Saturday 7 May 2022


Download audio file read by Glyn Moody.

There is an ancient tale about a mighty emperor and a great artist.  The artist creates for the emperor a work of surpassing beauty.  Deeply moved by this work, the emperor asks the artist whether he could ever create another, identical, masterpiece.  'Assuredly, your majesty, I could create a hundred such works,' replies the artist, hoping for patronage.  Instead, the emperor has him instantly put to death, thus ensuring that the work of unmatched loveliness remains unique forever.

At the beginning of culture, there was no such dilemma for the prospective owner.  Every artefact was necessarily one of a kind.  It bore the marks of its maker as surely and indelibly as a child bears the features of its parents.  In this early Workshop of Eden, everything had a name from the moment of its creation.

Society developed.  Central to the idea of the new civilisation was the passing on of knowledge.  As human skills progressed, the concept of the pattern emerged, and with it fashion, the arbitrary and temporary preference for one pattern over another.  The latter soon led to objects being judged by their fashionability rather than their functionality: everybody wanted an amphora, but nobody wanted an ill-formed though perfectly serviceable amphora.  Since copies were to be mutually indistinguishable, they could have no past or future without an owner to redeem them from anonymity.  When things became numbers, the concept of consumerism was born, fashion's younger sibling.

But for centuries thereafter, full consumerism was still only a faint dream for the masses as yet unenfranchised by fashion, and a growing nightmare for the threatened elite of the already fashionable.  As manufacturing technology improved, the nearer the attainment of the grail of perfect repeatability became.  Although history's first assembly line - the ship-building works in the Venetian navy's Arsenal - was more concerned with quantity than quality, it showed the way for the fully-fledged factories of the Industrial Revolution and their later progeny.

Initially confined to material objects, the quest for repeatability has now infected all of modern life, passing from fashion into obsession.  Even our food has succumbed: when we buy a tin of soup we do not buy just soup; we buy the exact taste and consistency of that particular brand of soup.  Which is why we are so shocked when the same brand dares once to be different: like children, we want the world to remain safely and eternally familiar.  And this hunger for the perfectly and reliably repeatable experience now informs every consumer action: we buy a pop star's new album and watch a film's latest sequel in the hope that they will offer more of the same experiences, but with different details.

Even as we crave repeatability, we demand its negation - novelty.  But having found the new, we are doomed to return to it and to ask for the same novel experience.  If we do not, we are still in thrall to the tyranny of life's repeatability.  Yet if we do, we have simply extended the boundary of that tyranny.  Perhaps the tale of the emperor and the artist contains more wisdom in its barbarousness than we care to admit.


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