Monday, March 4, 2013
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
DE MORTUIS NIL NISI BONUM
Here is one of the most over-used phrases in the dictionary of quotations:
De mortuis nil nisi bonum.
Literally “Of the dead nothing unless good”.
How pithy the Latin language is when it comes to speaking truisms. What it means is “Say nothing disrespectful about the dead.”
And yet we constantly say disrespectful things about the dead. Where would the writing of history be without exposes of the foolish, immoral or cruel things that the dead have done? We should honour the good too, of course, unless we are complete cynics and reductionists. But we have a right to criticise the imperfect dead.
Perhaps we should limit the scope of the Latin aphorism.
Perhaps what it is really saying is “Say nothing disrespectful about the recently dead.”
When the corpse is still warm and the tears are still wet, it is unmannerly to say negative things about the person who had just died.
Who but a complete bounder would go up to the grieving widow and tell her that, actually, her late husband was a cheat, philanderer and thorough creep? Leave her with her illusions for a while. Let her grieve and get it out of her system; and let the newspaper editorialists and columnists pretend that the newly deceased was a great person, a benefactor of the world and somebody to be admired.
And then, when six or seven months have gone by, write the truth.
I do not write this in a vacuum. I write it from bitter experience.
A number of years ago, a pretty but rather simple-minded young woman died in a car crash in Paris. She was the Estranged Wife of the Future Head of the Church of England, who, as we now know, was at the time already bonking his mistress and who regarded his marriage as a mere formality to produce heirs. Estranged Wife had done her own bonking, which possibly produced one of her sons. This Pretty But Vacuous Young Woman had given a number of television interviews in which she said she aspired to be something called the Queen of Hearts. She was obviously of fairly limited intelligence, even if we could sympathise with her a little in having gone through the sham of a “fairy-tale wedding” to somebody whose thoughts were elsewhere.
Poor silly little thing.
Yet after her death, the media whipped up a frenzy of grief to which the more gullible members of society responded.
Okay. The British monarchy is a fairly questionable institution and it was reasonable for people to feel sympathy for somebody who seemed to have been victimised by it. But I was quite simply appalled at the tsunami of nonsense that was written and said about this sad, foolish and rather silly young woman. It is always to be mourned when somebody dies in a car crash; but it deeply offended me that this particular corpse was being honoured and wept over as a sainted individual.
So, in the first flush of Diana-mania, I wrote an article pointing out that a person of no particular achievement or goodness was being honoured irrationally. Sure, she supported some charities pro forma. Which under-employed royal doesn’t say how bad land-mines are etc? But what else was it that was being grieved? Merely the image that the media had created of a winsome pretty girl.
Boy, the abuse I received for my plain-speaking. How dare I write so heartlessly and disrespectfully? Didn’t I know that hundreds of thousands of people were in tears and that a veritable jungle of exotic flowers had been piled at the palace gates?
The lesson I learned was a simple one. Do not speak the truth about the dead too soon. Wait a while until the deceased is no longer on the front page. Then tell the truth.
So – speaking purely hypothetically, of course – I wonder what I would do if a media personality died, was given a fancy funeral at the Anglican cathedral, and had columns of slop written about him by old mates and colleagues?
Would I immediately jump in and point out that the media personality in question helped to set in motion the rot whereby television current affairs became “reality” television? Would I point out that the smug, simple-minded and foolish formulations of the media personality gained him popularity at the expense of accuracy? Would I note that the media personality appealed to the Lowest Common Denominator, often played to prejudices and had no real understanding of the important things in the news? Would I report that gradually his very appearance on television came to make me feel slightly sick?
No. I am a gentleman. In this purely hypothetical case I would say no such thing. I would wait until the tears of the nearest and dearest had stopped flowing, the slop had ceased to fill up the column inches, and the time was ripe to say it. Then I would tell the truth.
But until then, De mortuis nil nisi bonum. old chap.
De mortuis nil nisi bonum.