‘Madness in great ones must not unwatch’d go’ (Hamlet)
Recently, the air has been full of talk of greatness. Churchill, Brunel, Princess Diana, Darwin, Boy George were all candidates for the Great Britons award. It was predictable enough that Churchill ultimately won.
The tabloids and hundreds of identical magazines–‘OK’, ‘Hello’, the ‘Daily Mail’, the ‘Sun’–alert us daily to the eating disorders and emotional dysfunctions of soap stars and footballers. We are asked to see in these fleeting shadows on the telly screens some quality that marks off a tiny minority of the human race. ‘Fame! I’m going to live forever’ the song said, as if the dewy eyes of Auntie Jane and the monstrous clicking vote calculator on the screen were the guarantee of specialness. There are Pop Idols, and Pop Idol rejects; there are ‘celebrities’ whose qualification might be a single body part, or a double barrelled name, or a public descent into madness. These are the people they ask us to believe are candidates for immortality!
But surely there’s a difference between the famous, the transient celebrities, and the great? Well, I’m not sure that there is. Tariq Ali recently wrote a wonderful ‘Guardian’ article on the Nobel peace prize. Perhaps the award could give us a catalogue of the genuinely great–after all, they are picked by a distinguished and neutral committee of experts. But when you look at the list, it is hard to imagine a definition that could embrace Hitler, Henry Kissinger, Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin, Teddy Roosevelt and Mother Theresa–not to mention Jimmy Carter and Hamid Karzai (an unsuccessful candidate for 2002). Each of them could equally be eligible for permanent appearances at the international court of human rights, or arraignment at the Tribunal of Absolute Hypocrisy.
Churchill was a delusional megalomaniac thrown by accident into a position of power at the beginning of a war he really hadn’t thought was necessary. His ‘greatness’ was a myth carefully fabricated to symbolise a sense of common purpose in a nation divided by a chasm of class distinction–Diana’s role was much the same. The Begins, Kissingers, Carters and the rest were heroes of their class. They represented its power or its aspirations best. Individuals can have key roles to play–Stephenson built the first steam engine, Rutherford split the atom, Fleming discovered penicillin. But they didn’t emerge from the ether like alien visitations, rather they absorbed and embodied a history of thinking and research–and in almost every case, they acted with and through others to achieve their particular breakthrough.
It may be that one individual at a given point imagined a possibility that did not yet exist–like Brunelleschi, the Florentine watchmaker, who worked out how to construct the largest cathedral dome ever built without columns or supports. But he drew on the wisdom of hundreds of others. Was the architect ‘greater’ than the mason, or the painter, or the cutter of wood? Pablo Neruda wrote a marvellous poem about the great Inca city of Machu Picchu, high in the Andes. He asked who had made this extraordinary place possible. His answer? John Stonecutter, John Barefoot, John–the anonymous labourer who left the mark of his chisel on the stone.
In any case, the capacity to dream, to imagine a different world, is not necessarily a skill available only to a tiny minority–unless, of course, society is divided into those who think and those who labour, as capitalist society is. The problem with the discussion of greatness is that it suggests that the superiority of some over others is a natural phenomenon, as inescapably built into our genes as red hair or aquiline noses. Many people have made contributions to human progress–some small, some enduring–but they are each part of a collective advancement, small or large steps towards a better, freer world. Churchill’s contribution was what exactly–other than singlehandedly to maintain a corner of the cigar-making industry? To consign thousands to a futile death in the Dardanelles? The real problem is that he, like Bush and Blair, believed deeply in a concept of greatness that set him above the considerations that govern the lives of most people. And that belief came from ideas that saw greatness as the counterpoint to everyone else’s lack of it.
In the end, ideas of greatness imply the ordinariness of the majority of people. We should beware the self appointed heroes of the age–sooner or later they will be demanding sacrifices of the rest of us. We should remember the old adage: ‘They are only great because we are on our knees.’
If we must celebrate someone, let’s create a monument to John Stonecutter and John Barefoot, and give Churchill, Kissinger and the rest the place they deserve–in the rogues’ gallery of class warriors.
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