Saturday, February 26, 2011

Not Nice

Teddy Roosevelt's daughter Alice Roosevelt Longworth once quipped, "If you haven't got anything nice to say about anybody, come sit next to me."  It's not really that I have a taste for mean gossip, but a certain kind of niceness rubs me the wrong way--and I find a certain kind of meanness wildly entertaining.  To be "mean," after all, really only means to be "common, public, general, universal, shared by all."  "Nice," however, once meant "foolish, stupid, senseless"--I cite the Online Etymology Dictionary on this point--derived from the Latin prefix ne-, meaning "not," and the root scire, meaning "to know."  Of course, that definition is about 700 years old.  Since its origin, "nice" has come to mean "timid," then "fussy, fastidious," then "dainty, delicate," then "precise, careful," then "agreeable, delightful," and now "kind, thoughtful."  Still, its roots do show through, since, in even current usage, the word often means to pretend not to know, or to ignore.  I would add that "nice" now suggests a certain class superiority--the modern form of gentility (with the full force of "Gentile" in effect here, too), whereas "mean" denotes the merely common--riffraff.

Ricky Gervais' patter at this year's Golden Globe Awards was widely panned as "mean" spirited (and widely praised by others as hilarious).  What I caught of it online was funny, poisonously funny in the manner of Groucho Marx, W.C. Fields, and Mark Twain.  Americans used to be good at this kind of roughhouse humor, holding nothing back, body-slamming hypocrisy and pretension left and right.   Meanness in the service of truth, justice, and equality is, I think, rather a good thing.  In front of the emperors who had gathered together at the Beverly Hilton Hotel to pat themselves on the back, Gervais pointed out that they wore no clothes.  This is mean, of course, and it is also satire with its moral force intact.  That such honesty is scathing--that it hurts--is of course what bothers so many people about it, especially when the people getting roasted are "of the better sort."  However, insulting whole classes of people--mainly the working poor--is not only acceptable, but also politically shrewd.   Few Americans seem to mind attacks on labor unions, welfare moms, or nutjobs who break from the pack to criticize the high, the mighty, and the legally incorporated.

We have been assured that tomorrow night's Oscars broadcast will be meanness-free.  James Franco and Anne Hathaway will be as well-scrubbed and nice as they can be.  Franco told the Hollywood Reporter that Gervais had submitted some material for the Oscars, but it was rejected.  Franco said, "He did his award show and he bombed.  Why is he trying to get in on ours?"  He further stated that, as someone who was in the audience at Gervais' Golden Globes performance, he found it "not funny"--or perhaps just not the laugh riot the Globes show was in 2009, when Glenn Close and Jake Gyllenhaal co-hosted.

We should keep in mind that all social reformers have been criticized as "mean" and that, despite their murderous tendencies, HAL the computer and Hannibal Lecter are as "nice" as nice can be.  Niceness is a social quality, not an ethical one.  Our objections to someone who refuses to behave nicely are much like our objections to someone who fails to dress appropriately for an event.  This delicacy wouldn't be so bad if we as a modern people, in an age of political correctness and compassionate conservatism, were not so blithely tolerant of the arrogance of the powerful, the burdens crushing the poor and the sick, and the thousands of deaths that are the "collateral damage" of our "peacekeeping" efforts abroad.

We have the Brits to thank for keeping meanness in satire alive.  Of course, they have a tradition--Swift, Pope, Wilde, and Sasha Baron Cohen.  In America, we still have the Jews--Jon Stewart, Larry David, and Sarah Silverman--to keep us grounded with their knowing but often indelicate jabs at our pretensions and petty cruelties, to which we may prefer to turn a blind eye--but then the Jews do lack the "kinder and gentler" airs of us Gentiles. 

Friday, February 25, 2011


"Godlike Helen."  "Godlike Achilles."  It was just two or three weeks ago that my students and I were working out the implications of these phrases in the Iliad--and then in the Oresteia, where they sound more ominously in the ear.  For the Greeks, "godlike" is miles away from what, say, Pat Robertson or Mike Huckabee or Barack Obama might recognize as "godly."  The Greek gods, though fashioned in the Greeks' own image, were mostly reflections of the amoral forces of nature, including human nature, not the withered and cross god of the Christianity I grew up with.  Not that the Greeks were amoral--far from it--but their morality grew not from their religion, where it was not to be found, but from their consideration of the needs of others, as necessary to a well-ordered society.

"Godlike" meant, for the classical Greeks, what I loosely paraphrase as "full of oneself."  It was a quality the Greeks knew and appreciated--and, all the same, were wary of.  Helen is "godlike" when, full of buoyant lust for Paris of Troy, she forsakes her husband and daughter to run off with the handsome young man from abroad.  She is "godlike" because, like the gods of the pantheon, she acted purely out of her own nature, authentically, without regard for her actions' social (and, as it turns out, political and military) implications.  Gods need not worry about consequences--no more than hurricanes or earthquakes do.  To be "godlike" is to be wholly at one with oneself, fully and deeply inspired by one's own nature and spirit.  It may also lead to recklessness ... and tragedy (no less than hurricanes or earthquakes do).  For the Greeks, she is "godlike" also because her attraction to Paris finds its cause in a god, Aphrodite, who wants to reward Paris for giving her the golden apple, the prize in an Olympian beauty contest Paris ill-advisedly agreed to judge.

Achilles, too, is godlike ... in his anger with Agamemnon and the other Greeks.  His rage is a full expression of who he really is as an individual, without regard for the probable consequences or the needs of others--not until his beloved friend Patroclus dies and he turns his wrath on the Trojan Hector, who killed Patroclus--and not until (after Achilles kills Hector in bloodthirsty revenge) Priam, Hector's father, risks his life to enter the Greek encampment to beg Achilles to let Priam take Hector's body home for proper burial--a request Priam, King of Troy, makes while kissing his son's killer's feet.  It is Priam's visit that reminds Achilles of the needs of others--turns him from his godlikeness to his humane manlikeness.  (Helen has a similar conversion when she sees the death and destruction caused by her "godlike" actions and repents--not of her lust, but of her ego-centrism--"I Am That I Am," as the singular god of Moses put it, who once "repented" of destroying the whole world in a flood.)   Priam's visit reminds Achilles that his own father will mourn his death when, as is fated, Achilles' death follows close behind Hector's.

Anyway, what made me think of this was something splendid.  I was walking my dog Ripley, who at 14 years, five months, in age, has his good days and bad days lately.  The bright sun and cool spring breeze this afternoon brought out his own "godlike" nature.  He began to pull on the leather lead that held him back.  He leaped and bounded into the wind, his body ecstatically tense.  He was full of himself, all right.  He was delightfully at one with his nature.  He forgot his aches and pains and neglected any amount of caution over his well being.  He was divinely delighted with himself, and it struck me that this is heaven, what he was experiencing and what I was experiencing, just being with him at that moment.

Of course, fate awaits us all, as it did Helen of Troy and "godlike" wrathful Achilles, as, in fact, the Greeks believed it hovered over the gods themselves.  But these moments of exuberance are what it means to live--full of ourselves and abandoned to our own natures.  And, if we can keep this aspect of ourselves in balance somehow with our consideration of others, we achieve what the Greeks, as far back as Homer, recognized as "the good life"--a balance no god could ever achieve, only we humans, with our knowledge of suffering and death (unknown to gods) and of the joys of our natural and occasionally unbridled impulses.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...