Quasimodo comes to Woolies

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Johan Huizinga, The Autumn of the Middle AgesHe was standing in front of the milk shelves at the top of aisle five in the supermarket. I looked away politely and hung back even though I needed to scrutinise the milk shelves myself.

It's a tricky business milk — no longer a matter of the familiar, creamy white liquid closely connected to the life cycle of the cow. What I select is low fat, watery, almost bluish in colour and, rather damningly I've always thought, 'not suitable as a complete milk food for children under two years of age'. As there are many varieties of this delicacy, all differently priced, it takes some concentration to make a choice.

The reason I delayed, respectfully deferring to the bloke already at the shelves, was that he was horribly contorted. His head was bent over his right shoulder as if being crushed down by an invisible hand. The angle of the head more or less concealed the right ear and enforced a distortion of his mouth and right eye. Moreover, he was talking to himself.

In his left hand he was carrying a well stocked 'Green Bag', plastic bags having been recently banned in this paradise of dissent. With his right hand he selected and grasped a carton of milk and, thus laden, he began to make his painful way to other aisles of wonder and delight.

Well, you don't stare at such afflicted people and so I gazed elsewhere until he was on the move. But, as he passed by me, he put the milk carton in his bag, straightened up and removed the mobile phone that had been pincered between his right ear and his shoulder and into which he'd been speaking as he made his monstrous, doubled-up progress along the aisles.

In an instant, feeling somehow duped and foolish, I allowed my earlier compassion and sensitivity to be replaced by images of Victor Hugo's Hunchback of Notre Dame. 'That small left eye over-shadowed by a red bushy brow ... the right eye [disappearing] entirely under an enormous wart; those straggling teeth ... that leathery lip, the grotesquely twisted shoulder.' That would be how I'd remember him and how I would describe him to rapt audiences as I embellished my account of this bizarre modern monster. Quasimodo comes to Woolworths.

In Quasimodo's time, as evoked by Johan Huizinga in his stunning work The Autumn of the Middle Ages, the affairs of daily life were confronting and stark. 'When the world was half a thousand years younger all events had much sharper outlines than now ... all things in life had about them something glitteringly and cruelly public.' Processions, executions, public penitence and flagellations, the ubiquitous and ceaseless bells tolling joy, warning or remembrance, the utter darkness of night, the ache of winter — all were part of a pattern visibly endured in their different degrees by rich and poor, saint and sinner.

As the centuries rolled by, the declining unity and influence of the Church, the development of self-consciousness and the idea of personal identity, the growth of individualism, the concept of privacy, and Romanticism's focus on the power of the imagination and the natural world all worked against the blatancy, the sharp either-or contrasts of medieval life to give us our world of complex and guarded personae, introspection, self-esteem and its converse, and privacy of various intensities in thought, word and deed.

When, however, Quasimodo, hunched over his mobile, shuffled around the supermarket, I realised we had arrived at another massive shift in collective consciousness. People conduct their business, loves, sex lives, friendships and enmities at the top of their voices on mobile phones in buses, trains, along the street, and, well, in supermarkets. Between this station and the next, the person in the seat opposite you might drop $20,000 on the stock exchange and everybody knows.

On Facebook and Twitter people lay out the ganglia of their daily lives and the fugitive shapes of their most ephemeral thoughts. People blog — sometimes very attractively, sometimes not — on the now accepted assumption that anything anyone thinks about any event, problem or figure is of equal interest and moment with anything anyone else happens to think.

On talkback radio, people vent their innermost fears, hatreds, prejudices, considered views and personal tragedies and dilemmas for the listeners in the confident expectation that they will find these outbursts interesting and important and in the equally confident belief that those who don't find them interesting and important are misguided and have failed to realise that any opinion is as good as any other opinion and absolutely everybody is entitled to an opinion about anything at all.

In short, the wheel has turned again and, to slightly paraphrase Huizinga, all things in life have about them, once more, something glitteringly, mindlessly and cruelly public.

Brian MatthewsBrian Matthews is the award winning author of A Fine and Private Place and The Temple Down the Road. Last month he was awarded the 2010 National Biography Award for Manning Clark — A Life.

Topic tags: brian matthews, hunchback, quasimodo, victor hugo, woolworths, facebook, twitter, Johan Huizinga



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Existing comments

Fantastic piece Brian, thanks very much! Great fun and a good point made too.
Benedict Coleridge | 16 June 2010


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