December 20, 2014
The invention of pride
For the Herald
Nowadays, just about everyone seems to be itching with it
THE HAGUE - If one thing can be said to unite the atheists of 20th century philosophy and the Gospel according to John, then it is the word. The word begins, and everything else comes later. Or, as the school of phenomenology used to have it, you can watch a house from the bushes or taste its bricks with the tip of an inquisitive tongue, but if you don’t have some kind of word for a house then it remains an odd way to imprison a cat.
Nowadays, digital technology’s tightening grip on the collective cranium has made the word even more primal, and experience ever more secondary. Just about every cranny of knowledge is now accessed by one or two words typed at speed into the blank box of a search engine. Chasing these words has seemingly become the leading task of huge and secretive intelligence agencies. Controlling the words, and the images they invoke, has turned into the bread and butter of political campaign managers. At last year’s Labour Party conference in Britain, for instance, all the talk was of dominating the “frame” through which people saw their problems. As one commentator put it, “we all have leftwing and rightwing impulses within us, and we can all be swayed by the most convincing story we are told.”
So as we are swept away by the verbal mudslide, it is as well to know that some of the most important terms we now use to talk about ourselves with contacts, friends and followers — the species formerly known as other people — are actually just artful inventions. For what, wondered Wittgenstein, is behind a word describing a pain or a pleasure but convention.
Take pride. Nowadays, just about everyone seems to be itching with it from dawn to dusk. We are proud of our children, our work, or a personal best over 10 kilometres. Nations are proud of their historic achievements. Corporations sing operatic arias of pride, whether of the cleansing power of their household detergents or their contribution to global peace. Most repulsively, some of us whine about cashing this pride into bragging rights; the right to brag, almost as fundamental as the right to free speech.
Whereas the contests between nations used to be guided by all sorts of gritty, practical matters like oil, territory, strategic alliances and rival notions of the public good, the ongoing geopolitical kerfuffle over the Ukraine seems also to be rooted in the foreign policy vapours of pride. Vladimir Putin was proud to hold the Sochi games; upon realizing that his US$50-billion Olympic puppy was not saluted with awe and respect, but Ukrainian revolt, Russia sought another boost for its pride in the Crimea. Now no one knows whether Putin’s pride is sated, or requires further annexations so that every proud Russian-speaker can be made a proud Russian. As a result, the government in Kiev and the Baltic states quake.
The straight-faced emotionalism which seems to be guiding Russian policy can be judged from the comments of those close to decision-making in the Kremlin, reminiscent of the logic of a spurned lover before his visit to the local shaman. Even now, it is thought that Russian public celebrations on May 9 of victory over Germany in World War II may be the trigger for the next phase of Putin’s expansionist project, whose precise economic and territorial logic seems almost entirely secondary to its nostalgia for lost pride.
Yet before we assume that foreign policy was always like this, and that states have traditionally sought to save their own and others’ faces — and when they did not, in the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, just look what happened — it is best to digress toward an illuminating etymological fact. There is no real term for pride in Latin, an expert on the subject has told me. As a result, the best way to say “I am proud to be a Roman citizen” in that language is Gaudeo me cibem esse; literally, this means “I rejoice at being a Roman citizen.” Alternatively, one could look to the common translation of the name of a Roman King, Tarquinius Superbus, usually referred to Tarquin the Proud. The only problem is that superbus is more correctly translated as arrogant.
The pride which is now spilled so liberally across so many media on everything moderately successful that we or others achieve would thus appear to have been absent from English and Romance-language vocabulary for many centuries. Most importantly, it seems to have arisen in the empty space between arrogance and rejoicing, which says rather a lot more about the way it has become a craze in the modern world that we might like to think.
One other term that is now so commonplace as to seem a universal condition of human existence also has a curious history. Boredom, it might be thought, was recurrent in the Neanderthal cave, particularly when the woolly mammoths were out of shot. Just as primitive humans were surely bored, we are constantly on the verge of boredom. It sits like a weaselly creature in the head, waiting to stretch its limbs in the harsh light of uneventfulness.
And so it is with some intrigue that we read the history of boredom in the posthumous work of the US novelist David Foster Wallace, who tragically committed suicide in 2008. Boredom, Wallace recounts in his book The Pale King, first appeared in English in the 18th century in a letter from an English aristocrat. Before going on to conquer Western society and command ever more powerful entertainment tools to release us from its ashen grip, boredom had remained unnamed throughout the first five centuries of modern English.
The early European knights brought us pride. The stirrings of the industrial revolution provided us with boredom. It is perhaps understandable that politicians and the secret services are now only too eager to control the next big word.