Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Clean Hands (Civilization, Part Three)

Do you mean to say that I am just as bad as you are?

(Trench to Sartorius, Widowers’ Houses by George Bernard Shaw)

At the end of Moliere’s The Misanthrope the title character, Alceste, storms off the stage proclaiming his intention to leave society behind and dwell by himself in some place uninfected by other people. One dramatic character who has no desire to abandon society is Harry Trench, one half of the love interest in George Bernard Shaw’s first play, Widowers’ Houses. Like Alceste, Trench appears to be an upright person and, furthermore, as a newly-graduated doctor, he is intent upon doing good for society. Unlike Alceste, he is not a social misfit; he observes the social conventions, among other things, keeping an unpleasant truth from being revealed (to save a daughter’s image of her father), even when doing so, works against his interests.

The unpleasant truth that Trench keeps secret from his fiancĂ©e, Blanche Sartorius, is that her father is not a respectable businessman, but a slumlord. Honorable Harry Trench refuses to accept any money from his would-be father-in-law—it is tainted money, screwed out of the poorest citizens of London, who live in ramshackle hovels.

When Trench is challenged by Sartorius about the source of Trench’s own income, the latter claims, “M y* hands are clean as far as that goes,” for the money derives from “Interest on a mortgage.”

“Yes,” responds Sartorius, “a mortgage on my property.”

When I, to use your own words, screw, and bully, and
drive these people to pay what they have freely
undertaken to pay me, I cannot touch one penny of
the money they give me until I have first paid you
your £700 out of it.

And, so, shockingly, Trench learns that his hands aren’t clean.

Likewise, Vivie Warren, in Mrs. Warren’s Profession, another of Shaw’s early “Plays Unpleasant,” owes her comfortable upbringing (financed by profits from brothels) and quality education (her university scholarship was established by the owner of sweatshops) to “tainted” money. Even people of good will and highmindedness cannot escape being tarred by the corruption of their society.

There are no innocents in an imperfect society. And unless society is made perfect, the only way to free oneself from its taint is to flee to a desert island—but, then, what happens if a serpent bites you?


*For emphasis Shaw doesn’t italicize or underline; he
s p a c e s the letters (Well, of course, he has to italicize
I, though, doesn’t he?).

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

To Tell the Truth (Civilization, Part Two)

In polite society, custom decrees
That we show certain outward courtesies . . . .
Wouldn’t the social fabric come undone
If we were wholly frank with everyone?

(Philinte to Alceste. The Misanthrope, by Moliere)
Philoctetes—marooned on a desert island for almost a decade. One person who would gladly change places with him is Alceste, the title character of Moliere’s The Misanthrope. In Act I he proclaims:
Sometimes, I swear, I’m moved to flee and find
Some desert land unfouled by humankind.
And at the very end of the play (in the last lines but two) as he stomps off to leave French society he reiterates his desire for isolation:
I’ll flee this bitter world where vice is king,
And seek some spot unpeopled and apart
Where I’ll be free to have an honest heart.
Strangely, what leads Alceste to his misanthropy is his idealism. He demands that mankind should never dissemble, that men
be sincere, and never part
With any word that isn’t from the heart.
When challenged by Philinte:
Then you’d tell old Emilie it’s pathetic
The way she daubs her features with cosmetic
And plays the gay coquette at sixty-four? . . .
And you’d call Dorilas a bore,
And tell him every ear at court is lame
From hearing him brag about his noble name?
Alceste stands his ground, replying, “I would.” He would spare no one: “All are corrupt.” And because “mankind has grown so base,” Alceste claims he is determined “to break with the whole human race.”

Philinte understands that mankind is (and always will be) imperfect; he points out that just as
the vulture dines upon the dead.
And wolves are furious, and apes ill-bred
it is natural for humans to be “knavish, selfish and unjust."

But he takes “men as they are,” recognizing their faults but refusing to “storm and rave” about them like Alceste. Your “philosophic rage,” Philinte tells him, “is a bit extreme/You’ve no idea how comical you seem.”

The “manners of our days” are most typified, according to Philinte, by the “flighty” Celimene, a young widow of “brittle malice and coquettish ways.” Yet she is the one whom Alceste favors. “How is it,” Philinte asks him,
that the traits you most abhor
Are bearable in this lady you adore?
Alceste admits that he sees Celimene’s faults, but he’s helpless to resist her, for “reason doesn’t rule in love, you know.”

Celimene, for her part, is surrounded by beaux, whom she quite blithely mocks in her letters. One letter that is passed on to Alceste gets him into a rage, because it seems to profess affection for a rival. But in the irrational weakness of his love for her, he asks her to
Take back that mocking and perverse confession;
Defend this letter and your innocence,
And I, poor fool, will aid in your defense.
Pretend, pretend, that you are just and true,
And I shall make myself believe in you.
And so it is down to this: the upholder of truthful speaking at all costs is forced by the irrational passion of his love to beg for pretense. Alceste, the idealist, is a misanthrope because he hates mankind’s inability to be perfect. But he has set the bar for mankind’s behavior far above the level that anyone can attain. Not even he can live by his principles. And any principles that cannot be lived by are as worthless as ships that can’t float or airplanes that can’t fly.

A recent fortune cookie told me that “Compromise is always wrong if it means sacrificing a principle.” Unfortunately, that cookie didn’t crumble correctly; a principle must be sacrificed when it is incompatible with reality And the test is: can it be lived by?

But, perhaps, there is a way to make sure that one needn’t sacrifice one’s principles: as noted at the beginning of this essay, Alceste is determined at the end of the play, to make good on his vow to separate himself from the rest of civilization. If he follows through, then he will be “free to have an honest heart,” for there will be nothing to confound him.


Note 1: Translations from the French by Richard Wilbur.
Note 2: We will re-visit Alceste in a later posting.