In Greece, the word culture often has negative connotations. There are two words for it. The Greek one, politismos, which also means civilisation, and is used quite generally, expressing approval. It’s the latinate form of the word, cultura, that seems to be synonymous with pretentiousness. One gets the sense that certain aspects of culture don’t fit well on the Greek, make him feel uncomfortable. And I’m not talking about peasants or people who actually have no interest in such things. I’m talking about people who seem, at first glance, to be young intellectuals and who cultivate a stance of hip irony. There is a coolness to the stance, a populist distrust of elitism (another dirty word), and a pleasure taken in debunking what is viewed as pretentious. Certainly there’s no shortage of pretentiousness in the world, but this is an easy target, and time weeds it out anyway. The distrust I’m talking about is for culture in general. It’s as if they think no one in his right mind would listen to classical music, for example, unless he wanted to create a certain effect, make a certain impression. You see no evidence that they have understood the notion that culture, like beauty, can be difficult. Why bother? they seem to say. Who do you think you’re fooling?
One of the greatest consolations in my life is the Third Programme of the state radio. I listen to it all the time. I can spend a day or two by myself in here, with it as my only company. It’s better than anything I ever heard on the CBC back in Canada. When she comes over, N. often gives me a ribbing about it, mocking the voices of the announcers. “They sound as if they have no contact with the outside world,” she says. “They’re in a world of their own.” Often she changes it to one of her favourites, or I change it when I know she’s coming. We listen to ROCKFM or RED, and although I enjoy them too, I get no sense that anything I hear — not the music, not the announcers’ voices, not the commercials — reflects anything in the outside world, except perhaps its aspirations. I hear none of the sincerity that comforts me on the Third Programme, the very thing that to other people would seem to be pretentiousness.
A few weeks ago, N. and I went to see The Constant Gardener with a couple of friends. We enjoyed it more than any film we’d seen in a while and wanted to talk about it for quite some time afterwards. We knew the story was fictional, but we also knew that it could very easily be true. These were not just metaphors. We know how much we exploit the Third World, and nothing in the film surprised us. But it was a beautiful film that allowed us to see into the lives of the countless people who suffer so that we can have our drugs or our running shoes or whatever. A scene that has stayed with me more than any other is near the end, when a warring tribe attacks a village. Fiennes and Postlethwaite and some UN workers board a small plane to escape, and Fiennes is trying to bring along a young girl who was an assistant to Postlethwaite. The pilot, an African, tells him they can’t take her. Only UN representatives and employees can board. Fiennes tries to argue against logic: What does it matter? She’s just one girl, her family is dead, if they leave her she might die. The pilot tells him him if she’s lucky she may make it to a refugee camp. But there is nothing they can do. This goes on all the time, and they can’t save everyone. The girl, who’s been listening, knows what’s going on, and bolts from the plane before it takes off. We last see her running along the plane as it takes off, waving and smiling. It all seems to be a game to her. Look at me run! she seems to say. She smiles or even laughs, as all the other Kenyans in the film do, as if to say, If we did not smile, if we did not laugh, we would go mad. You would drive us mad.
One of our friends, C., did not enjoy the film. She had not been in the best of spirits and had had to be cajoled into coming out by our other friend, M. Standing outside the cinema, we were trying to decide where we could go for drinks, but she said she was going home. She didn’t feel like staying out any longer. The film had clearly upset her. M. apologised for dragging her out to see it. C. assured her that, on the contrary, she’d enjoyed the film.
But on Monday, at work, she said she didn’t want to see another film like that. “It was very good,” she said, “but next time, no culture, please.”
Which struck me, of course, as an odd thing to say. What catch-all phrase has culture become, at least for her? Anything that makes you think, presumably. Anything that reflects unpleasant realities about the world outside. Anything that tries to make you look at your part in the collective guilt.
It reminds me of when the garbage begins to pile up in our streets because it isn’t being collected. You smell the stuff and wonder how long the damned garbage men are going to be on strike. Then you learn that they’re not on strike, but that the people who live in the poor suburb of Ano Liosia, where the landfill site is, have blocked the way and are not allowing the garbage trucks to enter because life has become unbearable for them. You try not to breathe as you go past the overflowing bins on your street and try not to imagine what it must be like out in Ano Liosia. You only want someone to clear it all away, to make the problem of where all this garbage is going to go vanish again. You feel sympathy for the residents of Ano Liosia, but, really, enough is enough.
And then you learn that 170,000 tons of sludge will be taken far away where we won’t have to to deal with it again. To Sudan. To be used as fertiliser, even though its use for that purpose is prohibited here.
How’s that for sweetness and light?