Catacombs as Metaphor

Commonplace Newsletter #001

Welcome readers to the first of Thomas J Bevan’s weekly essays on life, literature and flâneury. Sign up now to receive future issues Every Sunday


Hemingway famously said that all you have to do is write one true sentence. So here’s one: We are living through a strange historical moment.

I won’t browbeat you with a laundry list of 2020 horrors (the plagues, the protests, the real news that is fake and the fake news that is real, the Silicon Valley overlords and their further encroachment into every facet of our lives, the death of privacy, the death of civility, the death of polite discussion and respectful disagreement and so on and so forth).

No, what I’m going to talk about is the seeming death of the arts and what that means and how the whole situation might play out if we’re lucky.

But first- and this itself is indicative- I have to explain to you why you should care.

The Reluctant English Teacher

Only a generation of readers will spawn a generation of writers.

~Anon.

Looking back I can say that I was blessed to have several great teachers in school. Great in-spite of the two crushing vice-pincers of bureaucratic nonsense and insultingly low budgets on the one hand, and the simple fact of having to teach dozens and dozens of recalcitrant, disinterested and surly council estate kids on the other.

It was closer to a White English version of Dangerous Minds than it was to Dead Poets Society.

And yet somehow I still came away with a love of Proper Books and some rudimentary writing skills along with the feeling that stories and myths and drama and poetry and all of that sort of stuff matters. That it wasn’t all a fanciful waste of time.

But as I get deeper and deeper into my 30’s and as the 21st century rolls on these beliefs feel increasingly fringe, out of vogue, misguided.

Virtually no one I know reads books for enjoyment or instruction or for any other reason. Virtually everyone I see on trains and buses and in waiting rooms and living rooms has a screen held 6 inches from their face.

And so I find myself, as a would-be story merchant and book-peddler increasingly online trying to explain what reading is *for*. It’s like the Bill Hicks bit where he is reading a book in a diner except the waitress is a would-be yuppie, is one of John Steinbeck’s ‘temporarily inconvenienced millionaires.’

I feel more and more like Mr N, my year 10 English teacher- a tired-eyed, early 30s man who with stubble and sigh and saint-like forebearance would try to explain The Ancient Mariner or The Lyrical Ballads to yawning children who would rather dream vague daydreams about future wealth and fame than go about the quotidian business of being good and decent people.

But anyway. The point is this: art, literature, stories and art are the foundation of a culture, of a time. The fact that culture has been anodyne and corporatised for as long as virtually everyone reading this has been alive does not make this any less true.

The fact that 95% of all food in the supermarket is fake oil and corn based frankenfoods does not mean that whole foods are unimportant. 

See, it’s hard to explain the intrinsic to those who have had their intuition intentionally stifled to make them better consumers. It’s hard to explain the merits of being in shape to someone who has never experienced it. It just seems like extra work. And it’s hard to explain the virtues and freedoms of being autodidactic to those who have gotten used to being told what to do and what to think.

But great stories and cultural artefacts are a huge part of this freedom. Perhaps that’s why hardly anyone seems to know or care about them. Perhaps that’s why I’m here.

The End of Rome And The Catacombs.

… everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.

~Juvenal, Satires

We are living through a strange historical moment. The one true sentence. This is because something has finally begun to shift after decades of stasis. You have probably felt it, sensed it, tried to wrap your head around it while your hand was wrapped around a glass of something strong.

Here’s how I see it. For the last few decades commentators have compared the American Empire and its offshoots to the end of Rome- a decadent, arrogant, oversized, overstretched civilisation. And they have a point. 

When Rome was at its peak Juvenal was bemoaning the mentality of Bread and Circuses, of how mere sustenance and low entertainment were being cynically offered to the populace and how they happily lapped up this palliative.

And how much has really changed in nearly two millennia?

Juvenal’s main gripe with this was that the Roman’s willingly gave up their birthright of active citizenry and their heroic tradition for these freebies. Because it was convenient and politically expedient for them to do so. 

And I say the same things is happening today (whether the metaphorical bread and circuses are spectator sports, welfare, social media, consumerism or some diabolical amalgam of the above is for you to decide dear reader). But rather than the Roman political ideal, what is being given up is our vast and sustaining tradition of art and literature.

A populace fed on and familiar with the canonical works is hard to manage. They tend to have principles and reasoned arguments and to see through the hollow promises of consumerism. So that edifice had to go and be replaced by the two scourges of panem et circenses

But in this very act lies the seeds of the empires destruction.

People will rise to the level that their society expects of them, and they will fall to it to.

Which leads us, at last, to the catacombs of the title.

See, while the Romans grew fat and apathetic on their doled out wheat and their games, those who did not share in this retreated to the catacombs. In these subterranean dens, hidden and overlooked, they painted their art and buried their dead and dreamed of a time when this would be all over. Some became martyrs. 

And this, metaphorically, is where we are, at the beginning of the time of the catacombs. People who are not interested in raking over the dying embers of the CGI Marvel and Disney led media monoculture are retreating to the catacombs. People who don’t want to have to deal with gatekeepers and tastemakers are retreating to the catacombs. 

In short, anyone who is uninterested in the current zeitgeist has moved to the catacombs- to the decentralised corners of the internet and even back to reality, to the place beyond computers.

You could call this surrender, but I think this is short sighted. The catacombs dwelling artist has not given in. Quite the opposite. They are merely taking shelter so that the flame that they carry is not blown out by the raging winds of the present moment.

And this, this very thing you are reading right now, is an artefact from my own personal catacomb. A small part of the new culture of independent art and thought that will be here for when the bloated empire of top down art has breathed its last.

This is only the beginning.

Until next time,

Tom.


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