August 18, 2007


We're all so afraid of looking sour that we're nothing more than cultural conformists (Howard Jacobson, 28 July 2007, Independent)

One should never wish anything not to have been written, but just occasionally I can't help thinking what a better world we'd be living in if only Dickens had thought twice before publishing A Christmas Carol and Aesop had decided that "The Fox and the Grapes" wasn't much of a fable after all.

I don't pick these examples randomly, though on other days my selection would probably be different. But right now conformity holds us captive, and both the above lay flattering unction to conformity's soul. Both minister to the essential conservatism of our natures. Both give succour to the mass of mankind in its ceaseless war on the individual. Both make it difficult for a critic to demur, because both make demurral look like meanness of spirit.

Why couldn't Scrooge have hated Christmas on cultural and aesthetic grounds alone? Why must a miserliness rooted in childhood misery be adduced to explain an otherwise reasonable objection to false hilarity and insincere emotion? I know the story is the story, but sometimes a story does so much damage you wish it had been otherwise. After Scrooge no man can refuse festivity in good faith. The culture has made its mind up: you join in or you're a damaged skinflint.

Aesop's "The Fox and the Grapes" is more culpable still. In my old Penguin Classics translation it's briefly told. "A hungry fox tried to reach some clusters of grapes which he saw hanging from a vine trained on a tree, but they were too high. So he went off and comforted himself by saying: 'They weren't ripe anyhow.'"

Moral: "In the same way some men, when they fail through their own incapacity, blame circumstances."

The moral in the Harvard edition of Aesop delivers a heavier punch: "It is easy to despise what you cannot get."

Either way, this is the origin of "sour grapes", that expression so beloved of the common mind. It's significant that Americans tell it more bluntly than we do. A deeper seated regard for market forces is the explanation. Where success is the only measure, any refusal to acknowledge success is inexplicable without the concept of sour grapes. What other possible reason can there be for not coming to the party? Scrooge hates Christmas because he's a miserable, envious, life-denying bastard, and we hate whoever is for no good reason rich and famous because we're the same.

In this way the critic of anything becomes a marginalised figure, held to be incapable of making a judgement that isn't fuelled by failure, self-interest and envy. In a thrusting society we cease to value disinterestedness because we don't believe in its existence. Thus a partial truth becomes the whole truth, a sometimes bad motive is now an always bad motive, and nothing can be judged because no one judges fairly. Until at last the act of criticism itself withers away from suspicion and disuse.

Ah, reader, the brute inert power of what is. We rightly fear those utopists who would blow us into a better world, but no violence can compete with the immovable weight of incumbency. Once in place, it need do nothing. We wear ourselves out in opposition, we rail, we fume, we conjure alternative visions of happiness and beauty, and still it sits. Whoever would change us, it says, is envious. Whoever doesn't like us, only doesn't like us because they can't have what we have. An accusation so shaming that we wilt before it. Rather than be seen to be the fox who says no to grapes he cannot reach, we praise every grape on the vine, whether we can lay a paw on it or not. And so the dread of looking sour makes conformists of us all.

It doesn't help that we have so little to be unhappy about, eh?

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 18, 2007 6:59 AM


"All things in moderation"

I believe "conformity" fits under the "All" umbrella.

Posted by: Bruno at August 18, 2007 9:21 AM

It's a conformist saying.

Posted by: oj at August 18, 2007 12:07 PM

So we are both right

Posted by: Bruno at August 18, 2007 12:58 PM

Bah, humbug!

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at August 18, 2007 1:11 PM

Howard writes great columns. Really great. His novels aren't so hot

Posted by: mike at August 18, 2007 3:53 PM