Shakespeare, Warhol and Max Mosley

Max Mosley, Monaco, 2007, 470150

F1 Fanatic reader Stephen Snook has contributed this highly thought-provoking essay on morality and the Max Mosley debate.

Without Dante there would be no Italian; without Luther there would be no German; without Shakespeare, there would be no English. If this is an over simplification, then it is certainly true to say that modern Italian, modern German and modern English would be very different were it not for these three writers. Whether we know it or not, our everyday language is still littered with their coinages.

When these languages were growing up, most people lived, worked and died within 25 miles of their birth. They knew very little about the world beyond; they knew more, through their priests, about the world to come than they did about the real world beyond their own village. It is through their priests that the people first learned to judge of right and wrong.

As the first artists of Renaissance Italy began to decorate their churches with frescos, then so the priests painted images on the minds of their congregations. It was painting on wet plaster that gave the fresco its permanence; and it was the authority of the priest that gave the image permanence in the mind of the parishioner. The question is: what, exactly, gave the priest such authority?

It is not a question that you would think were ever likely to come up on F1Fanatic.co.uk.

I have been ??lurking? on the live blog of F1Fanatic.co.uk since Australia. To keep myself awake all night for the first broadcasts of the season, I read Giorgio Vasari?s, The Lives of the Artists. The work is vast, running to something like 10 volumes, and covering a hundred artists or more from the early 14th century to the late 16th century. Needless to say, I read an edited version. Nevertheless, it was mind-numbingly repetitive. Desktop publishing and colour printing not having been invented in the 16th century, Vasari has to describe the works of Giotto, Donatello, Botticelli, Leonardo, Rafael, Michelangelo, Titan et al. They are the same few stories from the bible, given different treatments and becoming ever more technically proficient.

On Sunday, a little red car lined up on the grid at Monaco. was the same little red car that lined up in 1968, but given a different treatment and having become vastly more technically proficient.

22 cars lined up on the grid at Melbourne in 2008. There may be only 22 different stories from the bible covered in the entire 300 years of the Renaissance. This is not necessarily a limitation to the artist. After all, there are only 12 notes out of which to make all music, and 26 letters out of which to make all books.

It may be a moral limitation.

Or, at least limit the discussion of morality. The few examples that existed belonged to the priests: the priests owned morality – right and wrong were not open to discussion at a personal level. This is what I think gave such authority to the priest.

The period I am talking about includes the Reformation, the great schism of Christianity. Whatever the theological contention, it was still much the same bible. The priests, whether Catholic or Protestant, continued to own the few examples of morality, and would continue to do so until the French Revolution.

But it was the 20th century that was the real revolution.

Every time a new technology reaches a critical mass, there is a phenomenon. For film, it was the death of Rudolf Valentino; for radio, it was the Orson Welles production of The War of the Worlds; for television, it was Elvis on the Ed Sullivan Show. The 20th century was unique in inventing the technologies that make it possible to record sound and image, and broadcast those sounds and images collectively to mass audiences.

A hundred thousand women, loudly hysterical in their grief, flocked to the funeral of a silent film star, in August 1926. In November 1938, the same month as Kristallnacht in Germany, thousands of Americans fled to their air raid shelters, thinking the Martians had landed. The producers of the Ed Sullivan Show, regarding the sexual gyrations of Elvis Presley as too provocative for a mass audience, ordered, like latter day priests, that Elvis be shot only from the waist up, in September 1956.

That the producer is trying to act like the priest shows to what colossal extent the number of examples, out of which morality can be derived, has grown. It has multiplied in the same proportion as the 22 cars that will line up on the grid at Monaco are to the total number of cars in the world. Film, radio, television, and now the internet. Every newspaper, every magazine, every action that is in the least bit newsworthy is instantly accessible at eight megabits a second, in words, images and sound.

Every action has its moral consequence: it is either right or wrong. When there were only 22 examples of morality, there really wasn’t that much to discuss, even if it had been culturally valid to do so. However, much to the chagrin of the true priests, sin was still as rampant as it has always been. The Protestant Reformation was provoked by the Catholic Church selling indulgences. Sinning, and then paying to have your sins remitted in order to get into heaven, made a mockery of the Church’s moral teachings. Today, the colossal number of examples out of which morality can be derived, and the cultural validity of discussion at a personal level, makes an even bigger mockery of morality.

Without the limited number of examples, without the guidance of the authority of the priests, are we really making moral judgements? Or is it something else?

Shakespeare

The tragedies of Shakespeare have been translated into every language, as has Dante??s Divine Comedy, and Luther?s bible was the progenitor of every other Protestant bible. Successive generations have found the brilliance of the language, within a certain moral framework, a perfect, and sometimes beautiful, expression of our humanity. Essentially, it is flattery. Great writers come to be called great writers because they give us a sense of being greater than we thought we were. Unquestionably, Hamlet flatters our sense of moral being.

To be or not to be. We all want to play Act III, Scene I.

Shakespeare was sitting around one day, probably in a pub, twiddling his thumbs, and thinking: what action is it that I could take that would cause me the greatest moral doubt? Well, that?s easy: killing another human being. But that?s a no, no. How on earth am I going to make that work? I know. The greatest call, of duty, of affection, and above all else, to action, is the call between father and son. I?ll have the father murdered. I?ll make the father a king, so that he is also father to his country. I?ll have the father murdered by his own brother. The brother then becomes king, and marries the wife, the son?s mother, so quickly that the son suspects something may have been going on before the murder. That?s it, got it. Where?s my quill?

Still, Hamlet can?t bring himself to do it: kill his uncle to avenge his father. The moral doubt drives him mad and the last scene is no accidental blood bath. If Hamlet is saying anything at all, it is saying that moral judgements are very difficult to make.

We all have some bits of Shakespeare, Dante, or Luther in our vocabulary. They may be correctly, or imperfectly, committed to memory. Either way, out of context they are almost certainly wrongly understood. If vocabulary, then how much more so the ideas behind the works. Act III, Scene I, is very easy to play badly; very difficult to play correctly. And it is ??badly?, not poorly. It was all so much easier when there were only 22 examples, frescoed on your mind, and not really open to discussion.

Written language, for all its proliferation on blogs, very much takes second place to sound and image. Few blog entries go on for very long before including a YouTube video. The online publications of major titles are just as dependent on Adobe Flash and Java to deliver sound and image, and can only become more so as their migration is completed. Human understanding has moved out of written language and into sound and image.

Spoken language is all tone and gesture, with tone itself often mere gesture. As easy as it is to play Act III, Scene I, badly in spoken language, very few will ever have their bad performances committed to film. It is far, far easier, however, to copy those bad performances, to play Act III, Scene I, badly in that language you speak in your own mind, commit it as a turgid piece of commonplace prose, in an article, a blog, a comment section, and call it your moral position. All the gesturism of tone and facial expression will still be there, secreted amongst the words.

Spoken language brings out the petit demagogue in everyone.

Warhol

Saying that spoken language brings out the petit demagogue in everyone is very different from saying that everyone will become famous for fifteen minutes.

There are four 15 minutes in every hour. Only four people can become famous every hour. 96 in every 24 hours. About 35,000 a year. Divide the 6 billion people alive today by 35,000 and you get 171,428. It would take one hundred and seventy-one thousand years for everyone who is alive today to become famous for 15 minutes. Put that in perspective: 171,000 years ago, we were still all monkeys. Somewhere out there, there?s a 171,000 year-old old monkey, struggling to lift a doddery old arm in the air, and saying, ??Me! Me! Must be my turn next! ??

The most basic skills of numeracy are all that is required to give the lie to Warhol?s famous little dictum, yet we have all fallen for it.

A fundamental prerequisite of anything of value is that it be rare. Only 35,000 people can become famous in any one year. An awful lot of us are never going to become famous. Although we have never done the numbers, somewhere, buried deep within our illusions, is the understanding of the rarity, of the value, of the privilege, of fame. Almost all of us are going to end up like that doddery old monkey. And we resent it.

Max Mosley

Max Mosley, Bahrain, 2006, 470313

There is no contention that Max has used his position with FIA dishonestly, to enrich himself or his friends. There is no contention that Max has carried out his job badly, apart from the personal animus of some in the sport. Rather, that such animus exists, proves that he has always carried out his job effectively, taking decisions impartially for the good of the sport, and never being swayed by any particularly powerful faction or party.

Almost nothing is known about Shakespeare. If it were one day discovered that Shakespeare had been molesting his neighbour?s twin eleven year-old nieces at the time of writing Hamlet, Hamlet would still be Hamlet. In the same way, Max?s value is still good, regardless of his much less serious sado-masochistic rendezvous with five prostitutes.

The only argument of all the petit demagogue commentators is that, after his rendezvous, Max can no longer carry out his job as President of FIA. Max?s value is still good; therefore the decision is entirely up to him.

I confess that, if had it happened to me, I would die of shame. Like most people, I suspect, I would want to go as quickly and as quietly as possible. But I am not a Mosley.

All his life, Max Mosley has been looking for somewhere where his name did not matter so much. It seems that he had found it in motor racing. Until recently, I had no idea that Max Mosley is the son of Sir Oswald Mosley, the creator of the pre-war British Union of Fascists, and leader of the Blackshirts, intent on being to England what Mussolini was Italy and Hitler to Germany.

It is the media that always insists on making the connection. I read a piece not long ago in the Sunday Times Style Section about Daphne Guinness. The article was about fashion. Daphne Guinness inherited nothing from her grandmother, except the delicate beauty of the most beautiful of the Mitford sisters, yet the reporter insisted on bringing up a family portrait, made about the time her grandmother was about to leave her grandfather for Sir Oswald Moseley and become Lady Diana Mosley, Max?s mother.

Outside of motor racing, Max has had to put up with this all of his life. With six decades of active memory, Max must be somewhat inured to all the sleights, the rebuffs, the innuendos, and just plain nastiness that would bring the blush of mortification to the cheeks of those of us not so conditioned by the name of Mosley.

Max had a mother and father famous for their looks and infamous for the ideology they adhered to. I doubt, however, that the names of Oswald Mosley and Diana Mitford mean much to people today. It is not the fame, or otherwise, of Max?s parents that have attracted so much attention to him: it is something else. The Formula 1 grid is the biggest stage in the world. A billion people, or more, will tune in via some sort of screen. There is no other regular event in which such a mass of humanity is in virtual attendance every other week.

Max?s own name probably meant very little to anyone outside the top levels of motor racing. Someone in a mere supervisory position like Max, whatever his ancestry, could never hope for the instant name recognition of a Hollywood star, or a rock star. It was the fame of the Formula 1 grid that attracted so much attention to Max. It was the suspicion that, although the name rang no instant bells, he belonged to those privileged 35,000 who become famous every year. He was not one with the rest of us, who share our genes with that doddery old monkey.

It is entirely natural to want to tear down all privilege. That is what politics has been about for the past 200 years. I only have this one life: why should anyone, or any one class, have more of its delights than me? Just as it seems to have been accomplished, or over accomplished, in its political dimension, privilege has shifted sphere. However understandable it may be to want to tear down Max?s seeming privilege, using morality as the hook is entirely spurious. It has nothing whatever to do with moral judgement. Max?s value is still good: his actions have not betrayed his real value.

If the media always seems over anxious in wanting to tear down anyone who is in the least bit famous, then it is only our own anxiety they are trying to salve. For a moment, we feel less resentful, less underprivileged. It might not matter much if it were just the trivial sorts of personality that inhabit Hollywood and rock arenas, but, in all this tearing down, personalities of real value are going to be torn down, too. And that harms us all.

Max wants to stay in his job. I hope he will be allowed to do so. Morality establishes value, real value. Today, with the sheer number of examples out of which morality can be derived, and the corresponding opportunities for almost anyone to do the moralising, it is desperately difficult to establish real value. Through his personal history, Max has the personality to stand his ground. It would be the greatest of ironies, if a man called Mosley, a name connected in another country with an ideology that created the greatest wrong of the twentieth century, were to become an example of real value in the twenty-first.

This was a guest article by Stephen Snook. If you’re interested in writing for F1 Fanatic look at the information for guest writers here.

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31 comments on Shakespeare, Warhol and Max Mosley

  1. Stephen, thanks so much for your article. Your blog is always fascinating to read.

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