Monday, February 22, 2016

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.   


There is a sad mental dysfunction that haunts both critics of the arts and political commentators.
I have christened it “premature evaluation”.
This is where things are pronounced loudly as masterpieces or great and immortal works before they have even established any sort of reputation with connoisseurs or general readers. And it is when newly-elected political leaders are crowned as messiahs.
We can all have great fun scoffing at old bestsellers that were written for the mass market (I often do). We can note with malicious pleasure how dated their attitudes are, how tawdry their prose, and how they express, at best, a mentality that was once shared by the unthinking herd, but from which even the unthinking herd has now moved on. How superior we feel, we literate people, as we make such snobby judgments.
But then we are forced to consider how transitory the judgments of highbrows are too. Please look at the pages of the TLS, the London Review of Books, the New York Times ditto from twenty or thirty or more years ago, and see which books their best critics were praising to the skies. Then consider the reputation and fame of those same books now. As often as not, they are forgotten, or regarded as dated, or simply never found a large readership (and never will).
As a reviewer, I have always been led by this phenomenon to one simple conclusion: It is imprudent and foolish to pronounce any book a masterpiece until quite some time has gone by from its first publication. Only after decades have passed can we judge if it has any staying power, if it still speaks to readers in any meaningful way, or if it is anything more than a period piece. Time is the only real judge of what is a masterpiece.
Praising a newly-published book as a masterpiece is, therefore, premature evaluation.
What is true in judging literature is also true in judging political leaders.
Recently, by Facebook, I have been bombarded with articles telling me what a wonderful person Canada’s newly-elected and youngish (45-year-old) Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is. The son of an earlier prime minister Pierre Trudeau, who shook Canada up a bit a few decades ago, young Trudeau is said to be inclusive, choosing a cabinet of many ethnicities, progressive, and dedicated to the task of redefining what a Canadian is. He has a “vision”. He is going to change things.
Very nice.
But something keeps screaming in my head: “He’s only just been elected. His government has only begun to construct legislation. And it’s too early to tell what the outcomes of that legislation will be.”
I am old enough to remember the great wave of optimism that greeted Tony Blair when he brought Labour back to power in Britain after years of Tory government. And where is Tony Blair’s reputation now?
Then there was that Kevin Rudd fellow in Australia. When he was elected PM, the press basically told us that he could walk on water. He could speak fluent Mandarin (unlike his Liberal opponent) and was apparently the chap who would bring a new understanding to world affairs, negotiate directly with the Chinese, and apologise to the Aboriginal people for past wrongs. But even before his first term was out, his own party was undermining him and he was rolled for the leadership by Julia Gillard. (Rudd later counter-rolled Gillard, but returned as PM for only one month). Rudd is now remembered as a not-particularly-forceful leader.
Let me make it clear that I wish Canada’s new PM well and hope he can deliver on his initial promise, even if I’m a little alienated from somebody whose election campaign sometimes looked like the PR of a rock star. Let me further make it clear that I don’t know enough about Canadian politics to make a sound judgment on them anyway.
But I am firm in my conviction that the right time to make a judgment on any politician is after he or she has actually achieved something substantial.
Until then, all the ra-ra about young Trudeau on Facebook and elsewhere is so much premature evaluation.

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