Small gods


Small gods

Enduring legends are a rare find in an age of short attention spans

By Leo Mirani  April 29th, 2014

The day after Nelson Mandela died, I went to see Satyagraha, an opera composed by Philip Glass in 1979. The timing was happenstance. But it turned out to be a fitting way to remember this giant among men. It also provided the perfect setting to think about how we make legends of people.

Satyagraha is an odd opera. For one thing, the libretto is in Sanskrit, with text from the Bhagavad Gita. For another, the production has no surtitles – translations that appear above the stage to aid the viewer’s comprehension. It sounds trying, but it was liberating.

Unfettered by text, those three hours were among the most thoughtful I have recently had. My day job is as an online journalist writing about technology. That means I spend vast amounts of time on Twitter, which is prone to noise and knee-jerk opinion. I read thousands of words every day, but in fits and starts, and online, which is a shallower form of reading than being immersed in a book. The people I meet tend to think they are changing the world. (I don’t say that figuratively. Spend some time with people starting tech businesses and you will discover that wanting to change the world is a job requirement.)

My work does not, therefore, allow for a great deal of contemplation. But in that dark theatre, with no Twitter feed, no email, not even surtitles to read, I found myself contrasting what I see in my daily life – young men and women eager to change the world, one app at a time – with what I was seeing on stage: legendary figures without whom our world would be a poorer place. I couldn’t help but wonder if we will ever see their like again. In a world of superannuated attention spans and manufactured ‘virality’, do we still have legends? And where must we look for them?

Start with Bollywood, a topic I can claim some small degree of authority on as a one-time film journalist. India does not want for heroes of stature, but it is difficult to make the case for any of our stars as legends (except perhaps within the narrowly defined terms of the film industry). The nation united, once upon a time, to pray for Amitabh Bachchan’s good health, but now he lingers like a rain god who doesn’t know it’s time for the sun to shine. Rajinikanth? He inspires fantastical tales of his prowess, but those are meant to amuse, not awe.

It seems pointless looking for legends in modern politics, so I won’t dwell on it except to note that grand narratives are worthless without individual mythology. Witness how our leaders have tarnished the dynastic name.

Sport gives more cause for cheer. If not Milkha Singh and Paan Singh Tomar, both of whom resurfaced in public memory thanks to recent films, surely no one can dispute Sachin Tendulkar’s legendary status. He is mythologised like no other Indian – all that ‘god’ rhetoric a sign of our devotion. Yet even his more religious fans will agree that he stayed too long, pushed too hard, damaged his own legend with his need to be seen as one.

These examples would suggest that legends – real, honest-to-god, larger-than-life personalities – are a thing of the past. But perhaps it is just their nature that has changed. Perhaps it is just that there is a new type of legend now. The short-term kind.

Take Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager shot in the head by fundamentalists for promoting female education. One day she is an international hero, the next a fraud, a CIA agent, a self-promoting sham. Psy of the horse-riding song can be the world’s most famous man one week and the next week he’s a has-been, replaced by the 'Harlem Shake'. Egypt can rise and fall a dozen times over but the world has moved on to other, sexier, newer revolutions. Anna Hazare is a saviour one afternoon and a strange old prohibitionist by the evening. The trumpeting has barely died down and already Arvind Kejriwal is drawing brickbats by the dozen.

This is the flip side of the most fundamental change of our time: communication technology, which is to the 21st century what steam was to the 19th. On the one hand, the rise of mobile communication has been remarkable, connecting more than half the population of India in less than a decade. This year, mobile phone subscriptions will exceed the number of humans on earth. The internet is not far behind; it already touches over two billion lives globally. (These are, perhaps, not things one can compare to freeing a country from tyranny or uniting a nation divided by colour, but they effect changes as magnificent in scope.)

On the other hand, the world of instant, affordable mass communication gives us Twitter and Buzzfeed and virality. The speed with which we can build great things is no faster than the speed with which we can knock them down. Worse, the torrents of information bring us something new every moment. People don’t need to be brought low to be forgotten. Besides, it is harder to become mythical when you misspell your tweets and your selfies show your ageing, flawed face. These are the attributes of men, not gods.

All this information crossing us at dizzying speeds means our ability to stay enamoured is severely truncated. And our powers of critique, sharpened to knifepoint, as a means to survive it – to keep up with that runaway train of the Next Big Thing. You cannot worship the one true god when there are a hundred more waiting in the wings.

There are still worthy contenders, though, it isn’t like we just don’t make them anymore. Pope Francis leads and influences over a billion people, and has made the right noises about reform, tolerance and modernity. Barack Obama will be remembered for America’s drone programme, widespread government snooping and Obamacare (contentious as it is), but he also serves as shining inspiration to every poor black kid who has grown up being told that she isn’t the right colour to be somebody.

The elements of legend are all there – mythology, narrative, devotion – but there’s just more competition. The modern era is not an age in which we are no longer able to create legends. Indeed, I think it is the opposite. It is an age in which a thousand, ten thousand, a hundred thousand legends can, and do, bloom. Even if it’s just until their next Twitter takedown.

The day after Nelson Mandela died, I went to see Satyagraha, an opera composed by Philip Glass in 1979. The timing was happenstance. But it turned out to be a fitting way to remember this giant among men. It also provided the perfect setting to think about how we make legends of people.

Satyagraha is an odd opera. For one thing, the libretto is in Sanskrit, with text from the Bhagavad Gita. For another, the production has no surtitles – translations that appear above the stage to aid the viewer’s comprehension. It sounds trying, but it was liberating.

Unfettered by text, those three hours were among the most thoughtful I have recently had. My day job is as an online journalist writing about technology. That means I spend vast amounts of time on Twitter, which is prone to noise and knee-jerk opinion. I read thousands of words every day, but in fits and starts, and online, which is a shallower form of reading than being immersed in a book. The people I meet tend to think they are changing the world. (I don’t say that figuratively. Spend some time with people starting tech businesses and you will discover that wanting to change the world is a job requirement.)

My work does not, therefore, allow for a great deal of contemplation. But in that dark theatre, with no Twitter feed, no email, not even surtitles to read, I found myself contrasting what I see in my daily life – young men and women eager to change the world, one app at a time – with what I was seeing on stage: legendary figures without whom our world would be a poorer place. I couldn’t help but wonder if we will ever see their like again. In a world of superannuated attention spans and manufactured ‘virality’, do we still have legends? And where must we look for them?

Start with Bollywood, a topic I can claim some small degree of authority on as a one-time film journalist. India does not want for heroes of stature, but it is difficult to make the case for any of our stars as legends (except perhaps within the narrowly defined terms of the film industry). The nation united, once upon a time, to pray for Amitabh Bachchan’s good health, but now he lingers like a rain god who doesn’t know it’s time for the sun to shine. Rajinikanth? He inspires fantastical tales of his prowess, but those are meant to amuse, not awe.

It seems pointless looking for legends in modern politics, so I won’t dwell on it except to note that grand narratives are worthless without individual mythology. Witness how our leaders have tarnished the dynastic name.

Sport gives more cause for cheer. If not Milkha Singh and Paan Singh Tomar, both of whom resurfaced in public memory thanks to recent films, surely no one can dispute Sachin Tendulkar’s legendary status. He is mythologised like no other Indian – all that ‘god’ rhetoric a sign of our devotion. Yet even his more religious fans will agree that he stayed too long, pushed too hard, damaged his own legend with his need to be seen as one.

These examples would suggest that legends – real, honest-to-god, larger-than-life personalities – are a thing of the past. But perhaps it is just their nature that has changed. Perhaps it is just that there is a new type of legend now. The short-term kind.

Take Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager shot in the head by fundamentalists for promoting female education. One day she is an international hero, the next a fraud, a CIA agent, a self-promoting sham. Psy of the horse-riding song can be the world’s most famous man one week and the next week he’s a has-been, replaced by the 'Harlem Shake'. Egypt can rise and fall a dozen times over but the world has moved on to other, sexier, newer revolutions. Anna Hazare is a saviour one afternoon and a strange old prohibitionist by the evening. The trumpeting has barely died down and already Arvind Kejriwal is drawing brickbats by the dozen.

This is the flip side of the most fundamental change of our time: communication technology, which is to the 21st century what steam was to the 19th. On the one hand, the rise of mobile communication has been remarkable, connecting more than half the population of India in less than a decade. This year, mobile phone subscriptions will exceed the number of humans on earth. The internet is not far behind; it already touches over two billion lives globally. (These are, perhaps, not things one can compare to freeing a country from tyranny or uniting a nation divided by colour, but they effect changes as magnificent in scope.)

On the other hand, the world of instant, affordable mass communication gives us Twitter and Buzzfeed and virality. The speed with which we can build great things is no faster than the speed with which we can knock them down. Worse, the torrents of information bring us something new every moment. People don’t need to be brought low to be forgotten. Besides, it is harder to become mythical when you misspell your tweets and your selfies show your ageing, flawed face. These are the attributes of men, not gods.

All this information crossing us at dizzying speeds means our ability to stay enamoured is severely truncated. And our powers of critique, sharpened to knifepoint, as a means to survive it – to keep up with that runaway train of the Next Big Thing. You cannot worship the one true god when there are a hundred more waiting in the wings.

There are still worthy contenders, though, it isn’t like we just don’t make them anymore. Pope Francis leads and influences over a billion people, and has made the right noises about reform, tolerance and modernity. Barack Obama will be remembered for America’s drone programme, widespread government snooping and Obamacare (contentious as it is), but he also serves as shining inspiration to every poor black kid who has grown up being told that she isn’t the right colour to be somebody.

The elements of legend are all there – mythology, narrative, devotion – but there’s just more competition. The modern era is not an age in which we are no longer able to create legends. Indeed, I think it is the opposite. It is an age in which a thousand, ten thousand, a hundred thousand legends can, and do, bloom. Even if it’s just until their next Twitter takedown.