Cultural Caviar

The Profane Is Now Profound

May 05, 2018

Not long ago, in preparation to review a book, I reread John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me. Griffin, though largely forgotten now, was a most remarkable, indeed admirable, man. He was a social liberal in the best possible sense. In 1960 he decided to disguise himself as a black man and travel as such through the still-segregated South to find out what it was really like to be black. Of course, his were the experiences of only one man and cannot be assumed to be representative of a society as a whole; but what he found among the blacks was a culture of courtesy and even refined good manners among themselves, a chivalrous ceremoniousness that seems to have disappeared from our world. There was not the slightest trace of the horrible and disgusting coarseness that Lamar so proudly exhibits. One cannot help but wonder how it developed, how evil became good. I have my suspicions, but no space to air them.

The worst aspect of this story, perhaps, is the cowardly and surely insincere fawning over Lamar’s industrialized vileness by a cultural establishment. Could any intelligent, educated person find in Lamar anything worthy of praise, emulation, or reward? Here is what one of the judges said in defense of the awarding of the prize to him:

The challenge for future juries will be to maintain the mission of honouring high standards of excellence in an expanding sphere of music, and there lie both a sizable burden and huge new opportunity.

In other words, Lamar is so good (by good, of course, I mean evil) that it is difficult to conceive of anything better (i.e., worse). Future juries will have difficulty in finding anything more transgressive to award a prize to, thereby proving their open-mindedness to other minds so open, like their own, that they can contain nothing. Underlying all this, of course, is a contorted form of racism: I don’t give a fuck is the best that can be expected or hoped for from a black man.

Future juries can take comfort from a line from Gerard Manley Hopkins:

No worst, there is none.

You can always find, and promote, something worse.


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