Just back from a visit to
the inspiring Caravaggio exhibition at the National Gallery.
This comes to mind because one of the paintings on display there is a self-portrait of an unappealing Caravaggio as the Philistine giant Goliath in “David holding the head of Goliath." I am unusually sensitive, accordingly, to the powers of Philistines, a word not much used in contemporary Canadian political discourse.
David holding the head of Goliath
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (Rome: Galleria Borghese)
Perhaps it should be.
Like many of you, I first came upon the word in the work of Matthew Arnold, who
in an essay published in his Essays in
Criticism (1865), suggested that "Philistine' must have originally
meant "a strong, dogged,
unenlightened opponent of children of the light."
I can think of a few of our
politicians who qualify under that heading, but let’s not give undue
credence to Arnold. Here is what the Oxford English Dictionary has to say:
Ancient Hist. A member of a non-Semitic people
occupying the southern coast of Palestine in biblical times, who came into
conflict with the Israelites during the 12th and 11th centuries b.c. The
Philistines were a people (suggested to have been of western Anatolian origin)
who came into the Levant in the period c1370–1200 b.c. as one of the ‘Peoples
of the Sea’ mentioned in Egyptian texts of c1180 b.c. They settled in
south-western Canaan in the 12th cent. b.c. and from there expanded inland,
establishing control over their neighbours (this is reflected in the biblical
saga of the Israelite leader Samson, who was betrayed to the Philistines by
Delilah). The Old Testament describes the defeat of the Philistines by David,
who slew the Philistine giant Goliath (1 Sam. 17) and records intermittent
conflict between the Philistines and their neighbours until the period of
In extended use, the OED
goes on, a philistine is “An uneducated or unenlightened person; one perceived
to be indifferent or hostile to art or culture, or whose interests and tastes
are commonplace or material; a person who is not a connoisseur.”
in case it seems too elitist to quote from the OED, let us hear from
Merriam-Webster, which defines a philistine as In “a person who is guided by materialism and is usually
disdainful of intellectual or artistic values.”
And here is what from the populist google.com has to say:
member of a non-Semitic (perhaps originally Anatolian) people of southern
Palestine in ancient times, who came into conflict with the Israelites during
the 12th and 11th centuries bc
person who is hostile or indifferent to culture and the arts, or who has no
understanding of them.
So, yes, I’d say we need the
word in our political discourse – and the current battle to save the Toronto
libraries is a good case in point.
A photo of Margaret Atwood, for the benefit of those who might not recognize her
This battle came to
national attention last week when Margaret Atwood posted a few nicely-worded Tweets urging Torontonians to sign a petition to prevent
closings. The CBC programme The
Current devoted time to the topic yesterday.
The debate over public libraries
is not just a Toronto issue, however. The issue of public funding for libraries has
galvanized the UK, and it prompted a Philadelphia man to burst into tears at
the closing of his local library. This is a battle we will all be fighting,
even if we have not yet begun to do so.
Public libraries are
vulnerable because they don’t make money (unless of course you count collecting
library fines as making money), because the services they provide are deemed
“non-essential,” and because they are dependent on public funding at a time
when government is looking to cut spending on non-essential services. They are,
in short, an easy target.
And why do public libraries
Let me count the ways,
based some of the above, not to mention my own experience as a lifelong member
of public libraries in numerous cities:
- Public libraries
help level the playing field for those who are less able to pay for the services
- They provide a
safe, comfortable space for any member of the public who needs the services
that libraries provide, including access to computers, the Internet, books,
audio, video, group meetings, reference materials, information on job and educational
- They are vital
for children, especially for children who don’t have books at home;
- They are vital
for immigrants, especially for those trying to improve their language skills
and integrate into their new society;
- They are local,
ideally within walking distance;
- They are a
community centre; and,
- If closed, it
is almost impossible to imagine them reopening.
The Toronto battle has not
yet made its mark nationally, but it should. If Toronto library users and
supporters lose this fight, you can depend on it that other municipalities will
be encouraged to follow suit.
I am a Montrealer, not a Torontonian, but I know this is my battle, too.
And yours. It’s a battle we should all be fighting. When it comes to the
future of public libraries, we are all Torontonians.