Image © 2008 Stephen Fry & The Sampsonian Co. All Rights Reserved.
If you have not yet come across the diverse work of the savourily delicious Stephen Fry, then I think your life may be about to experience some enrichment. :)
Recently, I have been enjoying some of the newish juicy niblets available from the sumptuous buffet known as The Adventures Of Mr Stephen Fry.
The linguicious Mr Fry has added an audio-visual menu item to his other tasty treats on offer, which he has stylishly designated “podgrams“. In his third podgrammatic expedition, Stephen Fry extemporises from Colorado, and spends a good chunk of the podgram discussing the justly celebrated Oscar Wilde, and some principles of aesthetics.
Something struck me whilst I was listening to the podgram, and I wanted to discuss my thoughts on it. Anyhow, I must have been mistaken about being blogged out recently, because I have been feeling rather restless of late – somehow as if I needed to spout forth about something in a blog post.
So here we are. Welcome to my spout forthingness. :)
Image © 2008 Stephen Fry & The Sampsonian Co. All Rights Reserved.
In chapter three of podgram three (both titled “Wallpaper“), the wordsational Stephen Fry (transcribed on the forum by the delightfully obliging Fryphile) discusses violence in America, goes into the tiniest yet ever-so-satisfying rant about “family values”, quotes a question Wilde was asked, and discusses his own thoughts on Wilde’s answer.
So, around this time, Oscar was asked a question. A very intelligent question actually. He was asked why he thought America was so violent. Seems an odd question at first blush, but it was an America that had just emerged from […] the bloodiest Civil War […] Not only that, but the west which was being developed (ha, developed), that had caused violence too. Violence of course to the indigenous […] Native Americans […] The gunslingers were becoming very famous. Gang warfare was erupting in Chicago and New York. This was all very puzzling […] Why should a country that was established on principles of peace and tolerance, wisdom – all the glories of the Enlightenment, have descended into such terrible internecine strife? Of course the usual answer as to why people get violent is that they depart from family values.
Ha-ha-ha don’t get me started on that argument. After all, most murders take place within families. Most violence takes place within families. Even organised crime is structured according to families. It’s a ghastly parody of a family, but the idea that family values are responsible for stopping people being violent seems to me to be so insane as hardly to worth repeat. I hope you take my point. That’s it, isn’t it? Family values and violence that seems to be no more relation between them than a skunk and a rattlesnake. Both nasty, but they’re not connected. Except in the great scheme of life, the colours of the wind and the circle of how do you do.
Personally, I might venture forth and hypothesise that “family values” (actual “family values”, from real actual families, not the plastic invented ones espoused but so seldom exemplified by politicians), are in fact very closely related to violence, because I suspect that those “family values” actually create and cause violence, but that’s by the by.
I included that rant because I liked it so much. :D
(besides, it does actually have bags of relevance, which you’ll come to later on)
But Wilde had a different explanation, and it’s one that on the surface seems very trivial.
“Why, Mr. Wilde, do you think America is such a violent country?”
“I can tell you why,” he said. “It’s susceptible readily of an explanation. America is such a violent country because your wallpaper is so ugly.”
Now that seems, you might snort with laughter at first and say, “Well, how amusing.” Part you you may say, “Well this is just a typical peacocking primped camp remark from a shallow and trivial man who thinks it’s amusing to say things like that.”
But actually, to understand what the Aesthetic Movement is all about, one has to take that quite seriously. Instead of judging things by being good or bad, things are judged by whether they are beautiful or ugly. […] actually it’s a lot easier to judge when things are beautiful than it is when things are bad or good. […] However, beauty acts on us in a very real way, and what Wilde was partly saying was, if we look out of the window into our world, we see things that are universally and entirely beautiful from nature. […]
Except where man has intervened.
And what Wilde is saying is, imagine belonging to a species where […] all you can do to the world is to uglify it. To make it worse. To despoil it. Which is what we do. […] That we were making the earth uglier […] with bad architecture, uglier with badly designed factories, uglier with badly stamped out tin trays and cheap ornaments, ugly with appalling wallpaper.
And if you’re someone who grows up […] surrounded by badly made ugly things, then you think ugly thoughts of yourself and the world […] [and] your whole species. There is nothing for you to do but to crap in your own nest. It’s what we do when we don’t believe in ourselves.
And so although it seems a cheap response to a question about violence, the aesthetic point of view is actually I think a very valuable one, a very profound one, a very extraordinary one. And it makes people think beyond the knee-jerk reflexes of conventional morality […] You’ve got to think harder than that, Wilde was arguing.
All emphasis added by me. All due respect and credit to the wordacious My Fry for his wordaciousness, and very specially to Fryphile on the forum for transcribing the podgram for the benefit of us all. Thank you so very much, Mr Fry, and Fryphile. :)
© 2008 Stephen Fry & The Sampsonian Co. All Rights Reserved.
And I add my thanks to the team at The Positive Internet Company for their contribution.
At this stage I feel that I must point out how very much I agree with Stephen Fry that badly made, ugly things do detract from much that is good in the world. I really do agree with, validate, and support that position.
I also would like to emphasise my understanding that Stephen Fry has used “badly made ugly things” solely as an example of those aesthetically displeasing manufactured items which are all around us. So when I use “badly made ugly things” throughout this post, I too am using them solely as an example.
- I am not in any way trying to say that I think Stephen Fry is saying or thinking that “badly made ugly things” are the predominant cause of human violence.
On the contrary, I feel that I perfectly understand that the very admirable and learned Stephen Fry is trying to illustrate his feelings on the often overlooked significance of the influence which displeasing items exert on us all the time without our noticing it. I agree with, validate, and support that position as well.
Having said that, I am using this post carry my thoughts about those ideas further – to illustrate my problems not only with the significance which some people assign to ugliness’s role in world badness, but also my issues with the commonplace assumptions of how concrete and specific problems can apparently only be the responsibility of the abstract and non-specific (which don’t bite back when you criticise them).
However much I agree that the aesthetic premise is largely meritworthy (and I do agree), I would have liked to have seen those explorations carried a few steps further. Stephen Fry was SO close! After the family rant, he says (and I paraphrase)
- “If you’re someone who grows up surrounded by badly made ugly things, then you think ugly thoughts of yourself, the world, and your whole species. Crapping in your own nest is what we do when we don’t believe in ourselves.”
Stephen Fry then says
- “the aesthetic point of view is actually I think a very valuable one, a very profound one, a very extraordinary one. And it makes people think beyond the knee-jerk reflexes of conventional morality […] You’ve got to think harder than that”
I’d like to think harder about this, and take it just a wee bit further. I think that Stephen Fry came so close with this, so very close, especially with his rant about families, but unfortunately I think he stopped just short of the big banana.
I think that what the erudite Stephen Fry has said here about families, and about crapping in one’s own nest, gets about as close as I’ve seen, if not the closest, to the root of some problems I’ve been considering. But I think the ideas he discusses just don’t go quite far enough.
Amongst the ideas I have been working on in my head, a lot of them are built around one hypothesis – that pretty much every one of the huge number of bigger personal problems everybody endures all the time, is most likely caused (or at the very least, aggravated) by a surprisingly small number of root problems. I have what I feel is a good approximate overview of both the root problems and the causes. However, I won’t be going into those here in any depth.
What I will be doing, is to point towards some of the basic issues which I feel are important, and try to highlight how I think they relate to what Stephen Fry said in his “Wallpaper” podgram.
I know how infinitely easier, infinitely safer, and infinitely more pleasant it is to be able to blame the problems of the world on something abstract such as ugliness, or on faceless nameless other people who may or may not be responsible for the abstract ugliness, than it is to clearly identify specific scary individuals who have the ability to fight back at us.
My experience is that most of the time, most people are not even aware that what they’re identifying as the cause of a problem, is in fact actually abstract or non-specific or both. Most uses of the term “society” are good examples of this.
- As has been observed by others, the scariest, most dangerous, most difficult part of a profound fear, is naming it.
Or, more precisely, the scariest part can often be the seemingingly-simple (but astonishingly difficult) act of acknowledging the specific name of the actual source of our fear.
To paraphrase what I think is by far one of Stephen Fry’s most salient points:
- When we don’t believe in ourselves, we think ugly thoughts of ourselves, our world, and our whole species, and we crap in our own nest.
Yes! That is exactly what we do when we don’t believe in ourselves.
I think the reasons why we do this have very little to do with badly made ugly things. Badly made ugly things may indeed be used by people to contribute to this effect, but I don’t see how they can be the actual cause.
- “Ugliness” does nothing. PEOPLE do ugly things.
Reiterating the paraphrasement of Stephen whose-work-I-muchly-admire Fry:
- “If you grew up surrounded by badly made ugly things, then you think ugly thoughts of yourself, the world, and your whole species. Crapping in your own nest is what we do when we don’t believe in ourselves.”
Frankly, I would have a very difficult time assigning any credibility at all to an adult who perpetrated a violent transgression, and who then tried to abdicate responsibility for their behaviour by blaming it on badly made ugly surroundings during their childhood.
To be honest, I would have an even harder time believing any whatever-ologist who tried to assert that people are violent as a result of ongoing exposure to badly made ugly objects during childhood.
It is my firmly held belief that badly made ugly things cannot, in and of themselves, and solely by themselves, contribute to or result in violence. I cannot believe that badly made ugly objects in isolation can so damage a child’s psyche that this child, when grown, is likely to be violent when confronted with something like ugly wallpaper. I’d like to maintain a more realistic and proportional view of appropriately attributed responsibility.
I’m missing something in the logical progression here, connecting
- Formative years surrounded by badly made ugly things
- Thinking ugly thoughts about oneself
- Thinking ugly thoughts about the world
- Thinking ugly thoughts about all of humanity
- Not believing positively in oneself
- Disrespect for oneself and one’s world (crapping in it)
I’m missing how there’s supposed to be a specific logical and causal connection between
- ongoing childhood exposure to badly made ugly things
- human beings perpetrating violence
Where’s the link?
(don’t worry, it’s a rhetorical question, I’m coming to it)
For the purposes of the statements I’m about to present, I am going to be assuming the absence of any pre-existing organic physiological brain dysfunction, physical head trauma, neurological disorder, or any severely impairing relevant emotional, psychological, or psychiatric disorder.
I acknowledge that the above can easily co-exist in all kinds of combinations, and thus create all kinds of confusion. In this instance, I am going to be describing human beings who are functioning within the usual range of what is considered “normal” by the bulk of qualified health professionals.
- Specific types of badly made ugly things could perhaps, in specific people, trigger unpleasant flashbacks relating to past trauma (which may or may not have been previously or consciously identified).
- Flashbacks could conceivably, in some individuals, lead to violent emotional responses, regardless of whether the violent response is acted upon or not.
- Flashbacks can be triggered by literally anything at all, simply by reminding any individual of their original trauma (whether consciously reminiscent or not).
- A flashback cannot be triggered if there is no underlying trauma to which the flashback relates.
- Badly made ugly things could possibly be used by any person to induce trauma in children or adults, and may thus by association trigger flashbacks in some individuals.
- Badly made ugly things, as inanimate objects, cannot in any case be held responsible for traumatising any person, and therefore cannot be held responsible for causing an original trauma, or for triggering traumatic flashbacks.
- Trauma and its related triggered flashbacks are not solely associated with badly made ugly things.
- A trigger does not a trauma make.
- The Big Banana.
I feel strongly that in the interests of avoiding the knee-jerk reflexes of established thought (which would seem to include accepting an idea and allowing it to rest there), and in an effort to think harder and to build on the established ideas and take them further, I would like to observe that I think that some important questions have been critically and crucially left unaddressed.
Consider the hugely enormous numbers of badly made ugly things in circulation everywhere. If it were really true that badly made ugly things could cause people to be violent, then I really think significantly larger proportions of entire populations would be violent. And they aren’t. So there must be important variables in this equation which have not been accounted for.
For the purposes of the questions I am about to present, I am again going to be assuming the absence of any pre-existing organic physiological brain dysfunction, physical head trauma, neurological disorder, or any severely impairing relevant emotional, psychological, or psychiatric disorder.
I reiterate my acknowledgment that the above can easily confusingly co-exist in all kinds of combinations, and I am therefore going to be describing human beings who are functioning within the usual range of what is considered “normal” by the bulk of qualified health professionals.
- How can a child’s response to having been surrounded by badly made ugly things, lead to their violent behaviour as an adult? I think this response is quite largely disproportionate unless other factors are taken into account.
- Who decided to put badly made, ugly things in a growing child’s home environment?
- Who taught a child that they didn’t deserve to have their environment created with the utmost thought and care?
- Who made it possible for a child to have and keep having a poor self image supported by ugly thoughts about themselves?
- Who enforces and reinforces a child’s poor self image and ugly thoughts about themselves (whether or not that is accomplished in part by surrounding a child with badly made ugly things) ?
- Who is really responsible for creating a home environment which fails to establish and reinforce a child’s positive self image and belief in themselves?
- Who are the primary people responsible for establishing and reinforcing a child’s poor self image, ugly thoughts about themselves, and that they are not worth believing in?
- Who are the only people who can truly be responsible for enforcing and reinforcing a child’s poor self image, supported by the idea that everybody else is more important than they are?
- If a child does have a poor self image and ugly thoughts about themselves, then why assume that this outlook cannot possibly be responsive to improvement during childhood by ongoing positive encouragement and nurturing from concerned, interested, involved, and emotionally resourceful primary caretakers?
- Where were the primary caretakers and what were they doing when their child’s poor self image was developing and growing?
- If a child were raised in a nurturing supportive resourceful home environment by interested, involved, and emotionally resourceful primary caretakers, then how can it even be possible for a child with such a carefully nurtured, nourished, and healthy psyche to grow up into an adult who is likely to respond violently to something as simple as exposure to ugly wallpaper??
Let’s keep an eye on the disproportionate responses.
My personal conclusion is that most, if not all primary caretakers have a whole lot to answer for.
I know how incredibly difficult it can be to realise
- Hey, I was a child! However “difficult” (or whatever) I was, I was never in charge and therefore I could not have been responsible for my parents’ problems!
I appreciate that these realisations can result in a person’s whole world going topsy turvy as they realise how very many things they assumed were “normal” and appropriate, were actually wrong – more specifically, realising that they were lied to. (guess who did the lying)
I can’t tell you how many people I know who unwittingly go to unbelievably convoluted lengthy lengths to maintain the illusion that they really were a “bad”, “difficult”, “awkward” or “troublemaking” child – solely to save themselves from the too-scary knowledge of naming their fear, of recognising that their primary caretakers were wrong.
I am frequently amazed at how utterly determined some people are to convince themselves and others that they were really a horrible child and a bad person, and that their primary caretakers raised them better than anybody could reasonably have expected, considering the rubbish they had to work with.
My experience of people who take this line with me, is that there are three possible responses I can give to these kinds of assertions.
- I disagree and assure them that they really aren’t worthlessness incarnate.
(this never has any useful effect whatsoever – one might as well try to have a conversation with a bottle of washing up liquid)
- I agree with their badness.
(somehow they’re able to hear and respond to that, and they’ll nod and agree right back)
- I agree with enthusiasm and tell them how unbelievably horrid and vile they are.
(at which point they’ll either look at me like a hurt child [and maybe argue], or they’ll laugh and accept the reality check)
I believe that there are some very logical reasons why this information is too scary to face for so many.
- Acknowledging that you were NOT responsible for all that you were blamed for, also means acknowledging that you were really not in control of the situation at all.
- Acknowledging that you were NOT in control of those situations for which you were held responsible, also means acknowledging that your parents were wrong, and that they lied to you.
- Acknowledging that your parents lied to you about something, and therefore are not trustworthy about that something, also means acknowledging that they are NOT trustworthy about other things.
- Acknowledging that your parents are not trustworthy, also means acknowledging that there was no truly safe person in between you and the big wide scary world to protect you from harm.
- Acknowledging that there was no truly safe person in between you and the big wide scary world to protect you from harm, also means acknowledging that the ones who were supposed to protect you from harm, were therefore the ones responsible for the harm which you suffered.
To be fair, I acknowledge that this is all really scary stuff. And this isn’t even a complete list.
Ok, having presented you all with what I consider to be The Big Banana, you might be wondering, what are you supposed to do now?
The fact is that right at this moment, I just don’t know. To be honest, I’m still working on identifying and naming the problems.
I’m hoping to do a course soon, which I am optimistic will help with my explorations in this and other areas.
I’ll have to wait til after that to get back to you with any further results I’ve come up with.
In the meanwhile, we’ll just all have to suffer together, unless somebody else figures all of this stuff out first.
Which I hope they do. :)