BBC Radio 4

by Glenn on January 16, 2018

Since listening to the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve, I’ve been turning to BBC Radio 4 from time to time, usually on weekends. The news that you hear isn’t any more hopeful than what you hear on NPR, but I find the remove from American politics and the dry humor refreshing. This past weekend one of the announcers introduced a program with words along the lines of, “As we get over our disappointment that the American president won’t be visiting us next month, we turn to …”

It’s other programs and voices that I find refreshing.

I’ve discovered that the BBC has its own news quiz, in a somewhat different format though along the lines of NPR’s “Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me,” the one NPR show I listen to with any regularity. I’ve only heard two editions of this news quiz, but it’s interesting to hear the British talk about their single-payer health plan and to listen to them discuss so many different politicians. Here, we tend to focus almost exclusively on Mr. Trump (or whichever president is in power). I suspect that power in their government is more diffuse, therefore there are more players.

This weekend on BBC Radio 4, I heard a lovely program about Leonard Cohen’s song, “Hallelujah.” I don’t remember my first exposure to the song, but I remember a particularly heartbreaking moment on The West Wing (Season 3 Finale, “Posse Comitatus”) where the song was featured.

But the piece that I’ve been thinking about the most, though,  was a commentary by Howard Jacobson titled, “The Frozen Wastes of Emojiland.” This is a meditation by Jacobson on dramatic speech and social media.

Jacobson begins his commentary quoting one Julia Holmes who didn’t like what was written on the new £10 note. It was a quote “by” Jane Austen,

“I declare, after all, there is no enjoyment like reading.”

Ms. Holmes thought it “a strange choice.” The problem is that while Jane Austen wrote that, she didn’t really “say” it. The words belong to Caroline Bingley from Pride and Prejudice, who is, according to Jacobson, “a woman of surpassing shallowness.” She is “saying only what she thinks Mr. Darcy would like to hear her say.”

And so Jacobson riffs on the nature of dramatic speech, the words of which “are as true or false as the person speaking them in the context of who they are spoken to and why.” Literature is different from a sermon or tract. Art is different from ideology.

Jane Austen didn’t say, “I declare, after all, there is no enjoyment like reading.” The same think happens with Shakespeare, Jacobson continues. He was “a dramatist not a philosopher.” The aphorisms that we quote actually belong to his characters. One of the most famous is:

“This above all: to thine own self be true
And it must follow, as the night the day
Thou canst not then be false to any man.”

Sounds like great advice. And it might be. Except that Jacobson points out, rightly, that “authenticity” is only a virtue “if the self in question is worth being true to.” In this case, Shakespeare’s Polonius, from Hamlet, is a gas bag. What does Gertrude in exasperation say to him at one point? “More matter, with less art.”

Jacobson makes two points. One is that we need to recognize dramatic speech.

In my car these days, I am listening to the collected speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In his “Eulogy for the Martyred Children,” a speech from 18 September 1963, King concluded with,

“Shakespeare had Horatio to say some beautiful words as he stood over the dead body of Hamlet. And today, as I stand over the remains of these beautiful, darling girls, I paraphrase the words of Shakespeare:  Good night, sweet princesses. Good night … And may the flight of angels take thee to thy eternal rest.”

Probably among the least significant things to appreciate about Dr. King is the fact that he recognizes dramatic speech and uses it appropriately. But I do appreciate it.

Years ago I remember struggling with a book by a Christian author. It was one of those “You’ve got to read this” books that people tell you about. The book was saying we need to tell more stories and use less propositional truth. And for a conclusion they turned to the balcony scene of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, which the author described as “the most beautiful explanation for the gospel of Jesus ever presented.” The author continues, “In this scene, Juliet may be considered the Bard’s Christ figure, and Romeo the embodiment of the church, thus presenting Shakespeare’s opinion of a Christian conversion experience.”

That, it seems to me, is not the way to recognize dramatic speech. I don’t have a problem with using the love of Romeo and Juliet as an analogy to describe the love between Jesus and the church, but it seems a stretch to say that this was “Shakespeare’s opinion of a Christian conversion experience.” I wish they had left Shakespeare out of it.

The second point Jacobson makes is critical of social media, which “has reduced all discourse to a shout.” He calls this a “thumb up or thumb down culture.” There are some great lines near the end of this commentary, which is worth listening to again (which I have done a couple of times, now):
“Before we attack,” make sure “it’s views that are being expressed.”
“Thought is not an act of war.”
“A joke is not a manifesto.”
“Insults are not conversation.”
“Differences in opinion come in shades.”

I am grateful for radio/listening that forces me to think.