate lobbyists and uber-rich tax-avoiders.  It's the old Etonians asserting their rule over the plebs.  It is naked greed masquerading as the remedy to all our problems.

We must, must, must NOT allow such people to lionise William Shakespeare and his works.  They might believe that they hold the exclusive rights to his memory - by dint of birthright and expensive upbringing - but they simply cannot be trusted with it.

Why?  Because they don't understand him at all.  They are only too quick to misrepresent him to us (see previous posts).  They bend him to serve their own ends.

So Julian Fellowes has Downton Abbeyed Romeo and Juliet.  He's selling you a false image of Shakespeare, one that surely suits his ideal of a New Heroic age in which the landed aristocracy - in cahoots with the Church of Corporate Wealth - look down from their charmless heights on the rest of us, who are just there to wash the dishes and make the beds for them (on zero-hour contracts, of course).

Remember the ricorso.  If you want our civilisation to fall apart, that's the way to go.  And everything Shakespeare was telling us will have gone unheeded, because we weren't considered capable of understanding him, and so we allowed our social "superiors" to interpret him for us. 

And they lied.  Because they always do.


  1. For those who are interested, there's more on Giambattista Vico and his theories here: