Johann Hari's Week: Who's the daddy of daytime TV?

Click to follow
The Independent Online

In The Independent's media section, we have a slot called Guilty Pleasures where - in theory - Fleet Street figures confess to some shameful indulgence that keeps them going through the Long March of hackwork.

But in practice, they always admit to watching a brilliant TV show like Desperate Housewives, as though that was something to hide in their highbrow existence - "Whenever I take a break from reading Tolstoy, I must confess I allow myself an hour of the Sopranos ..."

Well, I have a real guilty pleasure, one more shameful than a combo of cocaine, child porn and crack pipes. Reader, I am addicted to The Jeremy Kyle Show. Yes, I know only those of you who are pensioners, students or fond of sickies will recognise this beacon in the ITV 1 schedules. Forget Kilroy, Vanessa, Trisha and the other British imitators of the Springer-style American talk-show (or should that be shout-show?). Among Brits, only Jeremy Kyle has managed to mix the unique cocktail of exploitation, evil and moral self-righteousness in just the right measures.

Every day, Jeremy wheels on vulnerable, semi-crazed people in desperate situations, and rips open their wounds on national television. Even when he unveils the results of paternity tests ("Who's the Daddy? Not you!"), something extraordinary happens: the quiet dignity of the guests trumps the tackiness of the show. When a smart 17-year-old single mother called Sally is wheeled out for him to jeer at - "Ever heardof contraception?" - she reacts with appalled decency, before leaving on the grounds that "it's better to sort your problems out at home."

And the audience - made up of ordinary working-class people - is a daily demonstration that, contrary to the howling of the right-wing press, Britain has a silent liberal majority. They are unfailingly sympathetic to gay and transsexual people - "He's a human being!" - and unstintingly feminist - "He cheat, he beat, he hit the street."

Admittedly, Kyle never ascends to the heights of theAmerican greats. He has never matched the Oprah show entitled "I'm 14 and a member of the Ku Klux Klan", where the guest explained she was a member of the KKK because "we go camping and we sing songs", only for a huge black woman in the audience to demand, "Why don'tyou join the Brownies, girl?"

Nor has Kyle reached the fatuous lyricism of Montel Williams, who once summarised an episode by saying, "I hope you've all learned that gang rape is a terrible thing." But give him time. I have faith in your glorious foulness, Jeremy.

Exit stage left, pursued by lobster

Although it has been barely noticed in Britain, 2005 marked the centenary of one of the greatest riddles of the 20th century: Jean-Paul Sartre. All the most interesting thinkers are at war with themselves, their minds a battlefield where wildly different ideas clash - and the French philosopher-superstar was morecontradictory than most.

Sartre gave us the first full-frontal attempt to develop a systematic philosophy for a world withoutGod, without metaphysics, without meaning. Sartre saw that human beings are nothing more than the arbitrary products of evolution living on a warm rock in a void- that we are, in Emily Dickinson's phrase, "zero to the bone".

At times, this realisation struck him as a bleak nausea, but he also saw its liberating implications: it means we are "condemned to be totally free". We have no choice but to create a morality for ourselves, through our actions. If we try to opt out of this - if we try to delude ourselves that there is a source of meaning to be found in Holy Books or nature - we are simply guilty of "bad faith".

But there is a hideous irony in Sartre's career. The great philosopher of freedom dedicated his middle age to lauding the most unfree and murderous philosophies of the 20th century: Stalinism (death toll: 30million) and Maoism (death toll: 70 million). He mocked Alexander Solzhenitsyn as a "harmful element", fetishised "revolutionary violence", and derided the notion of human rights as a "bourgeois fiction".

And yet, even as I recoil from Sartre's political sadism, I have a sneaking sympathy for the French philosopher Bernard Henri-Levy when he says, "I would rather be terribly wrong with Sartre than right with [a middling thinker like Raymond] Aron."

Even when he is a monster, Sartre is a shimmering, captivating monster. Besides, I could never truly hate a philosopher who - after an experiment with mescaline in his twenties - was haunted all his life by the idea that he was being stalked by a lobster.

* If you want to understand the destruction of New Orleans - still the most startling event of 2005 - you have to look to a sullen alcoholic who has been dead for nearly 50 years. I spent days watching the shaming of the South on CNN, but it was only when I read William Faulkner that I began to trace the psychodynamics of a society that left its poorest, blackest residents to drown.

Faulkner lived in and loved New Orleans in the 1920s, when he would take long walks along the levees and write eulogies to a town he said was like "a courtesan, not old and no longer young, who shuns the sunlight so that the illusion of her former glory be preserved. The mirrors in her house are dim, and the frames are tarnished ... And all who leave her return when she smiles across her languid fan." It is a cruel coincidence that - thanks to Oprah's book club - millions of Americans were reading him as Katrina struck.

There is a long, pointless history of critics trying to impose a political vision on Faulkner - was he on the side of the rural blacks? The Old South aristos? - when in fact he has a dissonant identification with all the inhabitants of his world. Read him and you understand how the rich whites clung to their idea of a noble, defeated South; and the price African-Americans paid in flesh for this romance. Read how mixed-race people were considered impossible aberrations to be shunned and denied, and you begin to glimpse the South's inability to accept the common humanity between white and black - an inability illustrated this year with Faulknerian melodrama as toxic water crashed along Canal Street.

Comments