Thursday, February 23, 2017

England, An Island by Elias Canetti

During the War, more than fifty years ago now, it was England's salvation that it was an island. It was still an island, and that asset, a colossal advantage, has been frittered away.

Today, it is what's left over from a government whose one and only prescription for everything was selfishness. People felt proud of the fact, as though it were kind of a revelation, and horde of men (and women) in pinstripes swarmed over the land, calling themselves businessmen or executives, and sought to plunder the country, just as once the country had sought to plunder the rest of the  world.  England decided it would loot itself, and engaged an army of yuppies for that end.  As a paradise, but one to be had here and now, everyone was promised their own house.  People got busy, and, in quite un-English haste, made their piles.  The state proudly declared it would no longer provide for anything, because everyone was to provide for themselves, and who goes around cleaning other people’s streets? The hypocrisy, which was actually the mortar that held English society together, fell away.  In seemingly no  time at all, the universal slogan was to look after number one, and devil take the hindmost.  It was shown – I say this with incredulity – that selfishness was every bit as much worth preaching as selflessness.

The supreme teacher in the country was a woman who tirelessly rejected whatever was done for other people.  For other people, everything was too expensive; for oneself, nothing was.  Water, air, light, were turned into businesses, to flourish or fail; usually they failed. A small war was started on the other side of the globe, to remind the waves they were Britannia’s. The person of Churchill was invoked, and the danger in which England had found itself not so many years ago; and what made it all still more effective was the fact that these tough decisions were taken by a woman who was married to a simple (in every sense) millionaire.  He had settled for too little, she hadn’t. He kept to the shadows, and didn’t get in the way.  Because of her, the cities collapsed into disgusting squalor. The schools rotted, so that children might learn to trust instead to their own acumen and hard-heartedness .Since every man is inclined to meanness, and only restrains himself with some difficulty, English humanity now felt a huge sense of relief, because all at once they were permitted to be as mean as any other people, and receive the highest praise for it on top of that.

I was permitted to live though this time, and see my best friends warped.  They came from nurseries that any citizen of any country in the world would have licked their lips to have been at.  To them, a governess, who played the opposite of the games they were raised to play, was a boon.  Suddenly, you were supposed to be all the disgusting things that a man naturally is, but has had to renounce. The relief must have been incredible, and all that was left of the old hypocrisy was a show of pretense towards me.  There were of course others, and not the worst, who showed themselves to me the way they really were.  They knew what I thought, and respected it.  I have nothing to accuse them of, beyond their noxious human nature, of which I myself stand accused just as much.  But I am angry at others who were dearer to me, sensitive, delicate beings among them, poets and authors, or at least writers, who, for a time of ten years or more, worshipped that idol from the days of slavery, and in my presence continued to use all the language of philanthropy…

 Written in 1991`-93

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