Altared states

Like most people in modern, secular Britain, Will Self is not a believer. Yet he still feels awed a

During Lent, those with Christian faith enter a 40-day period of spiritual reflection that recalls Jesus's supposed period of desert reclusion. In our own triumphantly secular society - although sometimes I think this triumph a purely Pyrrhic one - a similar undertaking might be appropriate. Those of us who are without religious faith are, arguably, more in need than the believers of answers to the big questions that - try as we might to divert ourselves - continue to exercise us. Why are we here? What meaning does life have? What constitutes the Good? And what - if anything - will happen to us after we die?

But if we could all do with such a contemplative sojourn, how on earth are we going to find the time - let alone the space? We are increasingly hemmed in by our responsibilities and only the very rich can afford 40 days of desertification - and they tend to take them in the form of adventure holidays crossing the Sahara, with everything laid on, including "authentic" cultural experiences.

I have a proposal: why not spend the next 40 days in a metaphoric rather than a literal desert? It shouldn't be too difficult to contrive - simply remove all aspects of art and culture from your life. That's right, give it up for Lent: all pictures and drawings, music and books, television, film and radio. Eschew newspapers, and magazines; look not upon the glittery face of the worldwide web. Instead, stride out into the world protected only by the flimsy raiment of your own reason, guided solely by the light of your own conscience, and warmed by your own imagination alone.

Belief in belief

In a cultural desert, the mind begins to burrow deep within itself - just as, in an actual desert, a human body seeks shelter among the rocks. Perhaps in this harshly deracinated environment you will be driven to meditate upon the transcendent, a practice that has become dreadfully unfashionable in the present era, lacking as it does the requisite aestheticism.

Of course, it wasn't always thus. Here in Britain, as throughout the Christianised world, religion and art were once inextricably bound together. The churches were direct patrons of the arts, while the wealthy commissioned works the ulterior purpose of which was to effect their own salvation - or, at any rate, indulgence. And then, for the laity, there was art as decorative medium - the interior design of God's house - and art as a votive device: the transactional object by which the faithful drew nearer to His love. Still spookier, there were artworks that partook of the divinity through the fact of their veneration. One thinks of the many statues of patron saints, carried in procession on their feast days, then called upon
to prognosticate, heal the sick and work other such miracles.

As it was with the visual arts, so it was with literature and music; in the past, the belief in God may not have been omnipresent, but the belief in the belief in God certainly was. Right up until the 19th century, even the most daring and provocative dissenters continued to cloak their artistic productions in off-the-peg theism. Just as I remember, as a boy, reading Victorian novels and wondering whether or not any of the characters had sex - because there was no mention of it whatsoever although they still managed to procreate - so, as a philosophy student, I was perplexed by David Hume's blasé references to his creator even though every aspect of his scepticism disallowed any such faith.

I would argue that it was neither the Enlightenment nor the mechanised march of science and technology that finally put paid to this unquestioned belief in belief, but the man-made cataclysm of the First World War. If I were to choose a suitably iconic image of the impact of the war on faith, it would be the statue of the Madonna that stood atop the newly completed basilica in the town of Albert, immediately behind the British trenches of the Somme. Early in the war, shelling tipped this statue to the horizontal, so that it looked as if Mary was about to throw away the infant Jesus cradled in her arms. The satiric import of this was not lost on the British troops, who henceforth referred to the statue as "the Lady of the Limp".

As Paul Fussell - the historian to whose masterful work The Great War and Modern Memory I owe this vignette - so perceptively argued, after the carnage of the First World War, irony came to be the dominant form of modern sensibility and understanding. Against such devastating facetiousness, what chance had the Lady of the Limp?

It may surprise you to learn that I often visit churches - and not merely to regard them aesthetically, but also so that I can lose myself in spiritual contemplation. It may not be prayer as it is commonly understood by the great mono­theisms, but I find that by setting my own fears, hopes and concerns against the great span of the universe, their trivial scale is exposed. I choose churches because they are purpose-built for such exercises; it is difficult to keep your thoughts base and petty when you are confronted by the vertiginous upthrust of English Perpendicular. True, I like my churches to be old, or large, or both - I'm less likely to step into my local place of worship, because, in common with so many others, the great whirlwind of irony has sucked all the beauty out of it.

Holy watercolour

Since the First World War, then, and with still greater velocity after the Second, art has quit the temple precincts. We can picture this as if it were a frieze, seeing in profile all those painters, architects, musicians and poets bowed down under the instruments of their mysteries and heading for the exit.

Modern churches have lost their patrons and their punters; with a few exceptions, their interiors are bereft of the rich ornamentation of the past, and as for their architecture, well, if we thought the neo-Gothic was bad enough, what can we say of the warehouses of the Lord that have been thrown up in the postwar period? Such decoration as is commissioned for these churches tends to be the visual analogue of the Good News Bible - all primary colours, woody tones and paschal lambs that bear a family resemblance to the Teletubbies.

As it is with ecclesiastical visual arts and architecture, so it is with the wider cultural ambit. Yes, there are still men and women who write godly verse and score sacred music, but the real fixed point to which transcendent belief is tethered is the ironic stake modernity has driven through the heart of faith. A couple of years ago, I found myself in the locked vault of a jeweller's in Hatton Garden, in central London. I was there, together with the artist Damien Hirst and a couple of other hangers-on, to handle his piece For the Love of God, a human skull transmogrified into a colossal bauble that comprised a sheet of artfully shaped platinum embedded with hundreds of diamonds.

On the cusp of the financial meltdown, Hirst's skull was being valued at £20m; he told me he had named it thus because "For the love of God!" was what his mother had exclaimed when he told her about the piece. Two things struck me: first, the extreme ironisation of faith embodied in the diamond skull, and second, the effect it had on my companions when they held it. It was as if they had taken a lungful of nitrous oxide and were transported into a state of giggly and shameless devotion to Mammon.

For the Love of God crystallised my thinking about Hirst and contemporary art. He is, I think, a more primitive figure than we have come to expect artists to be; rather than merely representing the world, Hirst is a shaman who invests objects with a symbolic power that - under the right conditions - becomes real. Mostly this is the power of money itself - but he also employs the powers of celebrity, sex, death and intoxication. We shouldn't be too critical of the highest-earning living artist, because he got that way by perfectly exemplifying the sacred rituals that underpin the true religion of Britain today, aesthetic humanism.

During this Lenten period, few Britons will repair either to the desert or to the deserted churches, but they will descend in droves on the temples of arts and culture, many of which are handsome, beautifully maintained buildings chock-full of valuable votive artworks.

In the past 20 years, as church congregations have continued to dwindle, the art galleries and museums have increased their visitor numbers hugely. Exactly like the religion it has replaced, aesthetic humanism demands of its followers certain rituals - silence, rapt concentration, a catechism in the form of a catalogue; and certain beliefs - the holiness of the artistic vocation, the intelligibility of taste (its equivalent of divine grace), and the temporal authority of those curators, dealers and arts administrators who are its priesthood.

Shorn of any faith in God, the arts have become imbued with the qualities of a secularised religion. The only immortality anyone believes in now is the immortality of the artist, whose soul is encapsulated in his works for all eternity. The modern Medicis have great faith in the arts - they enrich themselves by speculating in scraps of canvas and lumps of metal, and by endowing the public temples, they too hope for immortality.

As for the laity, whether we reverence an index of approved works, or indulge in that liberty of conscience summed up in the credo "I-don't-know-much-about-art-but-I-know-what-I-like", the important thing is that we believe: we believe in the superiority of man-made beauty over any other aspect of the natural world, and in the capacity of art to express all our thoughts and feelings. Our artistic faith also provides us with emotional succour and psychic balm. When we have retired, we go on pilgrimages to the Guggenheim in Bilbao, say, hoping to imbibe as much holy watercolour as we can before we are anointed with oil paint and die.

Like the Christianity it has usurped, aesthetic humanism has a Trinity - albeit one in which paternity is inverted, for it is Man who is now the father, and the old Roman goddess Fortuna whom we have made in our image, as our hidden hands manipulate the market in artefacts into being. As for the Holy Ghost, what could be more immanent (and yet transcendent) than the internet, which is everywhere and nowhere at once, transmitting our divine creative spark?

Art atheism

As I have proposed the existence of a new religion of aesthetic humanism, it is reasonable to ask whether I myself am a communicant. But I suspect you know the answer already: I may lack traditional religious faith, but I find myself an even more strident recusant - a heretic, even - when it comes to the arty church. It is an unpalatable fact, like an extra-dry communion wafer, that economic downturns can be good for the arts. During the last recession, the "Young British Artists" emerged as a phenomenon that at first satirised faltering capitalism, and then capital­ised on its resurgence. It might have been hoped that this recession would be deep enough to inaugurate a complete re-evaluation of the aesthetic humanist credo; that there might be a reformation to rival that of Christianity in the 16th century.

Sadly, or perhaps thankfully, it doesn't look as if this will be the case. Our deep faith in Fortuna's free market remains intact, and no dissident theses have been nailed to the doors of Tate Modern. Archbishop Serota sits secure on his throne. As for me, I find I do need a period of contemplation away from the hurly-burly of religious gallery observance. I feel strangely drawn to visit a modern church, where it's quiet and calm, and divinely ugly.

Will Self launches a series of six talks for Lent on Radio 4, 24 February (8.45pm)

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2010 issue of the New Statesman, IRAN

Getty
Show Hide image

When heritage becomes hate: why my home town of Charlottesville needs to address its complex past

After an invasion of white supremacists, we need to see what our history means today.

Watching a tragedy happening in slow motion, without any way to stop it - that’s how it has felt to be from Charlottesville, Virginia in the summer of 2017. A city that used to always get voted “happiest town in the USA” when I was growing up was the target this weekend of an ugly white supremacist movement whose roots spread far from the city.

It was a huge surprise when we won the lottery of Nazi flags, with our stupid old statues that have become icons of international fascism, with a park named after a distantly forgotten old man becoming a site of struggle for an attempted racist coup of the United States. Our first reaction is: they aren´t from here. Our second: make them go away. Our third: a realisation we need to examine the way that our own ways of life, which we thought so harmless, have inspired such horrible feelings in strangers.

Maybe for my African-American classmates at high school the statue of Confederate general Robert E Lee, and the park when it was still named after him rather than Emancipation Park, always meant violence. Pulling the statue down says no more about the historical Lee than tearing down Lenin in '89 says about socialism. We've been invaded by people pretending to protect us from invasion, and the symbols of our past will never matter as much as living people do.

***

The invaders picked our town, probably, because Virginia was a confederate state, and was in fact where the southern gentry used to live. Lee exemplified this tradition. He was son of Lighthorse Harry Lee, a hero of the revolutionary war and governor of Virginia, and is a descendant of one of “Virginia’s first families,” the aristocratic Englishmen who emigrated to Virginia when it was a British colony. He is part of Charlottesville's heritage, and perhaps not even all that shameful a part. He opposed the secession of the confederacy, supported the reconstruction after the war, including giving rights to recently freed slaves. Not exactly woke, but for a confederate general, not as bad as some.

We were taught at Venable Elementary School that he fought only reluctantly, to defend his land, not slavery. In the version we learned, one would imagine Lee being very opposed to people from the Midwest coming to Virginia in cars with Ohio license plates to murder Virginians. Many non-racist Virginians, including quite a few friends, respect Lee deeply - the same is true in towns like New Orleans where other Lee statues are being taken down. Yet if once we could fool ourselves into thinking that the statue didn't represent hatred and racial hierarchies, we can't anymore. The discussion of local history has turned into one of national identity. The statue should be gone by Christmas. 

***

The real hero of Charlottesville is the town’s founder, Thomas Jefferson, who was among the most enigmatic of the founding fathers, idealistic and hypocritical - a real American, in other words. His idea of the gentleman farmer is also part of our heritage. It was an alternative to Hamiltonian industrial capitalism, but lost out in the tustle to shape American history. Much like English contemporaries such as William Cobbett, Jefferson believed in a rural ideal, reading poetry by morning, farming by afternoon, playing the harpsichord by night. His thought is also present in our beautiful "academical village" of the University of Virginia which he also founded. It is one of UNESCO’s few world heritage sites in the United States, so I guess it is part fo the globe's heritage as well, and it is also where the white supremacists stomped around with their tiki torches.

It’s time for us to stop being romantic about Jefferson, too. The statue in our minds needs to come down. We can recognize the great parts of his work, of his thought, in Charlottesville today, but we can also recognise that he allowed himself to use violence to dominate others, that he owned slaves and raped them. And we can recognise that equivalent scenarios continue to play out today, and will continue to play out until we are willing to face the truth.

There can be no more excuses. It’s not about Jefferson, or Lee, after all. We use monuments, statues, heroes, to inspire ourselves. In the end, the “truth” about Jefferson or Lee is a matter of trivia and history. Today, for every white male in America, we need to deconstruct the parts of our identity built on the graves of others. It’s not easy.

***

Jefferson's gentleman farmer was the forerunner of the people who populate the gentrified Charlottesville that exists today of expensive coffee-shops and celebrity-filled suburbs. This romantic idea, much like the lifestyles of the American and English elite today, seems to engender a lot of resentment from those who can only watch helplessly, and are often gentrified out. It’s not only immigrants or, in the United States, African-Americans, who are denied access to America's Williamsburgs and Charlottesvilles, London's Shoreditches and Oxfords. In Charlottesville, descendants of white sharecroppers and black slaves alike are unable to afford $15 glasses of local Virginia wine.

The paradox implicit in Jefferson’s beautiful idea is that in the end, it’s impossible to sustain this chilled-out and happy lifestyle without the labor being done by others, be they slaves, sharecroppers, or factory workers in China. If America is in trouble now, the conflict comes precisely from the fact that our universalist ideas of freedom, equality, and liberty correspond to an economy that is anything but universal. We actually did it, keep doing it, and unless we can use these ridiculous men dancing through our streets iin Halloween costumes as a funhouse mirror to make us see ourselves as we are, we’ll probably keep doing it.

I resent Jefferson for his hypocrisy, because in truth, I would love it if America looked more like Charlottesville than the industrialized and nasty-looking Interstate 95 highway that leads up the East Coast, the aftermath of Hamiltonian industrial-revolution factory America. The New Jersey towns, the gas stations, what we contemptuously call “McMansions,” suburban Northern Virginia... none of it is really authentic enough. Parallel to the rich and ugly suburbs, are poor and ugly towns, the sort of places with unemployment and discounts on cereal that tastes like sugary trash in the supermarket.

The residents of these towns don’t hate the residents of more gentrified towns for our organic granola, they hate the world for the structures of oppression that they can’t escape, even as an international class, an educated class, a well-meaning class, escapes without even needing to. We coexisted in the same place but not the same set of opportunities, and we glided on to new and bigger worlds of possibility, ones denied to those of different class backgrounds, regardless of their ethnicity.

***

Some of my African-American classmates at Charlottesville High School were likely descendants of Jefferson’s slaves, coming from poorer neighbourhoods and housing projects and taking "standard" level classes, with honors and AP classes for students whose parents worked in the University (very liberal, of course), a genteel place where every year, some kid wears blackface or a Nazi outfit to a party - as a joke, of course. While my classmates in AP and Honors classes got help from our teachers in applying to Ivy League schools, the general level classes saw black and white students who shared poorer backgrounds acting out to get attention from harried teachers. This was public school, but Charlottesville’s many excellent private schools, of course, didn’t even have the general level students at all.

Despite some southerners such as Lee supporting the post-war “reconstruction,” white resistance to racial equality led to a Jim Crow system that wasn’t much better than slavery, and an American South which dozed in sweaty decline while the rest of the country industrialised and modernized. From 1865 to 1965, not much happened in the South. True, there were intellectual movements like the Agrarians, whose 1920s manifesto “I’ll Take My Stand” I found one high school afternoon in the local bookstore, we had our Faulkners, our occasional geniuses. But as a society, it was stagnant. 

It was only when the civil rights movement began that the south began to actually rise again. UVa went from being a minor regional school to being a world-class one. Charlottesville went from being a mediocre gentleman’s club to a place that people of all backgrounds could make lives for themselves in the public service. And we, the public, gained so much - that’s why my family chose to live there.

I remember as a child strolling the beautiful downtown mall to go to dinner al fresco with my parents, my father pointed out a man in a turban; it was Satyendra Huja, a Sikh professor at the university who had planned the downtown mall, and made a useless street into one of the nicest places to congregate in town. In 2012, Huja became the mayor. I guess the former mayor of Charlottesville who single-handedly made Charlottesville one of the most charming towns in the country often gets told to “go home,” as if that's somewhere else.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday is a national holiday in the United States, but in Virginia it used to be “Lee/King/Jackson” day, with two confederate officers added in just as a reminder. That’s not really our heritage, and as students, we were grateful for the day but always laughed at how immature it was that the powers that be needed to block out Dr. King’s achievements so much.

***

Charlottesville is a southern town true to and even obsessed with our heritage - a place filled with museums, historians, bookstores - which wants to dissect that heritage to remove the parts of our forefathers (and mothers) lives that we can’t accept, like a sandwich that you open up, take the pickles out of, and then keep on eating. We love our heritage in Virginia. We read about it, celebrate it, live it every day. But heritage isn’t a static thing, fixed in time, and the walls between myth and history are thin. In fact, perhaps knowing about your heritage is the ultimate form of privilege. I doubt that either the descendants of slaves I went to high school  with, or the “redneck” (so-called because they got sunburned by working in the fields - “redneck” is a class slur) descendants of the illiterate sharecroppers of rural Maryland, do. 

What happened this weekend to Charlottesville could happen to any town as long as we those who are deprived of their history and who don’t feel at home in their hometown. But the Charlottesville I remember, and the one it is now, proves that you can go from war and conflict and institutionalised racism to one where people of all races and identities can coexist, for the most part, peacefully and happily. We can, if we try, honor Jefferson for his achievements without forgetting the slaves his beautiful buildings were built by. A “Memorial to Enslaved Laborers” is being built on the campus he founded.

For the first time, every one of my old friends is thinking about racism, white privilege, the origins of violence, and what we can do about it. We can honor Jefferson and General Lee’s memory best by trying to learn from their mistakes. Maybe, if it seems like we are able to solve these problems, I’ll have a child myself. I hope she goes to Venable Elementary School, and I’ll take her to Emancipation Park afterwards.

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2010 issue of the New Statesman, IRAN