During an otherwise light-hearted group discussion on Pre-Raphaelite Aesthetics, our friend W, warily regarded for his quick, biting wit, likened the Brotherhood’s struggles to those of the Parliamentarians during the Battle of Marston Moor – a tortured analogy even in the most sensitive of hands. In particular though, W employed an irreverent (and historically dubious) metaphor to describe the Royalists’ defeat that I will not deign to repeat here.
As you may well imagine, a pall fell over the room. For a long moment, no one made eye contact; nor did anyone seek to follow up W’s comment with any sort of rejoinder. Our resourceful host did his best to rescue the evening by announcing that everyone was welcome to avail themselves of the cake & sherbet cart that had just been wheeled into the dining room, but the damage was done. While I cannot speak for our host or for any of the other guests, I will say that W may find himself on the outside looking in when the spring social whirl kicks in.
Now back to the incident that spoiled our collective evening – I don’t think I am being overly sensitive in my indictment of W’s conduct. A glance at the calendar will tell you that we are speaking of a battle that took place less than four centuries ago. In other words, the wounds can scarcely be considered to have healed. Who among us has not wondered how our family’s fortunes (and indeed, the fortunes of the wider world) might be very different today but for a few fateful choices by Mr. Cromwell and Prince Rupert? Who among us has not bowed his head in reverence for the thousands who met their maker on that bloody day in 1644? For our friend W to callously disregard the feelings of all present in such a manner is tantamount to expectorating into an open crypt (not to put too fine a point on it).
The true core of this issue goes far beyond W’s incautious words. It is hinted at in Henley’s lyrical query, “How can love survive in such a graceless age?” For it is in this graceless age that we must stand witness, on nearly a daily basis, as “pundits” inundate us with jocular references to horrific events and shameful moments from our recent past. To name but a few, I have in recent weeks been subjected to “zippy” one-liners and giddy bon mots referencing such solemn topics as the Northern Chinese Famine of 1876, the 1711 sinking of the Schleswig, and even the Queensland cyclone of 1875 (!). Clearly, we have lost our way as a polite society.
It would be unconscionably hubristic of me to offer any sure prescription for alleviating society of these seemingly omnipresent lapses in taste and judgment. I will have to settle for emulating Ghandi in his dictum to “be the change you wish to see in the world.” And though wishes may be of little practical value, I will allow myself one small wish – that we may somehow advance beyond these shallow inclinations in the very near future; I shudder to consider what sort of puerile “humor” we may have to endure this December as we mark the 300th anniversary of the Ottoman-Venetian War. I would imagine the commercial purveyors of such “comedic” material are already sharpening their pens in anticipation of that cruel milestone.
In closing, I trust that everyone reading this journal will continue to observe a simple directive that your grandmother may well have stitched onto a sampler in an era when human prudence rather than arbitrary rules might have suggested a 140 character limit: Tragedy Plus Time Is Still Tragedy.