Recently on this site (see ‘The Stones of Constantine‘) I wrote about the way the culture, in books and movies, shuns original creation and plunders known properties from our shared past for inspiration instead, churning out new versions and remakes of everything from The Brady Bunch to Total Recall.
And I compared this activity to the way, in the later Roman Empire, the constructors of newer buildings and monuments had to complete them by using pieces pried off from older ones, since by their day the knowledge of how to execute the kind of architectural detail they wanted had died out.
A symptom of creative decadence in both cases, I suggested.
But really, just to be the Devil’s advocate here, isn’t the practice of re-imagining older literary and dramatic properties something that has always been going on?
Like the alchemical Dragon, devouring its own tail and eternally nourishing itself, don’t we derive creation from destruction? And isn’t that the way we make new gold out of old straw?
Shakespeare picked up his plots from other sources. Painters often re-do the pictures of other painters. The same songs are covered by different singers through the years. And so it goes.
The lack of creativity in the later Roman architects does imply decadence.
But maybe not– maybe they just wanted to recycle artistic and structural tropes that had become traditional.
The problem is that they had to do it that way. Their stonecutters no longer had the skill to copy the earlier forms.
The problem was, and is, a loss of creativity across the board.
It’s possible, of course, to put too much of a premium on originality for its own sake. The later Roman builders were inspired by the earlier ones. But then, what inspired the early ones?
They must have done what the best artists always do– make it up as they go along.
The problem of creative recycling is in what gets recycled.
And one of our problems is that we too have a disconnect with the sources of what we seek. That which is culturally shared among us is not literature, not David Copperfied or even the Bible.
It is the most infimal kind of crap, is what it is. It’s Scooby-Doo, or Bewitched, or, Lord help us, The Brady Bunch. We have people in the entertainment industry who are very skilled at interpreting this stuff– the problem isn’t with them; it’s with
the material they’re given to work with.
And why? Whoops, time to blame the Republicans again. They have a visceral suspicion and dislike of learning and educated people. They keep in the saddle by deliberately fostering an anti-intellectual climate where monetary gain is the only good. And their policies continually broaden this base.
We are reaping the consequences.
The other night I caught some of an old movie, Mogambo. A potboiler from 1953, it features a story in African locations. Actually it mostly features Clark Gable, Grace Kelly and Ava Gardner emoting in front of process screens of lions and crocs,
intercut with location footage.
Certainly no great picture. But…
I heard Ava Gardner lightly use the phrase, “like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber.”
Ava, or the scriptwriter, was casually quoting the 19th Psalm from the King James Bible.
In 1953, the Bible was part of the shared literary background. That throwaway quotation would have been recognized as a matter of course.
Today, fatuously self-satisfied in our dangerous ignorance, no one makes or recognizes a literary quotation. Even conservative Bible-thumpers actually don’t actually read the Bible all that much.
In fact, if there’s any book that today’s younger people comfortably refer back to, it would seem to be The Cat in the Hat. You see the costume at parties and raves.
We’re never dumber than when we think ourselves smart. We’re never more ignorant than when we assume that we’re wise.
[Stones of Constantine image via Shutterstock.com]