Howard Jacobson: We're in search of a new Messiah – whether it's Murray or Jackson

We seem to be in need of big emotion at the moment. Joy or grief, it doesn’t matter
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The Independent Online

Could be the heat. Could be the economic downturn. Could be the dashed expectations of change in Iran. Could simply be too many books about Darwin taking away our sense of mystery at the heart of life. Whatever the reason we seem to be in need of big emotion at the moment. Joy or grief or hate, it doesn't matter. We have to feel something huge.

Sports writers are always the best barometers of national hyperbole. At the quietest of times they employ the accumulator system of writing, piling adjective on adjective ("immense, immaculate, unstoppable," breathed Simon Barnes of Andy Murray after he beat a player ranked 70 in the world); raising sentences like ziggurats ("Something about the man, something about the match, something about the confined space," wrote Martin Samuel, also of Andy Murray); ransacking the vocabulary of epic and catastrophe – "cauldrons", "catharsis", "tidal waves", "wheels of fire". But even they had to dig deep this past week to find a rhetoric to stoke and satisfy the idolatrous hankerings of the British public. If Murray were to win, the nation would be "transfigured". Murray would be as a Messiah. We were not just talking tennis, we were talking "the fire and the passion", we were talking "redemption".

Be assured that if there ever is another Golgotha, television cameras will be there to film it. And be equally assured that celebrities will be sitting where they can be seen. The showing of celebrities at Wimbledon this year has replaced the slow-motion replay. Which is a crying shame. I liked the slow-motion replay. Sometimes it was the only way you ever saw the ball. Now it's taken for granted that you don't want to see how Murray hit the ball, only who was there to see him hit it. Look, there's Kate Winslet. Look, there's Ewan McGregor. And Katharine Brown. You don't know who Katharine Brown is? Miss Scotland, dummy. Don't you know anything about tennis?

Celebrities are not a side issue. Their presence, picked up again and again by cameramen and remarked upon no less frequently by the commentators, many of whom are celebrities themselves, validates the experience of watching. We are among the gods.

If we want a huge emotion, the company of a hugely famous person is indispensable. The death of Michael Jackson meets our requirements perfectly in that we don't only get a famous corpse, we get famous people mourning it. The latest word is that the funeral will be held next Tuesday, and broadcast live on television. This is good planning because we wouldn't have wanted it to clash with Wimbledon. Imagine being Katharine Brown and not knowing whether to be in a floral frock for the final of the men's singles on the Centre Court or veiled in black for Michael Jackson's funeral cortège in Los Angeles. This way there's just time to cheer the one, jump on a plane, and sob your heart out at the other.

It is barely even worth saying that the outpouring of grief for Michael Jackson is disproportionate to his gifts. Stuff the gifts, we want to mourn a god. The King of Pop. Not a great name as names of divinities go. Sounds like an ad for Schweppes. But then he wasn't a great man, in fact scarcely a man at all. That is not meant as a moral judgement. I have nothing to say about Michael Jackson's assaults upon his own body or his reported assaults upon other people's. Other children's, yes I know. We are all scoundrels in our own way. And as has been said until we're sick of hearing it, his was not an upbringing best calculated to yield a happy or a balanced individual. Though what it did yield was precisely what those who loved him wanted – infantilism set to simple tunes.

Some decent, humane sorrowing over that – a life gone nowhere, for all the fame; a life lived in desperate confusion – would not be inappropriate. And a little soul-searching, as well, on the part of those who must idolise before they know they are alive. This, too, has been gone over and over all week – the hellish compact between a star and those who worship him. We destroy those we inordinately admire. That's the cliché. I would put it differently. Those we inordinately admire destroy us.

It has been said that Michael Jackson changed the lives of millions of his fans. But I have yet to read an account of what he changed them to. Yes, he gave them songs to sing. Few of them remarkable. And he gave them a dance to dance. I can see with my own eyes that he moved unusually. So let's say he taught others to move unusually too. Perhaps we can say he liberated them into a bodily vitality they hadn't known before. That's not nothing, if it's true. But if it is true, you wonder where all that bequeathed vitality has gone to. After you've done your moonwalk, then what?

If we're simply talking giving pleasure then why aren't we planning a state funeral for Mollie Sugden who also died the other day? She played Mrs Slocombe in Are You Being Served? and contributed, or at least her pussy did, to the nation's stock of innocent entertainment. What is more, she was capable of irony. But maybe there's your answer. You can't be a god and have a sense of the ridiculous.

The third of our big emotions, rage, acts as a sort of ballast to the others. When we don't treat men as gods, we think of them as vermin. MPs' and broadcasters' expenses have given us the opportunity to indulge this misanthropy at high volume. But our anger is not always well founded or researched. A piece of gossip has it that a television producer claimed for alcohol for his presenter who happened to be Sister Wendy Beckett. So that has to be fraudulent, doesn't it? What would a contemplative nun be doing with alcohol?

To which the answer is, drinking it. The first time I encountered Sister Wendy at a party she whipped my wine glass from my hand. "You can get one of those whenever you want one," she said, "I can't."

It was Australian shiraz. "It's got a kick," I warned her. But by then she was already grabbing someone else's.

The odd tipple made her a better art critic, it seemed to me. And no doubt made her a better nun, too. A little weakness for life's pleasures improves us all.

We should revere less and forgive more. There are no gods among us, and few devils. If we must do huge, let's do benign scepticism, hugely.