Howard Jacobson: It's a strange sensation, but 'Big Brother' contestants bring out my avuncular side

I feel a sympathy for them as victims - as the lost souls of our foolish world and as the dupes of Channel 4
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The Independent Online

Last week the eight remaining inmates of the Big Brother house were asked to rank themselves in order of Machiavellianness. A Machiavellian task in itself since none of them had heard of Machiavelli, knew how to read or pronounce his name (assuming him to be a he) or had an inkling of what vice or virtue he denoted. (Getting on well with other people was the best guess.) Which raises two questions: does it matter, and what was I doing watching.

Let's take the harder of those two questions first. I was watching because I am idle, perverse, and a glutton for punishment. We all resort to tawdry pointlessness now and then. Some people read fantasy novels. Some buy Madonna records. Others join George Galloway's Respect Party. I watch Big Brother.

How I can be interested in people not in themselves interesting puzzles my friends, who charge me, for that reason, with disproportionality. In my defence I argue that my interest is in fact inversely proportionate, that is to say the duller the dramatis personae are, the more engaged I am by their doings. Ants, too, lack charm, do not have much to say for themselves and have never heard of Machiavelli, but are still fascinating and instructive to watch scurrying there and back in pursuance of their inscrutable purpose. A comparison unfair to ants, perhaps, since they do not, as far as we can ascertain, address one another as "Babes", conclude every sentence with "Know what I mean?" or confine their understanding of ant behaviour to whether this or that ant is being himself. But then again, this might only be because ants have so far been subdued by Nature to think of nothing but the smooth functioning of their ant- principality - an example of mindless obedience to authority that would surely please and vindicate Machiavelli - and could yet, over time, evolve into a species as competitive and camera-conscious as ours.

Why it should be the case I do not know, but some of the Big Brother contestants inspire in me a sensation I can only describe as avuncular. On occasions I find myself, despite or maybe because of their universal uneducatedness, oddly fond of them, touched to observe them in their struggle to make sense of their lives without an idea or principle to help them, or to communicate with others without the most rudimentary skills of insight or conversation. Where people such as these originate, how they have got to puberty and beyond with so little knowledge of anything except sport and popular music, where they must have hidden themselves to be so pristine in their ignorance, what eventually will become of them, how they will bring up families of their own, what they will answer when a child of theirs asks "Who's Machiavelli, mummy?" - these are all questions worth pondering when there is nothing else on telly and your eyes are tired from reading philosophy.

It's possible I feel a sympathy for them as victims - the lost souls of our foolish world, and more particularly as the dupes of Channel 4. Because this much must be said: no matter how desolatingly vacuous they show themselves, night after night, to be, they are nothing like as gross, as lewd, as showy, as uncouth, as brutish in their manners or their appetites, as Channel 4 would wish them. They bound into the house barely clothed and promising, as they have been primed to promise, all manner of debauchery, and within days they have turned the place into a nunnery. A profane nunnery, I grant you, but given the temptations and inducements, and by comparison with the bordello facilities Channel 4 in its pimpery provides, a nunnery nonetheless.

I live in Soho and encounter, when I am out and about, much that is insalubrious, sordid and even squalid. But nothing I see matches Channel 4 for lowness. There is humanity in Soho, the dregs of flesh-and-blood desire. Channel 4 on the other hand sucks the soul out of sex, trivialising it, making sots and slobberers of people apparently too greedy for fame to care by what means they come by it. Which would be a criminal offence were it not for the surprising fact that in the main the victims refuse to lie down and play along. Some inwrought sense of decorum - yes, yes, I know, but these things are relative - comes at last to the rescue of their dignity.

And that is why I watch.

In the cheering light of which, how much does it matter that they've never heard of Machiavelli? They could name people familiar to all of them who would be a blank to me. True, none of those would be thinkers, but thinking isn't all life is about. Nor is ignorance of a thinker proof that you cannot think yourself. It is regrettable that they are unaware and ill-informed - that is perhaps the most we can say. If we are that little bit better off intellectually for what we know, they are that little bit poorer for what they don't.

And what about the rest of us and Machiavelli? What does the impish old Florentine mean to you and me? Not enough, I would suggest. Too concerned with the good, with doing what is right, with granting every man more humanity than he possesses, more struck by the pathos of events than their essence, overwhelmed by the cruelty of actuality, we grow less capable by the day of protecting ourselves against evils we cannot even bear to name. Machiavelli teaches us the dangers of such idealism. "How one lives is so far distant from one how one ought to live that he who neglects what is done for what ought to be done, sooner effects his ruin than his preservation."

But shouldn't "how one ought to live" be our guide, especially today, in time of war and fear? Yes, if how one ought to live guided all men equally. But it does not. "The man who wishes to act entirely up to his professions of virtue," Machiavelli warns, "soon meets with what destroys him among so much that is evil."

An unacceptably sardonic message if you are determined to see history as the unfolding of a redemptive tale of good triumphant. But that no longer looks like the end history has in store for us. Wrapped in the regrets and compunctions of a civilisation that no longer trusts itself to behave well, we scour the newspapers for evidence of our wrongdoing, wring our hands and await our ruin. While Machiavelli's harsh wisdom goes begging, either never heard of, or misunderstood.