Last weekend I spent several hours hibernating, knitting and watching all 13 episodes of Kenneth Clark’s original Civilisation series. (I have so far only watched one episode of the BBC’s reboot, and I wasn’t impressed, but I will give it a chance and won’t pass judgement until I’ve watched a few more).
I was left with one lingering thought, and I don’t think it’s the one I was meant to take away. I kept reflecting on Clark’s great men, catalysts and recorders of European civilisation, and thinking about all the time, the education, the privilege which afforded them the opportunity to dedicate themselves to the work of ‘civilisation’. I’m not saying just anyone could be a Dürer or Descartes, but it kept nagging at me. Surely a fairly sizeable proportion of the population could achieve such great things if given half the chance. I thought about the women, the people of colour, the working-class people throughout the period of history Clark covers, and how much potential has been lost for want of opportunity to contribute.
While it is sad and frustrating to think of this loss, my lingering feeling was also one of hope. It brought to mind a passage in one of my favourite books, Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie:
‘John Stuart Mill used to rise at dawn to learn Greek at the age of five, and what John Stuart Mill could do as an infant at dawn, I too can do on a Saturday afternoon in my prime.’
‘I could do that’ is usually a derogatory remark thrown at art where there is no obvious display of proficiency, mastery, training in and knowledge of the canon. To look at the canon of civilisation itself and think ‘I could do that’ is ironic and audacious, I know.
While the vast majority still do not have access to all the privilege which facilitated the great achievements of ‘civilisation’, we have, through the internet and social media, access to reading, learning and sharing our ideas with the world in a way that was inconceivable 20 or even 10 years ago. We should all allow ourselves, like Miss Jean Brodie, to have the audacity to look at the achievements of the great minds of civilisation and think ‘I could do that.’