Cultural Caviar

The Importance of Being Sympathetic

November 12, 2016

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The Importance of Being Sympathetic

On the day that Donald John Trump was declared the victor in the American election I was on my way to Madrid to give a talk. I would be less than frank if I did not admit that, such being the smallness of the human mind, or at least the smallness of my mind, the prospect of the talk I was about to give preoccupied me far more than world-historical events, though my talk would undoubtedly sink into immediate, almost simultaneous, oblivion.

When I arrived at the airport there was a silent television above to keep the passengers amused as they queued for immigration. The authorities the world over now treat us as children who are tired at the end of the day and who must be distracted to prevent them from turning fractious. We must never be left longer that thirty seconds without entertainment.

The television was showing an animated and sometimes heated discussion that, despite the absence of sound, was obviously very serious indeed, for the participants’ gestures were such as to emphasize the gravity of their words and concerns. Surely they were discussing the short- and long-term prospects of the world now that Trump was president-elect?

“If you make the achievement of power the meaning of your life and you are thwarted in it, some kind of collapse is only to be expected.”

Then the subtitles started to come. They were actually discussing the future career of Lionel Messi, the Argentinean footballer who plays for Barcelona, and not the American election. Apparently there was some kind of crisis in Messi’s career, but I was called forward to show my passport just as I was about to learn what it was that a passionate interlocutor in the discussion had found “unacceptable.” 

If length of entry on Wikipedia is a measure of the importance of people, then the subject of Messi’s career was indeed as important as Mr. Trump’s election. At first I was pleasantly outraged by this manifestation (yet another!) of the triviality that is the principal, almost defining, characteristic of modern culture, but then I bethought myself: We cannot always be discussing Mr. Trump’s election, life is too multifarious as well as short. Nothing is important or unimportant, but thinking makes it so, and it seems to me likely, to judge by the conversations that I hear in the street, that there are many people, perhaps more, who think about such matters as Messi’s career than about the future President of the United States and his policies.

Fortunately, the conference I attended was about toxicology, in which poisonous mushrooms loomed larger than the toxic election, and in which not a word about it was spoken. One learns something every day. Previously I had had no idea that infusions of penicillin were one of the treatments of choice for poison by certain species of Amanita. I examined my conscience to see whether this was something I ought to have known, and absolved myself: Knowledge is always finite, ignorance infinite.

But there was no escaping the election for long, nor did I really wish to do so. I bought a newspaper at a kiosk (an act that puts me firmly in the dinosaur class that refuses to change its ways and is doomed to extinction), which of course was full of what might be called Trumpery.

When I returned to my hotel I opened it and received a shock, for there was a photograph of Mrs. Clinton in the hour of her defeat. And the photograph did something that I previously should not have thought possible: It made me feel sorry for her, for it was the photograph of an old woman.

By the rule that opposites attract, I could not help but think of the line in The Importance of Being Earnest in which Lady Bracknell describes her visit to Lady Harbury, who has recently lost her husband:

I never saw a woman so altered; she looks quite twenty years younger.

Algernon, Lady Bracknell’s nephew, says:

I hear her hair has turned quite gold from grief.


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