This is my intellectual BDSM: watching Jonathan Meades videos on YouTube and revelling in his eloquence, his sharpness of insight, his enormous range of knowledge, then feeling stupid afterward. It’s a mental analogue of shibari, Japanese rope bondage, done with natural fibers and exquisite attention to detail. But I doubt great difference in effect could be distinguished if you used the poly cord that ties down the tarp on that junk you need to take to the dump.
There, you see? Such is the metaphorical repertoire in which my origins submerge me — pinched and pathetic in both range and suggestivity. Is it any wonder Mr. Meades makes me feel like a cretin?
Mr. Meades has done a large number of films for the BBC on all sorts of topics, since his critical eye roams across all domains of culture — architecture, food, leisure, it’s all fair game for his x-ray vision. Every film of his I’ve watched is good. I’ve recently been watching the series on Scotland entitled “Off-Kilter” (here). It contains all the best of what Mr. Meades does. The original prompting for this post derives, however, from the film on Salisbury Cathedral (here). Mr. Meades was born in Salisbury and spent his young years at the Cathedral School where he was, as he puts it, “subjected to a diet of architectural perfection.” I know I’m not alone in admitting that the same cannot be said of me by any possible stretch of the imagination.
I think at the same time of Virginia Woolf writing in Three Guineas about the failure of England in her youth to educate women. Only boys were given the full range of educational opportunities, a fact the personal consequences of which apparently haunted Woolf her entire life. She knew what she had missed and felt its absence keenly. Likewise, I know what I missed growing up in the rural backwater I inhabited for the first phase of my life. I think how different things were for Mr. Meades in Salisbury with “architectural perfection” before him every day. I had Nature galore around me, but where I come from we don’t have architecture. We just have buildings — period, end of story. There was no way I could train my aesthetic sensibilities on the likes of Salisbury Cathedral nor was there a cathedral school to instill in me the culture of Merry Old stretching back hundreds of years. What is more, just down the road from Salisbury is Stonehenge, which adds a prehistoric dimension to the already heady mix. And of course London is just a short train ride away. Tra la, tra la.
Curiously enough by contrast, Woolf led a circumstantially deprived life in the midst of London. She wasn’t sent to school. While she doubtless got out and about in the city to some degree, she wasn’t careening through the streets of Covent Garden at midnight like her male counterparts. It’s that sense of deprivation one finds in Three Guineas, described in an ascerbic tone as a sacrifice to the necessity of topping up “Arthur’s Education Fund,” as she styles it:
… Let us then ask someone else — it is Mary Kingsley — to speak for us. “I don’t know if I ever revealed to you the fact that being allowed to learn German was all the paid-for education I ever had. Two thousand pounds was spent on my brother’s, I still hope not in vain.” Mary Kingsley is not speaking for herself alone; she is speaking, still, for many of the daughters of educated men. And she is not merely speaking for them; she is also pointing to a very important fact that must profoundly influence all that follows: the fact of Arthur’s Education Fund. You, who have read Pendennis, will remember how the mysterious letters A.E.F. figured in the household ledgers. Ever since the thirteenth century English families have been paying money into that account. From the Pastons to the Pendennises, all educated families from the thirteenth century to the present moment have paid money into that account. It is a voracious receptacle. Where there were many sons to educate it required a great effort on the part of the family to keep it full. For your education was not merely in book-learning; games educated your body; friends taught you more than books or games. Talk with them broadened your outlook and enriched your mind. In the holidays you travelled; acquired a taste for art; a knowledge of foreign politics; and then, before you could earn your own living, your father made you an allowance upon which it was possible for you to live while you learnt the profession which now entitles you to add the letters K.C. to your name. All this came out of Arthur’s Education Fund. And to this your sisters, as Mary Kingsley indicates, made their contribution. Not only did their own education, save for such small sums as paid the German teacher, go into it; but many of those luxuries and trimmings which are, after all, an essential part of education, travel, society, solitude, a lodging apart from the family house — they were paid into it too. It was a voracious receptacle, a solid fact — Arthur’s Education Fund — a fact so solid indeed that it cast a shadow over the entire landscape. And the result is that though we look at the same things, we see them differently …
Woolf’s situation seems even more dismal than mine — all the means for a good education were to hand in her immediate environment but she was denied them. Where I come from nothing was to hand, you made it up out of whole cloth for yourself. Woolf did her best to cobble an education together from the bits and bobs at her disposal and ended up as articulate and cultured a person as anybody with a degree from Oxford or Cambridge could hope to be. I suffer from the deprivation in a different manner.
Like Woolf, I cobbled my own education together — going to a rural public school in the USA hardly constitues an education, let’s be clear on that point. I educated myself despite what went on at school. It appears that I did a fairly good job of it — I understand everything Mr. Meades says, I get all the references, understand all the allusions and all the metaphors, even the most obscure or esoteric. But something is missing: the cultural foundation, the selfsame foundation that Woolf felt lacking until the end of her days. It’s a foundation that Mr. Meades effortlessly, perhaps unconsciously, sits atop or stands astride; it underpins every sentence he utters both in form and substance. Mr. Meades is quintessentially dialectical — almost, one might say, classically Hegelian. As I watch his films I delight in the verbal acrobatics delivered in his lapidary Queen’s English with a poker face, but even more I delight in the play of irony between that cultural foundation he has and the consciousness he has constructed at obtuse angles over it. There is a base, there’s no doubt on that account, and it’s Merry Old as a part of Europe. For however much the English may bridle at the notion, they are quite squarely European. Brexit represents nothing more, really, than an index of English denial about their own reality. Mr. Meades has, however, embraced it all, assimilated it all, delved into it all, traps it in his plunge pits then dissects it while it still twitches. He’s uninterested in constructing something monolithic to replace what goes under his scalpel and is subsequently pronounced dead. He leaves the pieces of the corpse strewn about as he walks off into vacant space with his eyes hidden behind the Ray-Bans. The performance is magisterial. Mr. Meades is sovereign in his perspective and secure in his opinion. When he finishes one has the impression that The Lord Hath Spoken.
Neither Woolf nor I nor anyone of our ilk could ever be similarly magisterial. We would always check for flaws in the foundation, always monitor ourselves to forestall ridicule by those sitting safe as houses on their architect-approved foundation like Mr. Meades. Woolf found her position humiliating because she herself came from the educated class that perpetuated that foundation. I on the other hand am a bohunk from Cowboy Country, nobody expects that I could compete on the turf Mr. Meades walls off as his intellectual bullring. As an English acquaintance of mine once said, “It’s good that Americans are so clever with their hands” — the implication being that if the brain is the anatomical element called on to perform, expectations must necessarily be low. So, there it is — déclassé forevermore by dint of origin. What’s a girl to do?
Woolf felt herself to be intellectually illegitimate, could never attain certainty about her own solidity, deprecated her intellectual repertoire and always felt at a disadvantage among those who had the full foundation and the self-confidence that possession of it imparts. As we look at her in retrospect it’s easy to recognize that she reached the same level of accomplishment despite whatever lack she felt obtained in her education. All the same, she felt that lack, felt it keenly, and who is to say that she would not have done things differently had she enjoyed the benefit of a degree from Oxbridge on the same terms as the males of the Bloomsbury group? What, one wonders, would have become of Mr. Meades had he been born female?
The deprivation in my instance is more structural, or perhaps a better word might be “existential.” As anyone knows who has lived in a foreign country, one absorbs all manner of things from the place itself. I first experienced that reality in Europe, when I went there as a 20-something to teach English for two years. By the time I returned to the States I had changed forever because in Europe I felt for the first time what it is to be culturally at home in an environment where history is tangible at every turn. I lived in Germany, in a relatively small town in Lower Saxony (video here). It has a ducal palace, it housed one of the major German writers of the Enlightenment period (Gotthold Ephraim Lessing), and it became the home at the end of his life of one of the outstanding composers of the early Baroque, Johann Rosenmuller. I practiced organ in the church where Rosenmuller is buried and nodded in deferential greeting as I passed his gravestone on my way to the organ loft. Whenever I walked through the town square I found myself looking at half-timbered houses dating from the 16th century. Less than an hour’s drive away in a small and otherwise nondescript town stood one of the major Romanesque churches of northern Germany (video here). One day while riding my bike out into the countryside I pedalled my way down a village road (video here) and came across a Rococo country house with delightful rocaille on the facade, a treasure I’m sure I could find in no travel guide. That nondescript village once had a grand palace in its vicinity where Frederick the Great’s marriage took place. I entered into that world completely, linguistically to the point that some people took me for a native. Where, however, was the foundation?
There was no foundation. Whatever developed as the existential base from my earlier life served no purpose in Europe. Chalk and cheese, as the English say. What occurred during my European sojourn was a bifurcation, not the construction of a superstructure. I split into two selves, one American (whatever that means) and one European (which has always made perfect sense to me, at every level). Yet I am not fully European. Neither, if local measures of authenticity are rigorously applied, could I be called fully American on any grounds other than citizenship. My entire beingness shifted toward the European and stayed there, has always remained there, but there’s no foundation for that change other than relatively brief experience as an adult. Consequently, I remain dislocated and inscrutable to myself when I consider the life of the person growing up in Cowboy Country.
Mr. Meades is thoroughly rooted in those things he so adeptly tears apart. He works his deconstructions as one to the manor born — his voice has the bell-like ring of authority only a native can have. If I attempted the same thing I would immediately be identified as an interloper, an imposter, since I am not to that manor born. Woolf, although born in the manor, was not born to it due to her gender. In some of her essays she performs similar acts of deconstruction, with equal cleverness I think, but always from the standpoint of her intellectual deprivation, which itself forms her foundation. Mr. Meades gives no impression of suffering from any deprivation save that of an adequate supply of eptitude and taste on the part of his fellow human beings, who continually disappoint.
For me the fallout of all this is a curious state of inbetweenness. It irritates like Woolf’s state of incompleteness and is similarly irreparable. Something should have happened during a particular phase of life and did not happen. Something that one should have at one’s fingertips is found to be missing, irretrievably so.
What Mr. Meades does for me with his “heavy entertainment” is to point out — one hopes without any admixture of Schadenfreude — that he’s smarter than I am because he has in his kit the full toolset of the European culture he inhabits, a culture which is ab initio more multifarious and more interesting than mine. His acumen has been sharpened through the application of Arthur’s Education Fund and through interaction with a panoply of cultural assets and realities that have for all but two years of my life been outside my experiential continuum. At best I’ve led a shadow-like existence among the intellectual artefacts of European culture, immersing myself in its music and literature, plying the accountancy of ken to the greatest degree my intellectual range allows. All the while I’m fully aware that this is not the same as being in the thick of things like Mr. Meades, or like Woolf for that matter, even in her marginalized position. It was impossible for me to absorb things over long years by intellectual osmosis and to find myself changed over time without the conscious effort to achieve that altered state — changed in the manner that Salisbury Cathedral changed the boy that Meades was through engaging his awareness every day over the course of years with its “architectural perfection.”
Well, one soldiers on, doesn’t one, and makes the best of it. Stiff upper lip and all that. It’s a bit late in the day to cry over that particular bit of spilt milk. As a ferryman across this river Styx Mr. Meades is useless to me, only Woolf can offer any signposts for my path. From her position of disadvantage she achieved something that any graduate of Oxbridge would rightly be pleased to claim as his or her own. Even so, I can spot the weaknesses in Woolf’s foundation, and not only because I can compare them to my own. She is magisterial only as a novelist, where relation to anything outside the narrative universe is disbarred. In her essays her foundation shows itself in want of shoring up, indeed she herself at times indicates exactly those points where a bit of extra mortar would be an improvement. The flaws in my foundation are by contrast gaps, singularities of emptiness, their effect on whatever I attempt to construct on top of that discontinuity is a kind of blankness, a failing of solidity and substance that can only be damage-controlled through an act of mental fabrication with an unfortunate sense of desperation about it. I can’t like Mr. Meades stand stock still wearing my Ray-Bans and declaim magisterially about the things around me in a way that changes your understanding of them and strikes additional facets onto your experience. A pity, but there it is. A girl can only do so much.
Another upshot of this business is puzzlement about the relationship between identity and individuality. The relationship of the individual to the context, the environment, the repertoire of artefacts in his range of experience becomes primary in a way I’ve only recently reconsidered as a result of sustaining the intellectual assaults Mr. Meades commits in his films. At the beginning of “Off-Kilter,” the series on Scotland, he states, “My maternal grandparents, Baird and Hogg, may have been Scottish, but I am English. Scotland is a foreign country. Its linguistic idioms, its mores, its architecture, its urbanism, are alien, strange, often beguiling. It is foreign because of its very familiarity.” That statement would become impossible had he been born in Edinburgh rather than Salisbury, would it not?
Travel with me now to a different continent for a moment. In the 1990’s I had the opportunity to serve as consultant for a project in West Africa, in Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou to be precise. The opportunity came my way through a curious roadmap of connections in the professional world I inhabited and had as its major motivator the fact that I speak fluent French. So after a whirlwind spot of sending documents back and forth across the Atlantic by international courier, I found myself on a leave of absence from my job and in a plane headed for Ouagadougou via Paris. Thus began an adventure that lasted some three months. The general details of my sojourn are unimportant for our present discussion. One experience, however, is germane to our topic because it provides an extreme basis of comparison.
Two months into my stint in Ouagadougou one of the other contractors offered to take me in his car on an excursion outside the city. Off we went one morning into the Sahel, the semi-arid zone so much the subject of discussion locally because of rapid desertification due to climate change and population pressure. We ended up at one point on the edge of a small village and stopped to observe. The image still vivid in my mind is this: a woman stands naked to the waist, wrapped in a brightly patterned skirt, pounding millet in a large container with a pole as tall as she is. There are naked children around her, some sitting on the dusty ground, some chasing lackadaisically after chickens running about. The two huts on the edge of the open space before us are made of mud bricks, roofed with thatch. The woman’s face shows no expression, our presence appears not even to register in her awareness. She pounds the millet with the pole in slow, measured strokes, as if she were some kind of machine. Throughout the 10 or so minutes of our observation her expression never changes, she never looks at or speaks to any of the children, nor do any of the children look at or speak to her.
It’s one thing to see such a scene on a TV screen while watching a documentary, quite another to be standing within a stone’s throw of it while you feel the sun beat down on you and smell the dust in the air picked up by the breeze. It’s a tableau vivant in which I have no legitimizing point of reference. It’s as alien to me as though I were from another planet. I recognize the basic mammalian patterns of life — the preparation of food, the children testifying to the processes of reproduction, but beyond that I am before a reality that nothing in my experience enables me to decode with anything approaching native accuracy.
Of the three of us, myself, Woolf and Meades, which one is most ill-placed in such a scene? My rural background with its history of chopping wood and hauling water gives me perhaps the best approximation of experience in such an environment. Woolf, used to leaving notes for the servants about the house, would have only a theoretical understanding of the experience involved, and in that particular scenario theory would do little to lead to insight, such is the evidence plain sight offers up. And what of Mr. Meades? I imagine him doing one of the visual tricks he’s so fond of using in his films by putting himself in place of the woman, pounding the millet in his black suit and Ray-Bans while commenting sardonically on the position of mud brick in the architectural repertoire of colonialism. It might work as a spot of “heavy entertainment,” but it’s clearly not sustainable beyond the duration of a sound bite. After the brief act of deconstruction and cultural autopsy, what follows?
Nothing. Such a scene has no credible reality in the environments, either cultural or physical, that we call native. Yet the woman with the expressionless face pounding millet with stoic strokes is as real as the people who were once habitues of Salisbury Cathedral close or Bloomsbury. She is as much an individual as I am, as was Woolf, as is Mr. Meades. What would any of us be like had we grown up in that environment rather than in the ones native to us? Would Mr. Meades find himself in Burkina Faso doing exactly the same thing for which he has become famous (some might say infamous) in Merry Old? I think not. The cultural prerequisites for such things are absent in a place where millet is pounded with poles and children sit naked in the dust. Mr. Meades would not have had his motherboard imprinted with all those pathways that in his adulthood now conduct his thought into collision with the societal short circuits his analysis exposes. If Mr. Meades were that woman pounding millet in a dusty village outside Ouagadougou, what story would there be to tell of the potential he has realized as a filmmaker in England? How would he contrive to realize that potential in such a place? Similarly, who would that woman have become had she been born in Marylebone, in one of the fine townhouses around Manchester Square, where the pounding of millet outside a mud brick hut does not exist as an available form of experience?
These are hypothetical questions, obviously, but the reality underpinning them is neither chimeric nor nonsensical. A slight tweak to Fate and the change is worked. At the sight of such a scene some may say, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Those words would never cross the lips of Mr. Meades, since his opinion of religionists finds perhaps its closest analogue in the attitude of American white supremacists toward people of color. The truth nonetheless remains that if the sperm that spawned him had made its short journey in that village outside Ouagadougou instead of in Salisbury, the Mr. Meades we know (and whom at least some of us love) would not have come to exist in the form we know him.
The state of self-awareness that someone like Mr. Meades inhabits as a European native expands in a trajectory forever oblique to the orbit of my own consciousness. As is Woolf’s case so is mine: what the past failed to construct remains forever beyond the possibility of obtention. This is irritating but not tragic. It would only be tragic if the deprivation strangled the voice as well as rendering unsound the foundation. But the voice remains intact and serves as the best possible substitute above the foundation for what should by right have risen organically from the past as a solid platform for the present.
The woman in the village outside Ouagadougou is a person of things. Mr. Meades is also always surrounded by things. His thought, his work is about things — buildings, food, dictators, Scottish football teams — he is unimaginable in the abstract because he must operate on things, things that form both the operating theatre in which he holds forth and the cadaver upon which he bears down with blade bared to perform his cultural autopsies. Woolf, quite differently, is most at ease when she remains entirely abstracted into the background behind her fiction, although her hand remains evident in it at every turn. Likewise, my presence proceeds primarily from an abstraction, it matters little on what objects the voice operates, since whatever worth the words conjure up derives from a distillation of consciousness, not a delving into concrete details in the manner of Mr. Meades. For people like me without a foundation the voice is among the few available tools of redemption from the unbridgeable lacunae of the past, one of those few elements that keep the edifice of the intellect from collapsing into a heap of rubble. Far from being the chief protagonist in a tragedy, it becomes the chief character in a mystery play (construed without any reference to religion so that Mr. Meades may remain poker-faced and unperturbed). From raggle-taggle bits and pieces the voice weaves together something capable of standing upright and supporting its own weight. One could almost call its effects architectural. Thus one escapes from what could only too easily have been a tragic outset.
“There but for the grace of God go I.” We could modify that statement slightly (in a manner of which Mr. Meades would doubtless approve) and have a quip for the situation that people like Woolf and I find to be our history. “There but for the hand of Fate go I.” The sperm that spawned me could as well have travelled its short distance in Mayfair, or Paris, or Munich. How different I would have become if that had happened must be left to the realm of fantasy. It defies the capacity of mere speculation.
But it did not happen. I am what I am, I come from a little-known spot on the Planet that few others have ever heard of or have any reason to visit. Cultural provenance and its determining consequences appear to be luck of the draw, whether the talk is of sperm and its geographical vagaries or of architecture and its presence or absence in a particular portion of the globe. There’s absolutely nothing I can do about it. It was a fait accompli before I was even aware of what had happened.
So one soldiers on. Of course I will listen to Mr. Meades as he holds forth eloquently on whatever topic he chooses for his next assault on the handiwork of humankind, and of course I will end up feeling stupid afterward. There will be pleasure, there will be pain, meted out both in their measure by Master Meades, who makes it hurt so good.
That’s how BDSM works, after all. Just ask Mr. Meades, he’s an expert on the subject. 🙂