January 31, 2011

Philistines and German Students

The Old Testament has Philistines in it: they are the people who in general the Jews don't get on with. Philistine also has another meaning in the modern world: it means the kind of person who can't understand art. But the two meanings of the word don't seem to have much to do with each other: whatever the Philistines quarrelled with the ancient Isrealites about, it wasn't Van Gogh, nor was it the finer points of aesthetics. The reason the two meanings are linked is interesting: and it shows both how scriptural, how unconsciously scriptural our culture is, and also how meanings have shifted down the centuries. The story of the word Philistine begins of course in ancient Isreal: but the story of its second meaning, to refer to an artistic ignoramus, has its origins in the 1668 in Germany. More precisely we can fix an exact place to it, Jena and an exact time, a sermon.

In Jena in 1668, a student was killed by a townsman. I take these details from Tim Blanning's study of Romanticism as a movement in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. What Blanning argues, and I see no reason to doubt him, is that the sermon preached on that occasion was from Judges 16:9: 'The Philistines be upon thee, O Samson'. The students of Jena took those words and fashioned an identity out of them: they were the Isrealites, the townsmen were the Philistines. For some reason, the division between gown and town, intellectual and bourgeois mutated during the course of the 18th century so that the word Philistine now did not distinguish the unintellectual or the boorish townsman, but instead the aesthetically challenged. What we are discussing is the migration of a word across between different forms of social contempt.

So what's interesting here? I think the first thing that this illustrates is how scriptural the pre 18th Century world was. We forget all the time how central religion was to anyone who was alive in this period. Religion was not just something that they believed, it was something that they lived in. Therefore an argument which may have had nothing to do with religion became infused with scriptural energy and citation. Secondly its worth considering how much of a change the creation of the status of artist was: it’s the subject of Blanning’s book but I think its worth drawing out here too. Creating the artist meant that he had to assume, to pinch the clothes and contempt of others: in this case the students. The point is that a new social reality grabbed language and ideas from the rest of the world, it inherited the old cloak of intellectual snobbishness and put it on with ease. I think that's interesting because it reveals how much social change can often be masked with conventional language and in the appearance of other disputes.

2 comments:

goodbanker said...

Interesting. Although there's no scriptural angle to what I'm about to say, your post reminds me of the way that the term/concept baroque has evolved over a similar time period. Originally, describing architecture as "baroque" was an insult (the word itself is etymologically linked to the word "veruca"!). Clearly these days there is no such negative association.

ashok said...

Agreed. It is interesting how a Scriptural term ended up being a marker of sorts for the non-enlightened (thinking of Potts and Pennyfeather from "Decline and Fall").

Your general point stands strong and bears repeating:

"The point is that a new social reality grabbed language and ideas from the rest of the world, it inherited the old cloak of intellectual snobbishness and put it on with ease. I think that's interesting because it reveals how much social change can often be masked with conventional language and in the appearance of other disputes."