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”