Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
Till its gone?
Joni Mitchell’s ironically chirpy chorus seems to gain traction with the passing years. Big Yellow Taxi links her feelings of personal loss to the destruction of our common environment and thereby suggests a deep connection between private and public worlds. No man is an island, of course, and if you try to live in a bubble it will sooner or later go … er … pop!
That last sentence also summarises the story of The Omega Man, a 1971 movie which conjures up dystopian visions of a future where disease has triumphed over human ingenuity. We follow one survivor patrolling shockingly empty city streets, stealing into a movie house to watch a 1969 documentary which followed almost half a million people at the festival cheerfully billed as “An Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace & Music”.
He appears to know only too well what he has lost. The significance of things, it turns out, only becomes clear when what they are not throws them into sharp relief. Value is comparative.
Sometimes the comparison can be painful. Often laughter acts as an analgesic. I laughed the other day when I heard a newspaper cartoon described on the radio: a mushroom cloud rises in the distance and one diner says to another, ‘Ah, to hell with it, pass the egg salad!’
Gallows humour, perhaps, but with it comes perspective. This isn’t that. Science in a nutshell. We might not know what this is but we know what it isn’t. A theory can only be proved false, not true. It might fit the observable facts but another theory yet to be invented might fit them better. And what if more facts come to light?
The same applies to beliefs. I might believe in fairies – might even tell you I’ve seen them – but I won’t be able to persuade you until you’ve witnessed them with your own eyes. Not unless you’re peculiarly pliable. Which you aren’t, of course. You need first-hand evidence.
Your silence speaks volumes. Permit me to put words in your disenfranchised lips. You would rather be hung, drawn and quartered than give any credence to this ludicrous Edwardian fraud involving painted paper cut-outs.
In fact, you would go further and reject all photography as an unreal fabrication which reduces our beauteous, infinitely varied world to a grubby hall of distorting mirrors or a grotesque chamber of lifeless waxworks. A photograph, you maintain, is the lie at the heart of advertising and the fake news that blinds us to what is real. You warn that its glossy surface of just two dimensions can turn us from active participants into passive spectators, obsessed with appearances and hooked on visual cues to the detriment of deeper understandings. Those ignorant primitives who reacted to photographs of themselves with terror that their souls had been stolen were, you cry, not so ignorant or primitive after all!
Wild though your demeanour seems, you have a point. There are now so many photographs in the world that their value has hit rock-bottom. The problem is that they lack any kind of context and have become drained of meaning – much as all those washed-out photos of us with our long hair, wide flares and tank tops have leached colour. Interesting that the black-and-white pictures taken by earlier, less snap-happy generations seem to have retained their power.
My mind is like a crazed Beagle, following threads of criss-crossing scent.