There are a number of rebukes that are often thrown at you these days, and I find many of them completely incomprehensible. Among these are the accusations of being "eurocentric," and of always assuming a male viewpoint, in particular when using the male pronoun to refer to both sexes. Years ago in Munich, I quoted a passage from one of my novels, which went more or less like this: "What one often feels, when he lives alone and abroad..." At the talk that followed, a lady objected to my using "he" when I ought to have said "a person." To people who raise objections of this nature, it is useless to point out that the narrator was a masculine person, being a sort of avatar of myself, or to speak of stylistic considerations of brevity and euphony, or the fact that a novel is not the same as a bureaucratic or journalistic text.
In fact, people speak from their subjective viewpoint from necessity. Mine is male, and European. If I were a Chinese woman, I might see things differently.
The narrator is now asked to renounce his viewpoint, or to deform or adapt it. He must never condemn what seems to him barbarous for religious or ethnic reasons; he must never make fun of what to him seems odd, or quaint, or absurd; he must respect whatever comes into his field of vision, however irresistibly comic or even atrocious it may seem to him. So unrelentingly are we obliged to present a poker face to spectacles that our subjective self finds ridiculous, that when someone rides over these restrictions, we burst out with the laughter we have been repressing for years.
A man who had lost a leg was advised that he might use his artificial limb for smuggling contraband gin
Dignitaries who travel are particularly affected in this respect, surrounded as they are by ceremonies that invite ridicule but must never be laughed at. On TV I often see popes, kings, politicians and the like, watching some folk dance in antique costume, which is being performed for their benefit, and imagine them thinking: "When is this charade going to end?"
Nor, it seems, can these dignitaries refuse to don the funny hats particular to the host's region. I remember Felipe González wonderfully adorned with a Peruvian cap, one of those with flaps that cover your ears. There is also a story about Prince Charles, who, having been presented with a white cowboy hat in Canada, put it on for only the briefest of moments, before passing it on to an aide. In Spain, when you are given an honorary doctorate, they make a vaudeville show of it by crowning you with an item of medieval academic headgear, a sort of brimless top hat with a hanging frill, reminiscent of the courthouse cartoons of Daumier. With one of these on his head, even Brad Pitt would hide from the camera.
This is why my idol is the Duke of Edinburgh, who, at 91, has been giving his own subjective view of things for over 60 years. I have just been reading a collection of his bon mots. On telling him that she worked in cinema, the actress Cate Blanchett was asked whether she could fix his DVD player; an Aboriginal chief in Australia, whether he still used bows and arrows. The president of Nigeria, in traditional attire, was complimented on his nightgown. A man who had lost a leg was advised that he might use his artificial, hollow limb for smuggling contraband gin. He told some British students in China that if they stayed in the Far East much longer they might get slitty eyes. Deafened by the volume at a benefit concert, he plugged his ears as Alicia Keys was performing. At a ceremony he was introduced to an ancient lady in a wheelchair, protected against the cold by a shiny space blanket, and asked her if they were about to "pop her in the oven." He observed the tiny interior of the Popemobile, and asked His Holiness, "Can you all fit in here?"
It is time to recover a little subjectivity. As my idol explained in reference to his Nigerian remark: "Well, to me it looked like a nightgown."