Who is unquestionably the greatest writer of all time? And which was obviously the greatest popular music band of all time?
Sorry, but you’re wrong on both counts.
Well, let me pick your brains a little further: Who is indisputably the greatest ever male singer?
Now you’re hesitating. On this you’re willing to allow discussion. After all, there’s the poor guy who died overweight and depressed in his bathroom, the Peter Pan-style eccentric, or perhaps the crooner with links to organised crime. Or we might choose someone completely different that no-one’s heard of. But about this, you will agree, discussion is fine.
About the first two questions, you’re not willing to accept debate – not really, despite any tolerant noises you might make – because you believe, deeply, that just this writer and just this pop band were The Greatest Of All Time, the GOAT. It’s obvious, any fool can see it.
This over-confidence reminds me of a remarkable comment piece by Polly Toynbee published in the Observer. The piece was originally titled, ‘The West really is the best’, before being politically corrected to the less embarrassing, ‘Global “McCulture” is a tragedy… but it’s a price worth paying for spreading the gospel of human rights’. Like an overwrought Cristóbal Colón landing on Hispaniola in October 1492, Toynbee opined:
‘In our political and social culture we have a democratic way of life which we know, without any doubt at all, is far better than any other in the history of humanity… Even if we don’t like to admit it, we are all missionaries and believers that our own way is the best when it comes to the things that really matter…’ (Toynbee, The Observer, 5 March 2000)
To know, ‘without any doubt at all’, that our ‘way of life’ is ‘the best’ represents a ‘Manifest Destiny’ level of arrogance.
We don’t just take for granted that a herd of tree-climbing Western GOATS owns politics, literature and music. In 2020, historian Simon Schama declared of Europe’s 18th and 19th century Romantics:
‘But, in fact, long before the invention of psychology, it was the Romantics who became the first explorers of the darker, deeper region of the human mind.’ (Simon Schama, ‘The Romantics And Us’, BBC 2, 18 September 2020, my emphasis)
Much as Colón and Hernán Cortés were ‘the first explorers’ of ‘the new world’, with its indigenous populations erased from history as they were largely erased from their lands. In reality, it is no exaggeration to say that the European Romantics were as children compared to the Buddhist, Zen, Taoist and Sufi explorers of ‘the darker, deeper region of the human mind’, and by whom they were preceded by millennia.
But these enlightened masters of meditation (‘masters’ of themselves, not of others) have never been viewed as credible GOAT material by Western intellectuals. In 1859, John Stuart Mill, the 19th century’s most influential British philosopher, wrote that Chinese culture had benefited from ‘men to whom even the most enlightened European must accord, under certain limitations, the title of sages and philosophers’. (John Stuart Mill, ‘On Liberty’, Penguin, 1974, p.137, my emphasis)
Mill’s ‘limited’ sages were the likes of Lao-tse, Lieh tzu and Chuang Tzu. Alas, Mill concluded, the Chinese mind had long since lost any capacity for ‘human progressiveness’:
‘they have become stationary – have remained so for thousands of years; and if they are ever to be further improved, it must be by foreigners’. (p.137)
He meant by Westerners, of course. Somebody call Polly Toynbee!
A Power-Friendly GOAT?
By the way, I said your certainty about your GOATS is something you believe deeply – you think that, but actually it is often not really the case. I believe you often believe it because everybody else appears to believe it.
Joining a long list of luminaries, Ernest Hemingway described your literary GOAT as ‘The Champion’, as even ‘the undisputed champion’, saying:
‘There are some guys nobody could ever beat…’. (Carlos Baker, ed., ‘Ernest Hemingway, Selected Letters, 1917-1961’, Scribner, 1981, p.673 and p.713)
But anyway, apparent informed consensus, or no, these issues are allowed to be contested, because we are not here discussing scientific fact; we are discussing subjective opinion based on individual thought and feeling.
Consider, after all, that academic Rachel Sharp wrote of Hemingway’s champ:
‘The power relations which are peculiar to market society are seen as how things have always been and ought to be. They acquire a timelessness which is powerfully legitimised by a theory of human nature… Political struggles to alter present-day social arrangements are seen as futile for “things are as they are” because of man’s basic attributes and nothing could ever be very different.’ (Rachel Sharp, ‘Knowledge, Ideology and the Politics of Schooling’, Routledge, 1980, p.109)
You may be shocked to learn that Tolstoy, himself deemed one of the world’s greatest writers, described your GOAT’s worldview as:
‘… the lowest, most vulgar view of life, which regards the external elevation of the great ones of the earth as a genuine superiority; despises the crowd, that is to say, the working classes; and repudiates not only religious, but even any humanitarian, efforts directed towards the alteration of the existing order of society’. (Tolstoy, cited, Aylmer Maude, ‘Tolstoy On Art’, Oxford University Press, 1924, p.446)
To which must be added ‘a Chauvinistic English patriotism… according to which the English throne is something sacred, the English always defeat the French, slaughtering thousands and losing only scores…’. (Tolstoy, cited, Maude, p.445)
Moreover, citing Gervinus, Tolstoy warned that this worldview is rooted in a dangerous conceit:
‘That it is possible to do too much in good things…’ (pp.441-442)
Specifically, ‘excessive liberality’, ‘generosity’ and ‘virtue’ are depicted as bringing ‘ruin’ to ‘the great ones of the earth’.
This bears a disturbing resemblance to Machiavelli’s central argument in ‘The Prince’:
‘And the manner in which we live, and that in which we ought to live, are things so wide asunder, that he who quits the one to betake himself to the other is more likely to destroy than to save himself; since any one who would act up to a perfect standard of goodness in everything, must be ruined among so many who are not good. It is essential, therefore, for a Prince who desires to maintain his position, to have learned how to be other than good, and to use or not to use his goodness as necessity requires.’ (Machiavelli, ‘The Prince’, Dover Publications, 1992, p.40)
For hundreds of years, every despot, tycoon and soulless neocon has used this rationalisation to justify their subordination of people and planet to power and profit:
‘Yes, we could refuse to join the United States in attacking Iraq. Yes, we could refuse to sell jets to Saudi Arabia. But we would be ruined.’
‘Yes, universal suffrage, a minimum wage, the abolition of slavery, action to forestall climate collapse, are wonderful ideas. But we will be ruined!’
Remarkably, then, Tolstoy, claimed that your leaf-nibbling GOAT’s position at the top of the tree is down to the fact that his works ‘correspond to the irreligious and immoral frame of mind of the upper classes of his time and ours’. (Quoted, George Orwell, ‘Inside The Whale And Other Essays’, Penguin, 1962, p.104)
Turning this around, do we really believe that the elite culture that lauds your GOAT so absolutely – and it truly is a Machiavellian culture rooted in greed, exploitation and war – would promote someone extolling progressive democratic change, egalitarianism, rebellion, unconditional love and compassion? In 1937, the anarchist writer Rudolf Rocker commented:
‘The state welcomes only those forms of cultural activity which help it to maintain its power. It persecutes with implacable hatred any activity which oversteps the limits set by it and calls its existence into question. It is, therefore, as senseless as it is mendacious to speak of a “state culture”; for it is precisely the state which lives in constant warfare with all higher forms of intellectual culture and always tries to avoid the creative will of culture….’ (Rudolf Rocker, ‘Culture and Nationalism’, Michael E. Coughlan, 1978, p.85)
At Media Lens, we have spent more than two decades indicating how ‘state culture’ does indeed wage ‘constant warfare’ on all dissent, on ‘all higher forms of intellectual culture’. The moronic inferno that surrounds us – steeped in revenge-themed violence and utterly vacuous, advertiser-friendly ‘entertainment’ – is the filtered waste of a structurally violent state-corporate system that thrives on ignorance. This is why, in rejecting Tolstoy’s argument, George Orwell was badly mistaken in arguing:
‘Ultimately there is no test of literary merit except survival, which is itself an index to majority opinion.’ (Orwell, op. cit., p.105)
In fact, ‘majority opinion’ is the chief target of a ‘state culture’ that is always busily ‘manufacturing consent’. And, of course, it is this same ‘state culture’ that imposes your GOAT’s worldview on the tender minds of teenage school pupils (my mind included). That really does speak volumes.
A Curious Assortment Of Analytical Headgear
Of course, a strong case can be made for your indisputably greatest pop band; a case, by the way, that has been made by some of my favourite musicians.
But if I put on my political activist hat – Phrygian, perhaps; or the Ushanka photoshopped onto Jeremy Corbyn’s head by the BBC – I might argue that radical honesty about power relations in so-called democratic societies, about the subordination of human values to state-corporate greed, about the annihilation of the support systems of human life, are what really matter. In which case, where does that leave your peerless popsters?
I can reasonably argue that a lilting song, no matter how lovely, about a love affair falling apart over the previous twenty-four hours, is less meaningful, less viscerally important to me, than music and lyrics that take me into deeply taboo territory on issues of power, conformity, alienation and war – problems that may terminate organised human life within the next few decades.
Consider these lyrics from the 1986 album, ‘Infected’, by British band The The. The song, ‘Sweet Bird Of Truth’, channels the mental turmoil of a US pilot fighting to save his crippled bomber as it falls to Earth on a mission over the Gulf of Arabia:
‘Six o’clock in the morning and I’m the last person in this plane still awake.
‘Y’know, I can almost smell the blood washing against the shores
‘Of this land that can’t forget its past.
‘Oh, the wind that carries this plane is the wind of change.
‘Heaven sent, and hell bent,
‘Over the mountain tops we go, just like all the other G.I. Joes.
A single human mind caught up in a storm of world-shaking violence. But this is no standard, gung-ho hero; this is a lost soul tortured by doubt and regret:
‘Across the beaches and cranes, rivers and trains,
‘All the money I’ve made, bodies I’ve maimed.
‘Time was when I seemed to know
‘Just like any other G.I. Joe.
‘Should I cry like a baby, or die like a man
‘While the planet’s little wars start joining hands?
‘Oh, what a heaven, what a hell.
‘Y’know, there’s nothing can be done in this whole wide world.’
The song was released at a time, like now, when it seemed the planet’s ‘little wars’ really might ‘start joining hands’ in a nuclear exchange. Looking back, we might be even more impressed by the fact that The The eerily foresaw the endless US-UK bombing of Arab countries in subsequent decades.
The lyrics brilliantly capture the nihilism of a Western war machine on autopilot, programmed to kill and kill again, without limit, for no reasons beyond oil, gas, power and profit. What a heaven was promised, what a hell.
On the other hand again, if I put my mystical hat on – pointy, cone-shaped, flopping over at the top? – I might answer: No, no, political songs put us in our heads, and the whole problem is that we are too much in our heads. Our heads are a place of madness.
With this hat on, I might argue that the head can’t solve the real problem that underlies all other problems – the ego; the human craving to be ‘special’, to be ‘superior’, ‘above’ others in some way, any way. We can talk about hard politics, facts and figures, but it is this massively powerful, often unconscious urge to be ‘exalted’ that drives our insatiable need for power and wealth, that lies at the psychological heart of state and corporate institutions.
Ego-trapped politics just changes one type of madness for another. If a hundred political activists are struggling for peace, a hundred political activists are fighting to be the most famous, highly-regarded peace activist. A revolutionary movement might topple one set of bloated egos from the political summit; different bloated egos will float up on their own hot air to replace them. They will also want to be the GOAT; they will also seek power and wealth to prove their status. Was it not ever thus?
Our ‘civilisation’ is fundamentally a product of ego. An alternative can only be built on its antithesis and antidote. Laura Archera Huxley understood the problem:
‘…not-love tends to beget not-love. The energy of love is needed to reconvert not-love into love’. (Laura Archera Huxley, ‘You Are Not The Target’, Avon Books, 1963, p.5)
If this sounds like sentimental claptrap – and the more head-trapped, ego-driven you are, the worse it sounds (as I know from my own changing perceptions) – consider journalist Umair Haque’s recent comment:
‘Do you know what the prime thoughtcrime was in 1984, the point of the whole book? Big Brother’s entire objective was to stop people from loving. Hence, when Winston fell for Julia, his whole world turned upside down.’
But wearing the same mystical headgear, much as I might support the promotion of ‘love’, I might nevertheless insist that I cannot make a GOAT of music or literature that seeks to persuade me that romantic love is the Greatest Answer Of All Time. Why? Because while such material does take me into my heart, it also takes me out to a supposed external source of happiness – my beloved. It still encourages an external focus.
I know this is fool’s gold – external solutions cannot provide lasting happiness. They must leave me dissatisfied, if only because they still leave me overwhelmingly head-trapped. I still have to be plotting, planning, thinking and scheming, in order to attain my external romantic goals. There will still be something missing because the toxic mind will still be in overdrive, dominant – my love will be partial, specific, superficial, compromised, incomplete.
By contrast, when, red in tooth, claw and keyboard, I sit down on my scruffy sofa bed for an hour and look inside, I encounter spectacular storms of thought and emotion – cyclical storms that endlessly repeat like the most annoying musical ‘ear worms’. But these storms only have so much energy. If I keep noticing the thoughts, keep letting them go, and keep redirecting attention to emotions in my chest and lower belly, what the mystic Kabir called a ‘divine melody’ may arise in my heart.
The mind is a spoiled brat used to being endlessly indulged – it tires of constant interruption. It is disempowered by indifference, not censorship or suppression. The mind gets fed up, gaps appear; and through them love and bliss arise. These extraordinary, subtle phenomena are always there, and they are almost always drowned out by the clamour of thought.
This is so surprising, so overwhelming. Indeed, this buried ecstasy and love are the only phenomena that have ever been found with the power to undermine the ego’s obsession with name, gain and fame – obsessions that are tedious, unfulfilling, fraught with suffering, but deeply addictive. It is only when we unearth something better – something that gives us a happiness beyond anything the ego can promise – that we naturally drop the trinkets of ego, abandon the Machiavellian games that are destroying our personal well-being, driving our greed-driven institutions, and wrecking our planet.
From this perspective, a musical or literary GOAT will not be someone who merely entertains, or soothes us, or stimulates us to activism. He or she will be someone who provokes us to search for the ‘divine melody’ in our hearts, to see if it is really there.
Moreover, because the same essential melody is playing in every heart, we can say that, actually, it is my awareness, your awareness, everyone’s individual awareness, that is the real GOAT.
David Edwards is co-editor of www.medialens.org