Sean Walsh discusses Danny Dyer – actor, thespian and well-remunerated announcer of words written by other people.
Sarah Bakewell’s wonderful book At the Existentialist Café describes the lives, loves and thoughts of a number of philosophers who prefigured and instituted the existential movement in philosophy. Existentialism plucked philosophy from the vertiginous and abstract and relocated it in the concrete and human. It urged not so much philosophy-as- discussion but as a way of life. Its most famous proponent (or actor) was Jean-Paul Sartre whose Being and Nothingness mixes dense argument with anecdote. Sartre was the sage of the salon, a philosophical rock star (although more Costello than Presley in terms of looks it must be said). When he died in 1980 his funeral was attended by tens of thousands of people.
Now fast-forward 40 years and please step forward Danny Dyer – actor, thespian and well-remunerated announcer of words written by other people. In a recent appearance on something called Good Evening Britain (and presumably sandwiched between the Love Island recap and the feature on how-to-lose-weight-while-dental-flossing) Mr Dyer disclosed to the nation that Brexit is “a riddle” and David Cameron a “t**t”. Media adulation has ensued, notwithstanding the vacuity of his first thesis and the vague ad hominem quality of his second. I was reminded of Chauncey Gardner, the simple-minded character in Peter Sellars’ Being There, whose every vapid utterance is treated as gnomic and deep by people who really should know better. Chauncey becomes an adviser to the US President. We can only speculate as to the future possibilities Mr Dyer has opened up for himself. Perhaps he could team up with Phil Mitchell (I really can’t be bothered to look up the actor’s name) and together they could extend the intellectual and cultural horizons in ways presently unimaginable. Although that said, doesn’t Phil Mitchell tend to fall out with people? In which case they might end up in one of those feuds so beloved of the intellectual classes: Newton vs Leibniz on the development of calculus; or AJP Taylor vs Trevor Roper on the origins of WW2.
Yes I know, it’s easy to sneer (that’s why I’m doing it). Mr Dyer, it will be said is “entitled to his opinions”. But what does that actually mean? Certainly, he is entitled to them in the sense that nobody should remove them from him. But we might want to remember that to assert a right is to assert a concomitant responsibility. Aristotle contrasted the moral with the intellectual virtues. As rational beings we have obligations to such things as truth and consistency since we have more basic responsibilities in the way we shape our interior lives. There is such a thing as an ethics of belief. If I believe A, and I also believe B, and if A and B together imply C then I am in a way obliged to assent to C. And if I refuse to do so then that is a moral as well as an intellectual error. Aristotle was developing and improving on insights he picked up from his teacher Plato, who believed that the influence of the poets (the actors of his day) should be curtailed by rigorous and systematic censorship. Clearly, this is a type of intellectual totalitarianism but in some ways, it’s not too far off what we have today. Traditions of vibrant moral discourse have been supplanted in our culture by the insipid language of the liberal consensus; such and such an action is “inappropriate” or -worse still- “unacceptable”. We have settled not for a totalitarianism of ideas but of feeling. The person who is most angry must be the one who is most right. We self-police our language lest anyone be offended. Our discourse consists of “songs that please the ear but leave the mind alone”.
No rant is complete without mention of the internet. One of the protagonists in Bakewell’s book is Martin Heidegger, a philosopher who urged us to think about the oddness of Being. How strange it is, he argued, that anything should exist at all; and how strange we feel when we consider our relationship to Being in general. Heidegger wrote of the importance of poiesis – of the making of things, of craft – in how we relate to the world. For Heidegger what we do with our hands, literally, has a deep significance. (Unfortunately one of his own hands often found itself at the end of a Nazi salute – a fact that has done little to add to the security of his intellectual legacy). I wonder what he would have made of the internet, which has offered up not so much as a new way of relating to the world but a different way of being in the world. And this new way of being has surely caused a modern crisis of what the existentialists called anxiety: an existential unease, a feeling that “something is not quite right”. And we act out this anxiety by turning everything into soap opera. Is it any wonder, then, that a soap star can become elevated in the public esteem purely on the basis of the aforementioned banalities?
When his star wanes Mr Dyer can take some comfort in the fact that we English, in particular, have a complicated relationship with the idea of a public intellectual. The precedents have not all been happy. Bertrand Russell was a brilliant philosopher of mathematics who did seminal work in defining the relationship between logic and maths. His forays into public life were not always successful, however. Roger Scruton once described Russell (the son of an earl and the grandson of a Prime Minister) as “an aristocrat but not a gentleman”. More recently we’ve had Richard Dawkins who writes wonderfully on the non-existence of a God no theist believes in any way. AC Grayling once wrote a perfectly serviceable undergraduate primer on logic. Many years ago. And then there’s Stephen Fry.
Professor Scruton himself would make an ideal English Sartre. Unfortunately, though, he rides to hounds and therefore falls foul of the totalitarianism of feeling which holds that such things are “inappropriate”, or maybe even “unacceptable”.