THE AGE OF DECADENCE
Brass Eye, Intimacy, EastEnders . . incest, adultery, public
copulation. Anything goes these days, but Jane Shilling
wonders whether our own epoch is uniquely degenerate
'ARE there no limits?' screams the big, black headline in the Sunday newspaper. There is no need to ask 'No limits to what?' Without even thinking about it, you know it means 'Are there no limits to human behaviour?' To the greed, lasciviousness, self-absorption, cruelty and indifference of the society of which each of us makes up a tiny part?
Of course it is the job of headlines to interest us, and an easy way to make us interested is by making us appalled. The attractive man in the singles bar with his little phial of Rohypnol, the lecher in the woods, the paedophile on the school run, the murky horrors seething on the Internet just a keystroke away; all of them are real. But for most of us, their function in our lives is merely one of contrast. Our consciousness of them, as they stalk the columns of our daily papers, serves merely to throw into relief our own sheer niceness and normality; to reinforce the virtuous scaffolding of values and limits that shores up our daily lives.
What are those values, exactly? Most of us, by mid-adulthood, have a vague, instinctive, moral first-aid kit of Jolly Good, Oh Dear, and That's a Bit Much, which can be brought out and applied, with fair success, to most eventualities, from televised confessions of adultery by the heir to the throne and his estranged wife, to the shortlist for the Turner Prize. But the events of the past couple of weeks — the breaching of accustomed limits which caused that Sunday newspaper to express such acute dismay — have seemed well beyond the scope of the ordinary domestic moral first-aid kit.
In a hectic disorder of the conventions, there has been the conviction of Lord Archer for perjury, his constant wife's refusal to desert him in his humiliation (which seemed to make a good many people crosser than her husband's original misdemeanours) and the triumph on telly's Survivor of Charlotte the Harlot, the curvy adulteress. We have eavesdropped on the final moronic conversations in Big Brother, compered by the seven-months pregnant Davina McCall, witnessed an incestuous snog on EastEnders between a dying woman and her son, and a sexual act between two distinguished actors, Kerry Fox and Mark Rylance, in Patrice Chereau's film of Hanif Kureishi's novel, Intimacy. Five law lords have overturned the conviction of a man who believed his 14-year-old girlfriend was actually 16, and one of them, Lord Millett, remarked that 'the age of consent has long ceased to reflect ordinary life'. The Home Secretary interrupted his holiday to condemn a satirical television programme, Brass Eye, which he had not seen, but in which various celebrities were duped into taking part in a spoof public-service programme on paedophilia. Oh yes, and the mother of Boris Becker's love child gave an interview in which she explained that consummation took place in a hotel cupboard filled not with brooms but with nice clean linen.
Which of these things is distasteful, which wicked and which threatens to undermine the structure of society? Which is worst: incest, adultery, public copulation for the purposes of entertainment, or making a joke of outraged innocence with which to tease self-important minor public figures? And is the timing of all these things — crammed within the space of a couple of weeks — fortuitous, the sign of a bunch of bored news editors in search of a story, or a symptom of some widespread and horrible social malaise?
At the very least, it is undignified, both to read about and to be part of. It brings to mind Hans Christian Andersen's nasty little fairy story of the old enchanter, Cribbley Crabbly, who applies his magnifying glass to a drop of ditchwater, in which he observes 'all the thousand little imps in the water . . . jumping and springing about, devouring each other, or pulling each other to pieces'. In this case we are not the enchanter. We are the imps themselves, and it is not merely undignified but intensely dismaying to find oneself, willy-nilly, part of a society apparently in the grip of a galloping sexual bulimia in which the only unspeakables are ugliness or aging; the only notions of innocence attach, hazily, to 'kiddies' (when well clear of puberty) and certain categories of animal (laboratory mice, foxes; with fish, oddly enough, coming up on the outside). Meanwhile, the gleam of hope at the bottom of Pandora's box of horrors represents not the possibility of a good life achieved by kindness, selfdenial or hard work, but the sudden, Danae-like transformation of a lottery win or selection as a member of a newly-manufactured bubble-gum pop group.
This is a world in which democracy is an irrelevance (The election, whatever,' sniffed Davina McCall, hugging her gravid belly as she gave a précis of the world events that the inhabitants of the Big Brother house had missed during their Time Inside); in which politicians of all parties spin like waltzing mice (which is why no one feels much like voting; even the stupid aren't that stupid). But above all it is a world in which all aspects of our daily lives, from the newspapers we read, the television programmes we watch, the advertisements that punctuate them, the billboards we pass on the way to work, and the high culture to which we turn for respite from our quotidian selves are steeped in infantile, unambiguous and unassuageable messages of desire. We live, in short, in a
culture that is no longer merely fascinated by pornography, but is itself pornographic — and, as Susan Sontag somewhat discouragingly remarks, in her fascinating essay on the subject. 'what pornography is really about, ultimately, isn't sex but death'.
The lengths to which modern society will go in order to conceal from itself this simple, unpalatable fact are amusingly anatomised by the American writer David Brooks in Bobos in Paradise, his sharp anatomy of bourgeois bohemian society. In the chapter titled 'Pleasure', he describes the way in which 'over the past few years, the educated class has domesticated lust by enshrouding it in high-mindedness.... "Play Safe" and "Play Responsibly" are slogans that are repeated again and again in sophisticated sex literature. Today's Marquis de Sades don't seem to want to create an immoral underground society. They're trying to join it. They want to gain a respectable place in the middle-class world. Hence, he adds, the growth of a curious system of sexual etiquette — when to sign a legal waiver, when to wear latex gloves — as complex, in its way, as the elaborate rules that, a century or so ago, governed the making of social calls.
Of course the preoccupations and behaviour of our own era are not without precedent. My colleague Peter Jones has reminded me of the frightful behaviour of Athenian society when it came under stress. Thucydides describes 'a state of unprecedented lawlessness ... people began openly to venture on acts of selfindulgence which before then they used to keep dark.... It was generally agreed that what was both honourable and valuable was the pleasure of the moment and everything that might conceivably contribute to that pleasure.'
Admittedly, the initial impulse for the collapse of virtue among the Athenians was the immediate threat of death in the form of a plague — a physical, rather than psychic, disorder. But then flicking — the way you do — through Tertullian, one finds the description of a still more familiar kind of frenzy. Give or take a millennium or two. it's the Saturday-night crowd at the National Lottery draw: 'Look at the populace coming to the show — mad already! Disorderly, blind, excited already about its bets. ... What they long to see, what they dread to see — neither has anything to do with them; their love is without reason, their hatred without justice. . .
Really, no very extensive research is needed — a vague familiarity with the telly series L Claudius and the movie Les Liaisons Dangereuses, or even a trip to The Relapse, Vanbrugh's bracingly heartless satire of 1696 now playing at the Olivier Theatre, will suffice — to convince one that societies have behaved extremely badly before now, to the point of disintegration, and yet recovered to find other, more constructive outlets for the voracious human need for stimulation: war, trade, explo
ration, the construction of railways, central heating, efficient sewerage systems, and so on.
So one may tell oneself that there is no need to panic; that there may seem not to be any limits at the moment, but some will certainly be along in a minute or two, probably all bunched up together like London buses. But this still leaves hanging in the air various questions about goodness and the nature of a good life. Can such a thing still be said to exist, if there are sanctions, other than legal ones, for badness and no reward for goodness or self-denial? And why, in such circumstances, would anyone be bothered to try to lead one?
That badness is much more fascinating than goodness is not in doubt. You could argue that the whole of literature is predicated on this simple statement. To take a single, random example. in Le Morte D'Arthur, Sir Thomas Malory's great psychological romance of 1469, what the Sun would doubtless call the Love Triangle of the King, Arthur, his wife, Queen Guenevere, and her lover, Arthur's best friend and sometime most perfect of all knights, the adulterer Sir Launcelot, is sustained by the tension between the desires of the hearts and loins of the three people, and their sense of what is holy and virtuous.
There is no ambiguity in the moral position of the three, who are the cream of their society in terms of courage, nobility and refinement of feeling. Each is aware that what he or she is doing, or permitting to be done, is wrong. Yet the fascination of transgression is so great that it ends only with death. And for Launcelot, in particular, the grief of the bereaved is terrible, not because he was the flower of chivalry but precisely because he was a sinner: `Ah, Launcelot,' says Sir Ector. 'thou wert the truest lover of a sinful man that ever loved woman; and thou wert the kindest man that ever struck with sword'.
For us, the fascination of transgression is equally strong, unsharpened as it is by the fear of a hereafter filled with the torments of hell, or even by a sense of shame (other than in the technical journalistic sense of that word, to mean 'being found out'). For a girl seduced and abandoned, the fate of poor Tess of the D'Urbervilles no longer beckons. She and her seducer know that a) her mum will look after the baby while she gets a job or b) if mum and the employ ment agency fail to deliver, then the Chan cellor will do the decent thing — so there is absolutely no need for the baby's father to hang around when he could more usefully be occupying his time by finding another young woman to impregnate.
It is a state of affairs not wholly satisfactory (particularly not for the baby nor, oddly enough, for the irrelevant father), but comfortable enough in its way. And it is hard to see why any sense of moral unease should attach to it when the future Defender of Our Faith is so snugly settled with the woman he should have married in the first place (but didn't), surrounded by the aura of happiness, affection and personal fulfilment that now passes — perhaps rightly — for virtue.
So with shame gone, privacy vanished (all those CCTV cameras doggedly whirring as one scratches one's bottom in the queue at the fishmonger's) and modesty now embodied in the unlikely person of Britney Spears, trumpeting her virginity in pubis-revealing trousers, perhaps the only thing to do — at least for the time being — is to hold tight and hope the backlash comes soon.
But hang on a sec. What's this on the front page of the Sun? It's that Helen off Big Brother opening her heart about what really went on under the blanket with Paul. It wasn't what we all thought, apparently.
In fact, it was a charming reversion to the quaint old 19th-century custom of bundling — getting into bed with someone you fancy, but keeping your clothes on. No, she certainly wasn't 'at it'. 'I'm the girl next door and I didn't want people to think I was another kind of girl': or, as the Sun's headline puts it, 'I wasn't going to honk my fourth lover on live TV.'
Well there you are, There's your little gleam of hope at the bottom of the box.
Helen has an inner life. She has a sense of propriety. Somewhere beneath the amazing platinum haystack that perches on her head she has in place the framework of 'private standard-setting and private ideals to be pursued', which, argues Baroness Warnock in An Intelligent Person's Guide to Ethics, underpins 'the morality that lies behind all efforts to improve things in the world at large'. Is it too much to hope that she has discerned, however faintly, the thought with which Thackeray, who with his cyni cism and his sentimentality speaks so elo quently to our own age, concludes Vanity Fair? 'Ali! Vanitas Vanitatumr he writes.
'Which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire? or, having it, is satisfied?' On second thoughts, actually, it is too much to hope. But thank heavens for Helen, even so.