Shouting at the radio is a necessary safety valve and, true to form, it was one of those half-heard snippets that set me off. During a Today programme report on the finale of Game of Thrones, a fan could be heard asserting that the popular fantasy saga was really a story about today. And I thought: no it isn’t. Not remotely.
If George RR Martin were pitching Game of Thrones in some imaginary elevator he’d probably say it was a quasi-medieval reimagining of the Wars of the Roses. Dragons aside, GoT is about the psychology of power, the dynastic impulse, realpolitik and the moral quandaries behind great historical events. These things are not the exclusive property of today. They are eternal.
In GoT good people do bad things and bad people do good things, which is as modern as modern gets. But a story about today? Martin’s characters are simultaneously exactly like us – motivated by love, fear, duty, the half-understood need to become their real selves – and nothing like us at all. They are true believers in hereditary absolutism, magic, political violence and restorationism; there aren’t many progressives in Westeros.
But aren’t the Army of the Dead an allegory of climate change? Are Danaerys’s dragons supposed to represent nuclear weapons? Who built the Wall and will the wildlings pay for it? To give Thrones lovers their due, vanishingly few of them make these unconvincing stretches to connect its plot lines and iconography to the contemporary world. It’s the think-piece crew (yes, pot/kettle) and the critical commentariat who can’t accept works of pop culture – especially genre pop culture – without them being validated by “relevance”. The alarm bell often rings when we’re asked to accept that a work of history or fantasy “speaks to our times”. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. But it’s a strange form of historical narcissism which implies that nothing has value unless it’s about us, now, today.
Does the success of Armando Iannucci’s Death Of Stalin hinge on its resonance with the court of Trump? Or on the fact that its portrayal of a terrorised inner political cabal is just cruelly hilarious in its own right, and applicable to any circle of toadies from Kim Jong-un’s to Saddam Hussein’s to your employer’s management team?
Did the despair at the end of Avengers: Infinity War feel so abyssal because it echoed liberal heroism’s global defeat at the hands of a nihilistic alt-right or was it because, you know, Spider-Man is such a good kid and he didn’t deserve that? This sort of thinking reduces the enjoyment of art and entertainment to a game of join the dots.
Sometimes you suspect people are press-ganging art into pertinence just to confirm that our moment happens to be the most important in history; constantly directly addressed by great minds who, back in the mists of time, couldn’t wait for it to be 2019 so that their stuff could land properly.
Among things I’ve recently heard cited as speaking to our times are Andy Warhol; a collection of socialist fairy tales; Kesha’s performance at the 2018 Grammys; sport in general; horror films in general; reggae in general; and The Lion King, a coming-of-age succession saga featuring talking savannah wildlife, which was conceived in 1988 and so has not yet had a wide choice of times to speak to. So many things are speaking to the times that the times must want to put their out of office on.
Clearly there are vastly successful and influential works designed to address one moment, which later connect with another. The Handmaid’s Tale, V for Vendetta, The Great Gatsby, Dr Strangelove and Brave New World all spring to mind. Thought of as period pieces as recently as the 1990s, they have snapped brutally back into focus, revealing that they too have something of the eternal in them. In other cases the relevance-spotters confuse wider resonance for specific comment. Imagine if Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem had come out in 2017 instead of 2009 and been forever diminished as “that Brexit play”.
On closer examination, the books and films that supposedly speak to our times turn out to speak to all times. Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four does not remain powerful because Putin or Trump are literal incarnations of Big Brother but because it locates and dramatises the truth about mechanisms of political repression that recur in modern history. (As Dorian Lynskey, author of a new “biography” of the book, says, even Orwell didn’t intuit that we’d willingly buy the telescreens and keep them in our pockets.)
In another sense it’s true that all fiction interrogates the present, being a dialogue between an author and a reader who’s locked in their own time and space. Still the impulse to grade everything for simplistic currency persists.
Perhaps this “speaks to” a superficial need to explain to ourselves how we live right now, in unpleasant but fleeting circumstances, rather than confronting the deeper existential question of how and why we live at all. The harshest lesson to learn about the world is that it’s not all about you. And sometimes a dragon really is just a dragon.
Andrew Harrison is producer of the Remainiacs podcast
This article appears in the 29 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Theresa May’s toxic legacy