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.

Arts and Entertainment

Film Leonardo DiCaprio hunts Tom Hardy

Arts and Entertainment
And now for something completely different: the ‘Sin City’ episode of ‘Casualty’
TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

    US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

    Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

    'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
    The male menopause and intimations of mortality

    Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

    So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
    Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

    'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

    Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
    Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

    Bettany Hughes interview

    The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
    Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

    Art of the state

    Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
    Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

    Vegetarian food gets a makeover

    Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
    The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

    The haunting of Shirley Jackson

    Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
    Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

    Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

    These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
    Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

    Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
    HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
    Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

    'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

    Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
    Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

    The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

    Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen