On selfies

How am I to give advice to others, on how to live, when I have made a mess of my own life? Has anyone asked himself this question recently?

It is a question that does not seem to arise outside Catholic and the more rambling Judaeo-Christian tradition, where Adamic “guilt” hath always played a major part in morality. The sense that we, not as a class, but as individuals, are guilty as Adam, and ought to be ashamed is, or was, drummed into us through childhood. I look at old faces in photographs, and often see it there; and where it is absent, the man stands out. He is “leadership material,” as one might think today.

Perhaps he was. Perhaps that cocky self-confidence that breathed into the film played its part in the defence of each little realm. But perhaps, on the other hand, it was unnecessary. I am unlikely to have discerned as much as I imagine from portraits and scenes of the long-expired.

Velazquez has been among my favourite painters, for as long as I can remember. I can be floored by a still-life within a Spanish kitchen; by the colours and shapes and reflections alone. On another plane: by his presentations of nobility, of the royal, the God-approved, in pose and gesture. It seems so alien to our “virtue signalling” world, in which each character is projecting himself, at his best though sometimes, proudly, at his worst. The flavour of nobility marks the world of Velazquez apart from ours.

Truth to tell, the “selfie” was invented at the Renaissance. The technology has degenerated considerably since then, but not the intent, to flash the image of a person as a self-contained being, cutting through the constraints of his environment. The Renaissance portrait lifts us out of the Mediaeval into the Modern. The figures have come to life, in the round, and are innate with movement. It is like the transition from silent films to talkies: art had suddenly “come alive,” become noisy. Become, I think, capable of ugliness.

Of course these old Spaniards are projecting themselves, too. They are depicted in the flesh. They are symbols of authority in their society, I suppose, except, they are ceasing to be symbols. They were profiles on the coins, but now they have sprung out, and grown bodies, too. The authority is in their gestures as much as it had been in their stations. The idea that a leader should look like a leader had always been there, but now he was also a performance, an act.

This arrogance of power — “man the maker of man” — is now at large among us. Shame and humility have been overcome. Each class absorbs the fashion in dress from the class above, but wears it in a more tawdry way. In just a few centuries we will have paparazzi: the dress and imagery of the stars, passed down. Finally we will have people taking pictures of themselves. They carry their (skill-free) “smartphones” about, like pocket mirrors. The higher the technology, the lower the reach: why I called it “degeneration,” above.

But these are just pictures, my inner-modern says. They aren’t meant to be so serious. Look at them: the people are all smiling, or making faces — having a joke. How unlike those old Victorian portraits, in which the faces are serious, grave, because everyone, even humble farmers and fishermen and miners, had some dignity to preserve.

Nor were they givers of advice, unless to children in the privacy of their homes. (And takers of advice, from the pulpit.) There was no attempt to convey a narrative about “lifestyle” — frankly, how to live. Like Christians and Jews, through the rest of the world, people were unsmiling when their photos were first taken. The human resolution to maintain some dignity appears even in the anthropologists’ pictures of naked savages in the bush.

It could be said that “shame,” in a sense deeper than “trying to save face,” was an invention of our own, “Western,” religious tradition. It had to be invented, before shamelessness could be. The “primitives” — as we used to think of them — lack the guilt that we were capable of feeling, the “neurosis” that remains in post-Christian man; but were men for a’ that.