Recently in London a correspondent of a left-liberal Dutch newspaper interviewed me, a decent, civilized sort—one of us, in short. I am sure that he brought up his children to say please and thank you, probably in several languages.
He asked me why I had
chosen recently to move from England to France. I said that
I thought France was a decade or two behind Britain in cultural decline. It had maintained certain standards a little better than Britain—though, I added, I could see that it was heading in the same direction.
He asked me what evidence I had for my claim. Well, I replied, crime in France was approaching British levels; in some places, it was even worse, at least for serious crimes of violence.
Another straw in the wind was the rising number of tattooed and pierced young people on view, as well as tattoo and piercing parlors. Ten years ago, you hardly ever saw a tattooed person in France: now they are everywhere. The small and ancient town, solidly bourgeois, near where I live has such a parlor, purveying savage kitsch to young fools. Le Monde published a little while back a profile of the acclaimed French writer Ann Scott, whose work makes Baudelaire’s seem a bit like that of Ella Wheeler Wilcox. Scott has a large and prominent tattoo of a swallow on her neck. Critics claim that her latest book, describing heroin addiction and lesbian love, has a terrible beauty, as well as near-emetic properties.
The correspondent asked me: what was wrong with tattooing, if that was how people wanted to adorn themselves?
I asked him whether he would have himself tattooed—whether he would be happy if his teenaged children had themselves tattooed—and if not, why not? After all, if he would not like it, he must have some inner objection to tattooing.
True, he said, but tattooing was not illegal. And since even I, who deprecated it, did not think that it should be illegal, there was nothing further to say about it. If tattooing was legal, it was thus of no social, moral, or cultural significance.
I tried to point out some of the cultural meanings of the vogue for tattooing. First, it was aesthetically worse than worthless. Tattoos were always kitsch, implying not only the absence of taste but the presence of dishonest emotion.
Second, the vogue represented a desperate (and rather
sad) attempt on a mass scale to achieve individuality and character by means of mere adornment, which implied both intellectual vacuity and unhealthy self-absorption.
And third, it represented mass downward cultural and social aspiration, since everyone understood that tattooing had a traditional association with low social class and, above all, with aggression and criminality. It was, in effect, a visible symbol of the greatest, though totally ersatz, virtue of our time: an inclusive unwillingness to make judgments of morality or value.
But the correspondent’s premise that the legality of an act was the sole criterion by which one could or should judge it chilled me. It is a sinister premise. It makes the legislature the complete arbiter of manners and morals, and thus accords to the state quasi-totalitarian powers without the state’s ever having claimed them. The state alone decides what we have or lack permission to do: we have to make no moral decisions for ourselves, for what we have legal permission to do is also, by definition, morally acceptable.
Even worse than the correspondent’s implicitly totalitarian assumption was his lack of awareness of how societies cohere, and how social existence becomes tolerable, let alone pleasant. After all, the law does not prohibit rudeness, boorishness, and an infinity of unpleasant habits. But it is clear that if, for example, the prevalence of boorishness increases, life in society becomes more filled with friction and danger.
What I found so odd about the correspondent were his perfect manners and refined tastes. But so little confidence did he have in the value of the things that he valued that he seemed indifferent to the mechanism of their disappearance or destruction. This is the way a civilization ends: not with a bang but a whimper.