Never mind the meaning, feel the words

'His make-up for "Braveheart", in which he plays the Scottish hero, makes him look more like an Everton supporter on the warpath than an emblem of Caledonian pride'

Mel Gibson, it was reported this week, was slightly miffed to find that his woad-daubed features had been appropriated for a Scottish National Party leaflet. To my mind, the make-up for his performance in Braveheart, in which he plays the Scottish hero William Wallace, makes him look more like an Everton supporter on the warpath than an emblem of Caledonian pride. But someone in the SNP obviously believed that the image of an Australian in slap might stir the dormant beast of insurrection in their torpid countrymen.

What was most interesting, though, was Mel's explanation of why he felt indignant. His film is about the violent defence of national liberty, a film in which the English are depicted as double-dealing exploiters and in which Mad Mac himself delivers several blood-stirring speeches about throwing off the Sassenach yoke. How on earth could the SNP have confused such a storyline with their own political aims? The film, he explained, was intended to be "purely cinematic".

In other words, it wasn't intended to mean anything - the history, such as it is, is merely an excuse for some swashing and buckling by men with coconut-matting beards. Where other directors argue ponderously for the "relevance" of their work to contemporary issues, Mel seemed to urge the contrary on us - that the film was irrelevant to the present day. This chimed rather oddly with another of the week's miniature scandals - the denunciation of "All Things Bright and Beautiful" by the Roman Catholic Bishop of Leeds. Here the case was almost the reverse - the Bishop got into trouble because he insisted on the literal meaning of a hymn which, for most of us, has long been sung into insensibility. The Bishop used the word "wicked" about the hymn - principally, one assumes, because of the lines that run "The rich man in his castle/ The poor man at his gate/ God made them, high or lowly,/ And ordered their estate". A touch too much passivity there for modern tastes, you'd have to agree - particularly if you happen to be one of those at the gate and have been fantasising about storming it. But the hymn could only be sensibly described as "wicked" if it was actually persuading those who sing it that the poor should be content with their lot or that social inequality is God-given. Who, though, actually thinks about the words they sing in church?

Both cases brought home the extent to which our cultural life is conducted at the level of effects rather than meanings. What matters is not the ideas or arguments communicated but the generalised emotions we are made to feel - whether it's the excitement of a really good clashing ruck or the nostalgic surge of a childhood harmony. It is almost bad taste to insist on the fact that words or images have specific meanings, because those meanings can so easily prove embarrassing.

This is hardly a disabling fact. Indeed, it's surprising how much ignorance is perfectly compatible with a notionally literate life. The exposure of this is a common enough experience, particularly when it comes to cliches, in which effect has frequently expanded at the expense of meaning. A colleague, for instance, recently asked me what "serried" actually meant in the phrase "serried ranks". I hadn't the faintest idea, or rather I did have a faint idea but it turned out to be completely wrong. Not one of a random sampling of professional writers could supply a confident answer either, so we eventually turned to the dictionary. My mental image of a disorderly line has now been replaced by the correct meaning - "in close or compact formation" - but I can't imagine that I'm alone in having allowed the word past so many times without asking to see its papers. And don't ask me what all this means because I'm not entirely sure.

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