There’s this film out at the moment, called The Walk. It’s based on the story of French high-wire artist Philippe Petit and his walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in August 1974. I must admit I haven’t seen it, and probably couldn’t bring myself to see it, since heights frighten me. Twice in my life I have dreamed I was perched on the ledge of a building so high you could barely see the ground. I wasn’t dreaming, or so I believed – I was right there, agonising whether to keep still, shut my eyes and hope for rescue, or jump and get it over with. Thanatos, the death impulse, the dark side of the life impulse, Eros – is present within all of us but normally suppressed.
As far as I was concerned that dream contained enough terror for one lifetime. Heights have always ‘done my head in’ as they used to say. (I wonder what they say now?) I even managed to get stuck at the top of the children’s slide on Penenden Heath and had to be rescued by my father. He was not sympathetic but then I suppose if you’ve been through conscription, forced to drive a truck with a red-hot steering wheel back and forth across India, through rivers and swamps and whatnot, having only previously driven once or twice round the works car-park, a gibbering female child at the top of a little low slide would be exasperating.
That’s the thing with sitting on a high ledge, isn’t it? We’re terrified when it’s us – but when somebody else is in that position, there’s a fascination. We are good, kind people and we don’t want them to fall but – what if they did, what if they actually did? Thanatos wants out, and he’s greedy; and when someone may be about to die he attaches himself, leech-like, to that sight. What better and safer way to experience ‘death’ and the fear of death than to watch someone else fall off a high wire? Through them we get to experience that great, final adrenaline rush. Through them we experience the sublime.
The sublime is a difficult thing to define. The Romantic poets thought of the sublime as the heightened feeling you might experience in viewing the majesty of the Alps, or a great waterfall – a fascinating beauty, intermingled with horror.
The development of the concept of the sublime as an aesthetic quality in nature distinct from beauty was first brought into prominence in the 18th century in the writings of Anthony Ashley-Cooper, third earl of Shaftesbury, and John Dennis, in expressing an appreciation of the fearful and irregular forms of external nature, and Joseph Addison’s synthesis of concepts of the sublime in his The Spectator, and later the Pleasures of the Imagination. All three Englishmen had, within the span of several years, made the journey across the Alps and commented in their writings of the horrors and harmony of the experience, expressing a contrast of aesthetic qualities. Wikipedia
This is the attraction of vampire movies, especially for young girls: the pale, exotic, beautiful, tormented hero with the bloodlust and the deadly fangs. What’s not to long for?
But this Thanatos/Eros thing extends, downwards, from the Alps and the high-wire walker to (in my case) playground equipment and (in all our cases) the world of popular entertainment. We watch Amy Winehouse destroying herself with drugs and alcohol – everyone sees the accident waiting to happen, nobody intervenes. We listen to her singing her heart out, like the mythical thorn bird, self-impaled to produce its final, sweetest song. We watch talent show contestants walking on stage, we hear the silence fall, we long for them to be bad. How much more satisfying a conceited, self-deluded, aggressive or foolish contestant than any old sweet boy band, or a nervous nineteen year-old in ripped jeans with a pretty good voice. How much more entertaining.
In Roman times, as we all know, the crowds filled the stone amphitheatres to witness gladiators fight other gladiators or condemned criminals to the death. Animals, even. The Romans staged “hunts” in their auditoria. Thousands of wild animals would be slaughtered in one day.
During the inauguration of the Colosseum over 9,000 animals were killed. Wikipedia
Were the Ancient Romans a different species of human being to ourselves? How could they take such pleasure in the prospect of all that suffering? Or were they maybe more honest about their desires than the audience at The X-Factor, or watchers of Big Brother, waiting for one of the inhabitants of the House to crack under the strain? And how far we will go? Take Jade Goody, who behaved stupidly and unpleasantly towards a fellow housemate, Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty, and subsequently, presumably in an attempt to repair her ruined reputation, became a Housemate on the Indian version of Big Brother. I didn’t see the programme here in the UK, but according to the newspaper reports she was called into the Diary Room to speak to her specialist in London over the phone. He then informed her, on live TV, she that she was dying of cervical cancer. Twenty-seven and nowhere to hide.
Mocking the afflicted, as they say. How often are we actually doing this, telling ourselves we’re just having fun? I suppose it depends how you define ‘afflicted’. Is it someone with a physical disability? Is it someone like Jade Goody, poorly-educated, to all appearances not very bright, and unconsciously racist? Is it Amy Winehouse, gifted but desperate and kind of ‘cracked’? Is it a deluded teenage factory worker seizing his one chance, maybe his only chance, of fame on the X-Factor? Or is it the odd, plain, middle-aged woman in the cheap gold dress and the wrong-colour tights?
Susan Boyle’s Britain’s Got Talent Audition: April 11, 2009
More questions than answers:
How can you not cringe at this classic television encounter? How can you not get to your feet and cheer for her? How can you not cry? Did they treat her well? If her voice had turned out to be all of a piece with her physical appearance on that day, would she have deserved the reaction she would most certainly have got – the sniggers from the audience, patronising comments from the panel? Would that treatment even have made a dent in her confident self-belief? She knew she had one of the best voices ever, but then all the contestants know they are the best ever, and most turn out to be deluded. Who could have denied her the recognition and the applause? She said she wanted to be as famous as musical star Elaine Paige and they laughed behind their hands. Of course – who wouldn’t? And then she sang, and blew Elaine Paige out of the water.
Given what we later witnessed in the way of erratic, inappropriate and stressed-out behaviour – would rejection have destroyed Susan Boyle? Or, without the careful management she later received, might success have destroyed her? Labelled “brain-damaged” as a child in her Scottish village, she has since been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome.
Just listen to this with your eyes shut. Where is this coming from? How can someone who can barely express herself sensibly in words, nevertheless interpret these words and this music like this?
Susan Boyle: Wild Horses
A personal story to end on. Some Sundays I would go to Open Mic sessions a folk club in Rochester with my ex-husband. He had run a folk club himself, in Northampton, some years before we met. Although used to singing and playing in front of an audience, he never offered to perform on these occasions. We just used to watch. There was this one woman – oldish. She played the accordion dreadfully, missing notes all over the place, and sang even more dreadfully. People used to guffaw at her, literally; groans echoed round the room as she staggered up onto the stage. I asked my husband once, why she kept on doing it, and why the audience were so cruel. He shrugged: If you choose to put yourself up there, you take the consequences. There seemed no arguing with this. He had taken the same risk himself, many times. He had walked the walk. But I wonder now – about the damaged ego of the person who puts herself forward, and the damaged soul of the person who watches, and mocks.
Judy Collins: Send In The Clowns