An inauspicious proposal

What started out as a personal reaction to a single act of vandalism – directed at those (admittedly hideous) polystyrene sculptures – quickly evolves into an exhortation to destroy the ‘million other things’

Last week, Mark Anthony Falzon wrote a rather amusing little piece in ‘The Sunday Times’. Here are a few randomly selected quotes: “I wish someone would take it upon him or herself to destroy the rest of [the ‘Jablo junk’ statues]. I also wish the idea would catch on. If there is hope, it lies in the vandals...”

“...I’m dead serious about this: I’d be a happy man if someone decided to take a spraycan, or preferably a very heavy hammer, to the knot [another sculpture in Valletta]....”

And lastly, “The only thing, then, that can save us from the pointless horrors dumped in public places, is what we might call a restorative destruction. Destruction is not necessarily a bad thing. To destroy the proverbs junk and the knot and the million other things is to restore public space to its beauty.”

And so on and so forth. He was, of course, joking... (I mean, come on: he even wrote “The only reason why I haven’t done it myself is that I have no wish to go to prison”. How much more of a give-away do you need?)... which, of course, also means that everyone who wanted to interpret it literally, went ahead and did precisely that. And oh, the fun they all had, swooning in contrived shock and horror all over the Internet! A university professor, lecturing at the Faculty of Arts, urging the public to demolish works of art...!

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Malta is a veritable paradise for those who possess a sense of the ironic. Such a shame that less than one per cent of its population can ever seem to actually see it that way...

But yes, alas, perhaps a few benighted souls out there really did take it literally. There is always that sort of risk when indulging in satire, you know (which is why, as a rule, when I satirically suggest something, I always try to ensure that it involves the least violence and bloodshed possible. But that’s just me.).

In any case: Falzon’s take on the street-art vandalism incident reminded me (in a roundabout sort of way) of Jonathan Swift’s famous 1729 ‘modest proposal’ to solve the Irish potato famine:  “I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout...”

You can well imagine the hullaballoo that erupted in polite British society when the above was read by an audience as yet largely unfamiliar with this particular brand of satire (and even more so, by the ones who understood Swift perfectly well, but took mortal offence at his insinuation of their own guilt).

I saw something similar in quite a few public reactions to Falzon’s article, too. And not just in the reactions, either.

Part of what makes Swift’s satire so effective is that his proposal cannot conceivably be taken seriously, because it is so utterly and unthinkably preposterous. And once it is established that a literal interpretation cannot possibly hold, we are compelled to seek interpretations elsewhere. Anyone who reads Swift’s Modest Proposal today will instinctively realise that, if the author resorted to such shocking, provocative methods in the first place... it was because the situation he was trying to draw attention to (the Irish famine) was itself shocking and preposterous. Children were starving to death by the tens of thousands. Would it make that much more difference if they were ‘stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled’ instead?

But I’m also a great (indoctrinated) believer in Roland Barthes, ‘The Death of the Author’, and all that. A piece of writing takes on a life of its own; its impact on readers varies over time, or at different phases of a reader’s life. The context in which it is read will also change, and in time so will the meaning or connotations of the individual words used. Authors do not ‘own’ the key to interpreting their own work, any more than they own the key to each individual reader’s house.

So while I won’t hazard a guess at what Mark Anthony Falzon intended as the main satirical thrust... I’ll gladly supply my own interpretation.

To begin with: you will surely note that, what started out as a personal reaction to a single act of vandalism – directed at those (admittedly hideous) polystyrene sculptures erected about Valletta for V18 – quickly evolves into an exhortation to destroy the ‘million other things’ that seem to be offending the author’s aesthetic sensitivities.

Naturally, it is by no means certain that any vandals who follow this satirical advice would limit themselves only to destroying those ‘horrors’ that Falzon himself indicates. Among those ‘million other things’ he alluded to, there will have also to be things that offend other people’s sensitivities... to the point that they very literally – with no trace of irony at all – desire to wreck and destroy them.

Sadly, one would also have to include the impromptu shrine erected to the memory of Daphne Caruana Galizia, at the foot of the Great Siege Memorial in Valletta, to that list. I say ‘sadly’ because... in all honesty, I can think of no other word when faced with some of the comments I’ve read under all the relevant articles of late. It is sad that anyone’s reaction to any memorial to a recently murdered individual – no matter who – would be so savagely destructive and bitterly hateful.

To that, naturally, the response will be: ‘Yeah, well look at what she wrote about Mintoff’, etc.  But that’s precisely what makes it so sad. It just doesn’t ever stop, does it?

But whatever word we use to describe the sadness of this situation – its meaning will probably change in time anyway – the brutally honest truth is that a lot of people in Malta feel precisely the same way about the Daphne shrine, as Falzon’s does about the ‘Jablo junk’ in that article. And most of them have no compunction whatsoever in expressing that sentiment in some of most unvarnished and tactless comments you will ever read, anywhere on the Internet.

For what it’s worth, then, my own interpretation is that the article (intentionally or otherwise) places its finger very squarely on the root of the entire malaise. It lampoons the violent streak that prompts the vandalism, not the vandalism itself. In so doing, it also exposes the underlying cause of this violent streak.

If Swift’s cannibalistic proposal pointed towards the horror of the famine itself, Falzon’s ‘encouragement of vandals’ points towards the underlying absurdity of belligerent antagonism. By spectacularly failing to distinguish between ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ viewpoints – and I can only assume this is done deliberately, because like Swift it is simply too preposterous to be otherwise – his article posits the following, utterly absurd basic premise.

If something is objectionable to one person, it will be automatically be objectionable to all other ordinary, decent people. Anyone who sees things differently, by definition, becomes extraordinary, indecent and therefore undesirable.

From this premise it follows that anything favoured by these people, and abhorred by all the ordinary decent folk (who, incidentally, always talk about themselves as if they represented some form of overwhelming majority – that, in itself, was a satirical masterstroke) can simply be destroyed at will.

And... well... guess what? This utterly absurd, preposterous and hopelessly unworkable worldview is EXACTLY how people are starting to react to absolutely everything in this country. Political tensions have now risen so high, that many people would willingly do (and some have already done) what Falzon merely joked about them doing. It’s like the Daleks in ‘Doctor Who’: we are passing through a phase when our automatic reaction to any manifestation of the political ‘other’, is an instant, violent urge to EXTERMINATE.

And like all good satire, Falzon homes in on the very crux of the matter. The issue of ‘public space’ – how and with what it should be occupied – is now a foremost theatre of our internecine political war. Even before that article appeared, at least one woman had already taken it upon herself to try to ‘clear up’ the Daphne memorial shrine in Valletta. She had been photographed doing so, and – oddly enough – most of the people who cried aloud in Facebook horror and disgust, would go on to ‘like’ and ‘share’ a satirical call to do exactly the same thing to other examples of ‘public space’ being ‘occupied’ by ‘unwanted structures’.

This raises a question. On what basis do we distinguish between those two scenarios, exactly? Why is one regarded as an ‘outrage’ and a ‘crying shame’, while the other held up (however satirically) as an example to be applauded and followed?

Meanwhile, the same controversy has taken a new twist. Rather than vandalise the monument (as so many have threatened to do in online comments), somebody chose to dilute its impact by adding another three photos to the existing one of Daphne Caruana Galizia. I don’t know if they’ll still be there by the time I finish this article, but at the time of writing you can also see Karin Grech, Raymond Caruana and Dom Mintoff commemorated by the same shrine.

Exactly why is something I haven’t worked out yet. Perhaps its an elaborate ‘Spot the difference’ puzzles (‘Three of these people were violently murdered, and one died of natural causes at 93. Who’s the odd one out?’, etc). But whatever we make of the stunt itself, at face value it complicates an already complicated situation quite considerably.

Who actually owns the ‘space’ we call ‘public’, anyway? Who gets to decide what can and cannot be erected in it?

Going on terminology, the obvious answer would have to be ‘the public’. But that’s not going to help us very much, is it? The mourners who spontaneously created a shrine for Daphne are part of ‘the public’. But so are the individuals who added those other photos, and the woman who tried to sweep the whole thing away. And so, for that matter, so are all the people who publicly call for the removal of that shrine in online comments; and all the others who insist on it remaining. Not to mention the vandals who wrecked those Jablo horrors. The people who applauded them, and those who howled in indignation. And you can keep adding to the list forever, with no end in sight.

So perhaps it’s a good thing so many people took (or chose to take) that article literally. There is a sense in which it should be taken literally. It presents a chilling picture of the vandals we have all allowed ourselves to become. And believe me, that makes us no prettier than those darn Jablo horrors...

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