A Life Unexamined
In his acclaimed novel, The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro immerses us in the first-person narrator’s severely circumscribed life and worldview. His is a life of self-imposed limitations, aided and abetted by a strict adherence to the British class system, indeed his overweening pride in his “Englishness.” You might think he’s a member of the upper-crust. You would be wrong. Mr. Stevens is a butler who has bought into the quasi-heroic and mythical dimensions of his role as a dignified appendage to the high and mighty.
He takes pride in his clockwork management, attaining renown among butlers and employers alike. He spends a good bit of time telling us his definition of dignity and its value. He’s most careful regarding the proprieties of conversation, the attire of distinction, the observance of the caste system, and he unwittingly reveals the fictions necessary to support such a system.
The casual negligence of these mores shocks him. He lives and dies by the clock and the way things are. The future escapes him.
Stevens is also very conscious that his dignity is a borrowed dignity, a dignity conferred by his relationship to a peer of the realm, his employer Lord Darlington.
In this novel of manners, Ishiguro gives us something more than mere voyeurism. His butler, Stevens, is on an unwitting voyage of self-discovery. He’s shocked into it by the revelation that his erstwhile employer, Lord Darlington, like many of the aristocrats of his day, had been a Nazi sympathizer.
Stevens predictably retreats into self-deception; as Salman Rushdie points out in a review:
At least Lord Darlington chose his own path. “I cannot even claim that,” Stevens mourns. “You see, I trusted … I can’t even say I made my own mistakes. Really, one has to ask oneself, what dignity is there in that?” His whole life has been a foolish mistake, and his only defense against the horror of this knowledge is the same capacity for self-deception which proved his undoing. It’s a cruel and beautiful conclusion to a story both beautiful and cruel.— “Salman Rushdie: Rereading The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro,” The Guardian, 2012
Ishiguro’s more recent novel, The Buried Giant (2015) has more of the same pathos, blindness, self-deception, in the face of life’s extremities. If there’s any consolation in life for Ishiguro or Rushdie, it must be that it has its cruelties, but it has beauty as well, inviting a sanguine resignation that is far from satisfying. Beauty. Cruelty. They are more than mere aesthetics. They are a part of life, occupying categorical spaces in our hearts and minds. It’s what one puts into those categories that makes all the difference. Especially with regard to suffering.
Suffering robs us of dignity and its conceits.
wracking pain stings the eyes angry fear, faith-robbed grief sobs escape, sparse relief yet, my God, shall I yet sing?
Where do you place suffering in your story? Is suffering under “beauty” or “cruelty”?
In which category is the cross of Christ?
Beauty to a Christian signifies all that is good, providential, and pure. It comes from the hand of God. Cruelty is all that is evil, demeaning, and impure. Perfect beauty is found in Christ Jesus. All that is cruel is apart from him.
We rejoice in beauty. We recoil at cruelty.
With eyes of faith, we see more than Stevens. Stevens lived by the clock. We live by faith in the light of eternity.
The Big Picture: The Cross
For “Who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.1 Corinthians 2:16 (NIV)
Many look at the cross of Christ and see only the cruelty of men. Others see both the beauty of Christ’s humble self-sacrifice and the cruelty of such a death.
For example, Ishiguro’s Stevens would be appalled by the lack of dignity it involved. Stripped bare and nailed to the cross for all to scorn and mock, he bore the cruelty of their false judgment and the wrath of God’s just judgment against sinners.
Christ Jesus humbled himself to glorify the Father and took on himself the sins of his people, his blood shed in atonement for their sins, their cruelties and deceits and pride. What the world thinks is of little or no concern to him.
And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.Philippians 2:8
That such a humiliation was borne by our Lord comes across clearly in Rembrant’s “Ecce Homo.” In it a bust of Caesar towers over the scantily clad, bleeding and bruised Christ while the richly clothed Pilate and the Jewish high priests judge him who is the Judge of mankind.
Christ’s body will be further mangled and mutilated by the torture of hanging on the cross. The end of Isaiah 52 and Isaiah 53 make clear the horror of his disfigurement. Yet there is nothing that possesses more beauty, that embodies more glory than the cross of Christ Jesus.
Christ Jesus bore the cross in humility out of love for us and in obedience to the Father.
The cross of Christ is where we best see the glory of God, more than in the heavens or the mountains or all the majestic beauty of creation, but in the suffering face of Christ. We, like the apostle Paul, boast only in the cross of Christ, for there we see true beauty and the extent of God’s love for us.
When we are called to suffer trials, especially chronic, debilitating disease and trauma to our bodies, we cringe in alarm as they erode our dignity. We cry out in pain, deprived of relief, our helplessness exposed, our weakness our shame.
What beauty is there in humility under God’s hand for us?
The beauty is in the fruit of the Spirit seen in us. The beauty is not the cruel edge of suffering but that we rejoice it is under the purposeful sovereignty of God whom we trust because He loves us and gave Himself for us.
For us there are no “remains of the day,” bitter leftovers of false pride and empty dignities, but the abundant joy and glory that Christ came to give us through our union with Him, the King of kings and Lord of lords.
So we sing our songs of faith, love, and hope. We sing to the God of our salvation who gives us songs in the night of our affliction.
We sing in humility, despising dignity’s conceits for the glory seen in the cross of Christ. We sing of the beauty of our Lord Jesus who suffered and died and rose from the grave to transfer us from the reign of death and sin to the kingdom of life and light where we are the children of God.
Shall I yet sing? Hallelujah, for all eternity!
Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. … And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen.1 Peter 5: 7-8, 10-11