Tuesday, 11 April 2017

A Staggering Work of Heartbreaking Modesty - Catherine Butler

“I’m the king of the castle, and you’re the dirty rascal!”

Do small boys still shout that from the top of any dunghill of which they happen to have made themselves temporary cock? (I say boys, because the rhyme itself is gendered, but of course there may be chatelaines too.) In doing so they would of course only be imitating their elders, but such outright expressions of self-praise and contumely are not generally encouraged by parents or teachers. This is not because we disapprove of ambition, or the wish to excel, qualities praised by politicians across the board, but because in Britain at least we feel that both boasts and insults are more effective, and far more acceptable, when fired at an oblique angle.

The British have a strange relationship with boastfulness. Of course, we do it, and fiercely, but to do so directly is to display a shallow neediness that invites only pity and contempt. This makes some kinds of social interaction, such as job interviews, particularly stressful, since self-praise of a rather direct kind seems called for there, and this is at odds with our ingrained social training. Ideally, we want our interlocutors to feel that they have encountered a person of superlative personal and intellectual qualities, but also that they have discovered this fact for themselves, despite our efforts to disguise it. (Such efforts are, however, invariably a feint, designed to draw the listener on.)

In my day job as an academic I write scholarly articles, and I’ve been advised that it’s important these days to ensure that the first page or two of any article should make bold claims about the importance and “paradigm-shifting” nature of the contents. This is so that it will attract the fickle attention of those working on the periodic Government audit known as the “Research Excellence Framework” (unlovely phrase!), on the basis of which research money is distributed to universities. Such unabashed chest-thumping and feather-shivering seems more suited to an Attenborough documentary or a White House tweet, though, and is hard to square with a proper sense of British obliquity, let alone truth. If I ever succeed in doing it, my success will be tainted with an aftertaste of shame.

Burdened with this heavy garland of inhibitions I’ve sometimes looked in envy at the sheer boastfulness of the ancient inscriptions one finds in Egypt and Mesopotamia, authored in the name of such regal coves as Rameses II or Ashurnasirpal, a monarch otherwise known as “he who has no rival among the princes of the four quarters, marvellous shepherd, fearless in battle, unopposable mighty floodtide, king who subdues those insubordinate to him, he who rules all peoples, strong male who treads upon the necks of his foes”, and so on (according to his inscription in the palace of Nimrud). Such Ozymandian vaunts may appear to be object lessons in vanity (what price Ashurnasirpal now?), but there’s something appealingly direct about them, too – at least, at a distance. Yes, Ashurnasirpal was vulgar in British terms, but were you going to tell him?

In a slightly different category, perhaps, are such self-descriptions as the Song of Amergin, bard of the Milesians, at any rate in Robert Graves’ translation, which begins:

I am a stag: of seven tines,
I am a flood: across a plain,
I am a wind: on a deep lake,
I am a tear: the Sun lets fall,
I am a hawk: above the cliff,
I am a thorn: beneath the nail,
I am a wonder: among flowers,
I am a wizard: who but I
Sets the cool head aflame with smoke?

Amergin clearly has an honest sense of worth, but it is expressed with a disarming “what on earth is he talking about?” slantness. It looks less like Ashurnasirpal’s chest-thumping and more like a riddle, or a spell being cast. Even so, it was Amergin’s way of laying claim to Ireland on behalf of his people, so there’s a political as well as a magical message here.

The “I am that I am” of Exodus is perhaps the best boast of all. Is Yahweh being modest, or the reverse? Is he laying claim to everything, or nothing? Is it profound, or a tautology? In the world of boasting, as of self-deprecation, sometimes less is more. (It probably helps to be a god, too.)

So, do I envy the dunghill boasters their full-throated ease? I am aware that by conflating Ashurnasirpal and his ilk with a small boy’s playground game I am in danger of overlaying history with a crudely developmental model, in which earlier ages are identified with the “childhood” of mankind. This is the kind of thing Chesterton was making fun of when he had a parent excuse her badly behaved child by saying, “I’m sorry, but Timmy’s just going through the French Revolution”, or words to that effect. However, there is no need to look to the distant past to find political leaders who indulge in brazen self-praise; indeed, that style of rhetoric is making a comeback. It’s a world for which my upbringing has quite unfitted me, though. I am destined to advertise my marvelousness, if at all, through the coy arts of irony and repression.

That is my birth right, that my dunghill; and I am cock of it.

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