When I am in France I read Le Monde, the supposed French newspaper of record, and on Fridays it publishes a glossy supplement full of advertisements (the Financial Times’s equivalent is the disgustingly and vulgarly titled How to Spend It). It is interesting not necessarily for itself, but for what it suggests that most readers are really interested in and what their tastes actually are, or what the editors and advertisers think that most readers are really interested in and what their tastes actually are. Since, of course, newspapers are hardly read any longer by anyone under the age of thirty or forty, the supposed interests and tastes are those of an ageing, educated, wealthy, liberal-leaning minority (at $7, the Friday edition could hardly appeal to anyone else).
Last week’s supplement was devoted mostly, though not quite entirely, to fashion, a subject of about the same interest to me as the Costa Rican traffic regulations. But there were a few articles of more serious import interposed among the pictures of the terminally-pouting, bored-looking, anorexic models. For example, opposite an advertisement celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Levi’s “iconic jeans jacket” (garnished by pictures of geriatric adolescents—or is it adolescent geriatrics?—who still wear them) was a page-long article with the title, “A Network of Cannibals Dismantled in South Africa”.
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Usually it is paedophiles or terrorists whose networks are dismantled, so this was a very interesting variation on a theme. I don’t think I have ever met anyone uninterested in murder or, a fortiori, in cannibalism, though I seem to remember at some time in my intellectual development reading of a controversy among social anthropologists as to whether cannibalism had ever truly existed, at least as a general custom, or whether it was a myth concocted by colonialists to justify their own cruelties and depredations.
I can’t remember how the controversy was resolved, but it seemed to me that the discovery of a neurodegenerative disease called kuru that occurred among the Fore tribe of New Guinea ought to have settled it once and for all. Kuru is contracted by eating the brains of one’s deceased relatives, a funerary custom among the tribe (chacun à son goût, as we say here in France), a custom now superseded for reasons of health and safety; but you can always save a hypothesis by an ad hoc argument, and the consumption of deceased relatives was not what the cannibal-deniers among the social anthropologists meant by real cannibalism. They meant eating people whom one had killed rather than found as mere carrion.
The cannibal network in South Africa came to light (and, apparently, to olfaction) when a man called Nino Mbatha walked into a police station in South Africa and announced that he had had enough of human flesh. He had about him an unusual and unpleasant smell, as do workers in abattoirs. He was a local medicine man, and human flesh is supposed to confer the strength or prowess of the eaten upon the eater. Why it does not also confer upon the eater his stupidity or inability to do arithmetic (say), I do not know. Anyhow, Mbatha led the police, incredulous at first, to his home, where they found eight human ears. Four other arrests soon followed, other members of the cannibal network: and a crowd of indignant people gathered, some of them with banners saying, “We are not KFC”. The head of the Organisation of Traditional Healers said that they were against the use of human limbs for healing purposes. I was reminded, by an association of ideas, of the case of someone who came to the University Hospital in Zambia with a human leg and asked the doctors for a death certificate for the man to whom it had previously been attached.
What I really wanted to say, however, was that these days our minds are subjected to ever more preposterous juxtapositions: cannibalism and jean jackets, for example. The other day there was a similarly absurd juxtaposition, of the announcement of the explosion of a hydrogen bomb by North Korea and the announcement of the third child expected by Prince William’s wife (I didn’t know she’d had a second, I must have been away at the time).
I don’t know what effect all this has on others, but I feel, when I encounter such juxtapositions, as if my mind were being put through a Moulinex, so that my thoughts turn into a kind of mental vegetable soup or velouté. Another example was when I passed through Boston Airport on the day the Marathon bomb went off. Above the queue for security were two television screens to entertain the fractious travellers, one showing the bombing that had just happened a few miles away and the other an Italian football league match.
The late Neil Postman, in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, suggested that the prevalence of electronic entertainment, at the time of publication mainly television, destroyed our sense of proportion or perspective because of the absurd juxtapositions which (he said) were inherent in the media of communication themselves. One moment we were being informed that the Third World War was about to break out, and the very next were being enjoined, at least as emphatically, to buy a new kind of toothpaste. The death of millions or the eradication of all humanity was thus put on the same level of importance as a smile that would charm others thanks to dental cleanliness, the promise of the toothpaste. When such juxtapositions become so routine or normal that we cease to notice their absurdity, our ability to distinguish between the important and the trivial is destroyed. Everything, including the day-to-day flux of our emotions, is either of world importance, or nothing is. We no longer have a proper yardstick of significance.
I am not sure of the validity of this argument, though I am in visceral sympathy with it, no doubt for reasons connected to my temperamental pessimism about human nature; but actually I see no reason why electronic media should intrinsically, that is to say by their very nature, lead to trivialisation. They trivialise because there are trivialisers and those who like to be trivialised. The same might have been said of print: that the new-found ability to disseminate drivel would necessarily (in the end) lead to Dan Brown and Fifty Shades of Grey. But while you can lead a mind to triviality, you can’t make it trivial.
Then I have my doubts about the importance of being informed. Does it matter very much whether or not I know about developments in North Korea, since no one is going to be guided by what I think? (I have been to North Korea and believe it to be the worst place on earth by quite a long way, actually, but that would not in the least help me decide what to do if I had the misfortune to be in charge.) The same goes for most of the other things I read about. If I count up the number of hours I have spent informing myself on those things which I have no power to influence, and are in a certain sense of less importance to me than a leaking roof or the late arrival of a train, it probably amounts to an appreciable proportion of my conscious existence. It is not even as if I use the information in any useful way, as did Ibsen, who after a certain age read nothing except the newspapers and the Bible, and produced masterpieces.
Nor is it true that the best-informed are necessarily the wisest. Very often, indeed, they have proved the most foolish. There is a certain kind of stupidity associated with erudition that gives itself airs, takes itself seriously and is condescending to mere common sense. There is no one more to be feared than a doctor who fails to ally his technical knowledge with or temper it by his humanity, which is often itself but the exercise of elementary common sense.
But there is a danger in these thoughts, namely that one will come to despise or deprecate expertise in itself as dangerous, that is to say of exchanging the Scylla of erudition mistaken for wisdom for the Charybdis of militant ignorance. That is why (apart from prurience) I will continue to read articles about cannibalism even when they appear opposite advertisements for “iconic” denim jackets.
Anthony Daniels’s most recent book is his first collection of short stories, The Proper Procedure and Other Stories, published in August by New English Review Press under his nom de plume, Theodore Dalrymple.