I am currently reading The Severed Streets, sequel to Paul Cornell’s exemplary supernatural crime novel, London Falling, and the concept of ostentation came up for discussion (with author Neil Gaiman – who is a rather fateful fictional iteration of himself in the book – as the literary provocateur). Not the notion of ostentation as “a pretentious and vulgar display, especially of wealth and luxury, intended to impress or attract notice”, but rather the idea that something may come into being because it has been acknowledged, or may happen more easily if it’s talked about as being possible. This specific take on ostentation is introduced into the story by the passage:
‘It’s a term from folklore, used there in the context of what are called “friend of a friend stories”. You know, “there was this stoned woman who put her baby in the microwave” – urban legends. Well, sometimes, in cities that aren’t Sighted, those stories come true simply because enough people have heard about them, and in a big population there’s always someone mad enough to try it, whatever it is. But in cities of the Sight, I think that can happen a lot more easily. I think in London, to announce something is sometimes to take a further step towards that thing actually happening than would be the case outside…’
Fictional Gaiman gives another example of ostentation by relating the time his wife stood in Berkeley Square repeatedly reciting a poem about nightingales for an entire day, with the result of “… At the end, we were hearing their song, just faintly, but it was there.”
The Severed Streets actively uses this idea of ostentation throughout, with a decidedly nefarious element using the power of the known historical activity of Jack the Ripper and the acknowledgement of an action – in this case, flash mobs protesting political unrest, with the clarion call coming from mysterious and untraceable sources via Twitter – as a camouflage and springboard for its malicious and occult powered villainy. I haven’t finished the book yet, but it is proving to be a very intriguing and multi-layered story.
I found ostentation to be an interesting concept, but didn’t think much of it outside of The Severed Streets until last night. My husband had been watching the news and completely blew up at hearing the words uttered by former Congresswoman Michele Bachmann (an embarrassment to those of us who live in Minnesota and prefer to use our brains before opening our mouths), likening President Obama to the pilot who allegedly downed a Germanwings airliner. He ranted – as he often does – about the sheer stupidity of people nowadays. I responded – as I often do – that there very well may have been just as many stupid people in the past, but in this modern age we simply are more apt to hear them. You know, social media and instant communications and constant bombardment and all that.
Then it occurred to me: this is a kind of ostentation, is it not? Simply spoken, the words would have spun themselves out and disappeared, the ripples of their effect dissipating quickly and quietly. But because the words were acknowledged – repeatedly, voraciously – they became more weighted, more “real”; not correct, not “true”, certainly, but something sanctioned with each repetition, and begging for a response. With each rebroadcast, each acknowledgement, they gained traction reaching more people who just might believe what Bachmann said to be true. That doesn’t legitimize the words, no. But it allows for an environment in which incendiary words such of these, without merit, without value, nevertheless will provoke a reaction, for or against, and therein gain power.
Pretty dangerous stuff, innit? And when viewed through this lens, it makes even more sense for us to learn to “let it go”. While knowledge is, indeed, power, that doesn’t mean that all knowledge needs to be qualified, reacted to, commented on, regurgitated. Acknowledged.
How often now is modern technology – and human vanity – used to forward ostentation in our waking world? Fingers can be pointed at the obvious platform of media striving for rankings, ratings and advertising dollars, sure. But perhaps more inciting are the armchair commentators looking for an audience, for personal validation, to be noticed, to be heard, to be recognized, that pass on such stories for praise or vilification. Click bait, likes and shares, karma, up voting, reputation, followers. The need to be heard sometimes aided and abetted by the more nefarious stimulus of narcissism, of narrow mindedness, of hubris. (Interestingly enough, The Severed Streets also touches on the Jerusalem syndrome, an adjunct condition to ostentation.) Ideas that should have flared and just as quickly died are given new life and vitality through acknowledgement and promotion, regardless of the position of whomever it is keeping it alive.
An interesting idea, and something I plan on keeping my eye on, keeping my ears open for, and to remaining open to catching a whiff of it in other places.
And it becomes yet another example of how fiction, in this case (and many of the cases I encounter) speculative fiction gives me insight not just in how life could be, or how it might have been, or how it might be in different circumstances, but how it really is in the here and now of my waking world. And that, my friends, is one of the most magnificent side effects of reading.
Now, that’s one concept that I wouldn’t mind helping to bring to life by believing that it could happen. Because for me, it’s already quite real.