Dated? Dan? Don't be so desperately dim

Thomas Sutcliffe on the virtues of irrelevance
Click to follow
I was dismayed to read the other day that Desperate Dan is to be retired after 60 years of appearances in The Dandy. It seems that this might be a tactical affair by the publisher, merely a calculated prelude to one of those "back by popular demand" resurrections once sufficient publicity has been whipped up. But even if it's too early to mourn the porcupine-jawed toughie, there was still something depressing about the reason given. Desperate Dan was declared not to be "relevant" to today's young readers. This rather startlingly implied that there was a time at which he had been "relevant", in the specialised use of that term which might be roughly paraphrased as "responsive to our contemporary needs".

But were the children of 1957 really more likely to recognise elements of their own life in Cactusville than the children of 1997? It's possible that they would have been less disturbed by the notion of cow-pie - both because the fear that eating beef might turn you into a vegetable was still a long way in the future, and because they may have been more familiar with the fact that meat comes from animals (my wife recently heard a child of our acquaintance asking her mother what "chicken" was. "It's what you get when you peel a nugget, darling" was the answer). Perhaps today's children are unnerved by the horns that protrude from Aunt Aggie's Jacuzzi-sized pie dishes. But that doesn't seem enough on its own to account for Dan's slide into "irrelevance" - that gravest of contemporary crimes.

Of course, it would be relatively easy to put a case for Dan's continuing "relevance" to the childish imagination. You could talk about the way in which he represents the child's unappeasable appetites or the childish dilemma of having more strength than control, which results in a trail of blameless destruction. But it feels a little dreary and priggish to advance such an argument. Quite apart from the fact that irrelevance should play a part in every child's life, to engage with the argument is to capitulate to the prejudice against the archaic which the whole notion of "relevance" enshrines. Because what is really meant when it is said that Dan is "no longer relevant" is that he wasn't born recently enough. He shares with other historic figures the almost insurmountable affliction of antiquity, a disability which can only grow worse as time passes. He may not be buried yet (can a cartoon figure actually die?) but in a way you could say that Desperate Dan has been admitted to the unenviable society of Dead White European Males.

Writing about this epithet the critic Christopher Ricks pointed out the curiosity of despising a state which we will all, one day or other, come to share. "For some of us", he wrote, "the most brutal hatred within the acronym DWEM is not the racism of `white' or the sexism of `male' but the embittered provincialism which makes Dead a term of abuse." Homer? You pathetic stiff. Shakespeare? You're worm-food, mate.

Ricks is talking about temporal provincialism, of course - a form of yokelism that easily passes us by. Lounging in the undistinguished hamlet of Now (which we are convinced is the centre of the universe), we stare suspiciously down the rutted road that leads to Then, pitching stones at any unfamiliar face. Occasional travellers are allowed across the village boundaries but their papers will be scrutinised first. Only if their passports carry that all important stamp - STILL RELEVANT - will they be permitted to go on their way without molestation.

Curiously the visual arts don't seem to suffer from quite the same cultural bigotry as more discursive art-forms. It would sound distinctly odd, for example, to hear someone arguing that Giotto or Raphael were "still relevant" to a modern gallery goer, or that the Venus de Milo had "relevance" to modern anxieties. This may be because we have found a way to incorporate antiquity into paintings as a value rather than a disability - because they are individual, irreplaceable objects, their age only enhances their preciousness. We treasure their dogged persistence in their funny old ways rather than resenting it. And this fondness is further assisted by the fact that their communications do not require speech; they provoke interrogation but will not answer it. They keep themselves to themselves. Works which exist in print (and in language), on the other hand, have no such sentimental protection - they are treated almost as unpredictable relatives who have long outlived their welcome. They talk in funny ways that aren't always immediately understandable (don't they care anything about our rights as consumers?) Most scandalous of all - they don't always seem to want to talk about us.

Because what goes unspoken when the term "relevant" is used as an approbation are the words "me, me, me". Demanding that a classic work, or even a collection of historical facts, should demonstrate its "relevance" to our current lives before we will have anything to do with it is like agreeing to talk to someone only after you have made them promise that you will be the only subject of conversation. Not only is it stupendously narcissistic but it effectively guarantees that your provincial certainties will remain undisturbed.

Why not, for a change, celebrate the virtues of "irrelevance" - in particular the bracing effect of discovering that there are ways of living which bear no relation whatsoever to our own contemporary pieties or needs. The faintly hysterical search for "relevance" in the works of the past (and the present too) is more than the understandable desire to seek out continuities of human feeling: it is a scramble for another shard of mirror in which we can gaze, adoring and fascinated, at our own delightful features.