Humility Makes No Room For Dignity

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.

Continue reading “Humility Makes No Room For Dignity”

Job’s Wife

Inspired by the Georges de La Tour painting below, the following poem attempts to give an added voice to the eloquence of Tour’s work by “unmuting” Job’s wife. As a character in the Book of Job, a Gentile living during the time of the patriarchs, Job’s wife is not prominent. But, perhaps, she delivers the most bitter blow to Job. Through her, we hear the voice of Satan speaking most directly to Job when she asks,  “Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God and die” (Job 2:9). In the midst of his sufferings, I believe Job’s greatest challenge was to withstand this voice and choose to trust God.

Job Mocked by his Wife Georges de La Tour (17th c.)
“Job Mocked by his Wife,” Georges de La Tour (17th c.)

No, Job, I didn’t sign up for this.
The ships lost at sea, drowning spices
Camels marauded, flocks lit into carrion husks
Children buried by an ill-wind where they danced
And my jewels? Bartered for funeral meats

Shall I proclaim it for posterity, inscribe in stone
Your endless complaints, the hollow sounds
Of jagged grief and friends’ scorn?
Look at me! Washing our rags, hiding my shame
From the maids that I once kicked out of doors

Job, I didn’t sign up for this, my darling.
Your boils how they stink where they fester
Open wounds that run dry and break open again
The prayers that you whisper late into the night
While in the city they dance and they dine

Gentiles we are, not of Abraham’s tribe!
The God you both serve has given you hell
So leave it, I tell you; curse Him and die!
Don’t live like a fool trusting Him with your life
When a stillborn child has much better luck

I heard you this morning sing like a lark,
Of your God who will come to intercede and save
Who with your own eyes you will see at last
So you’ll wait, diseased, though you’re slain. You’re mad!

The sacrifices you offered once smoked to the sky
Yet you speak of a Redeemer as if he were a man
But, husband, what broken body, what blood can make clean
Hearts bitter with hate, hands wicked with lust?
This God that you worship is too holy, too proud
Do what I say! Curse Him and die!

I didn’t sign up for this!
Do you hear?
I didn’t sign up for this.


Job 19:19-27
All my intimate friends abhor me,
and those whom I loved have turned against me.
My bones stick to my skin and to my flesh,
and I have escaped by the skin of my teeth.
Have mercy on me, have mercy on me, O you my friends,
for the hand of God has touched me!
Why do you, like God, pursue me?
Why are you not satisfied with my flesh?
Oh that my words were written!
Oh that they were inscribed in a book!
Oh that with an iron pen and lead
they were engraved in the rock forever!
For I know that my Redeemer lives,
and at the last he will stand upon the earth.
And after my skin has been thus destroyed,
yet in my flesh I shall see God,
whom I shall see for myself,
and my eyes shall behold, and not another.
My heart faints within me!

Roughly reworked from an earlier version for dVerse "Poetics: "Exploring the Narrative Voice," guest hosted by Ingrid. Thank you, Ingrid for a superb prompt. More dVerse poems, at Mr. Linky's.