Saturday, July 1, 2017

On Dignity and Greatness: Reading Kazuo Ishiguro's "The Remains of the Day" in Undignified Times

As I read Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day, a Booker Prize winner, this past week, a passage early in the novel struck me as relevant in ways I'd not heretofore noticed. 

Set in post-World War II England (1956), Ishiguro's protagonist James Stevens has worked as a butler for thirty years. Readers meet Stevens as he embarks on a road trip, during which he reminisces about his past years of service, and in doing so we glimpse his significant relationships and the stasis that governs his life and leaves him with little remaining at the of his metaphorical and literal journey. 

In the context of explaining the characteristics of a "great" butler, Stevens concludes that such a butler possesses "dignity." This begs the question: What is dignity? Through exemplification Stevens defines dignity, relating two stories about his father, also a butler, that illustrate both "dignity" and "greatness." 

One story recounts the father chauffeuring two drunk men, a "Mr. Jones and Mr. Smith," on an afternoon tour of local villages. Their "remarks -grew ever more debased and treacherous" to the point that the elder butler, without speaking, opens the car door, signaling to the men that they need to get out. Only after the men acknowledged the untoward nature of their conversation does the journey continue.

The other incident recalls James Stevens's brother's death at the hands of an incompetent general. "Leonard was killed during the Southern African war." We learn that Leonard "had died quite needlessly" when the general abuses his position. A decade later the general visits Darlington Hall, and the elder butler volunteers to service the general responsible for his son Leonard's death. He provides this service as a professional courtesy in order to protect his employer's business interests. 

At the conclusion of these anecdotes, James Stevens surmises: 

"I hope you will agree that in these two instances...my father not only manifests, but comes close to being the personification itself, of what the Hayes society terms 'dignity in keeping with his position.'"

We can debate the merits of the butlers' silence, and, indeed, Ishiguro takes readers on a journey that offers a way to think about both the merits and problems resulting from such failures to speak; we're expected to critique this self-imposed silence; however, it's Stevens's remarks about professionalism that resonate with me in the cacophony of tweets and apologists echoing from the White House. The downward spiral of discourse from online "haters" of various political stripes also inform my thoughts as I think about dignity and greatness.

Consider the following passage as it speaks to professional decorum regardless of one's profession:  

[D]ignity has to do crucially with a butler's ability not to abandon the professional being he inhabits. Lesser butlers will abandon their professional being for the private one at the least provocation. For such persons, being a butler is like playing some pantomime role; a small push, a slight stumble, and the facade will drop off to reveal the actor underneath. 

Who hasn't ranted about one issue or another in private conversation, either with friends or family? Our professional and private selves often overlap, but the intersection should not be a constant. 

Teachers understand the role decorum plays in our ability to teach and earn our students' respect. I once supervised a student teacher who lost control almost every day with one class. Simply, the students pushed his buttons, and in his reactions, they lost respect for him. I called the student intern's loss of temper "Dancing on the Desk" and suggested numerous ways for the trainee to keep his cool and earn respect. 

Similarly, the responsibility of elected officials necessitates they don a calm and composed demeanor, that they stand steadfast against petty criticism and not tweet as a reactionary response to external stimuli. Within any profession, dignity demands decency.

The great butlers are great by virtue of their ability to inhabit their professional role and inhabit it to the utmost; they will not be shaken out by external events, however surprising and alarming or vexing. They wear their professionalism as a decent gentleman will wear his suit: he will not let ruffians or circumstance tear it off him in the public gaze... It is, as I say, a matter of 'dignity'."

Politicians lack dignity when they 

are as a rule unable to control themselves in moments of strong emotion, and are thus unable to maintain a professional demeanour other than in the least challenging of situations...they are like a man who will, at the slightest provocation, tear off his suit and his shirt and run about screaming. 

Long before he entered the presidential race, the current POTUS demonstrated his lack of dignity. There is no need for me to recount the numerous examples of this man's undignified behavior. Our Twitter streams and Facebook pages overflow with examples and deja vu moments that make many feel trapped in Groundhog Day.

This past Thursday, however, sent many over the metaphorical edge. As a woman, I am increasingly distraught with the POTUS's obsession with female blood and concur with Ishiguro's protagonist that 

In a word, 'dignity' is beyond such persons. 

That is, so unimaginable is it that the president of the United States would stoop to such undignified behavior that only White House apologists attempted to rationalize the deplorable tweets we awoke to Thursday.

Each professional, whether a politician, plumber, or teacher recognizes professional greatness based on the way one comports oneself on the job, and for the POTUS, the job never ends. Even after leaving office, we expect dignity and refinement from our former presidents.

[O]ne could recognize a great butler as such only after one had seen him perform under some severe test. [A]fter one has been in the profession as long as one has, one is able to judge intuitively the depth of a man's professionalism without having to see it under pressure...Indeed, on the occasion one is fortunate enough to meet a great butler, far from experiencing any sceptical urge to demand a 'test', one is at a loss to imagine any situation which could ever dislodge a professionalism borne with such authority. 

After eight years of dignity exemplified in President Obama's executive branch, I am at a loss; that is, I was at a loss to imagine any situation which could ever dislodge a president from dignity's moorings. These days I expect to read daily about undignified behavior from the POTUS.

There will always be, I realize, those who would claim that any attempt to analyse greatness...is quite futile. 'You know when somebody's got it and you know when somebody hasn't...Beyond that there's nothing much you can say.' But I believe we have a duty not to be so defeatist in this matter. It is surely a professional responsibility for all of us to think deeply about these things that each of us may better strive towards attaining 'dignity' for ourselves. 

We have heard much pontificating about American greatness this past year, but greatness absent dignity doesn't exist. The real test for me these days is to better strive toward attaining dignity in myself and to protect what little dignity remains at the end of each day.

*Follow-up: After tweeting this post, Professor Robin Bates, who writes the "Better Living Through Beowulf" blog, tweeted the following response: "The butler is like a certain kind of Republican, loyal to an insane degree cuz easier that way, closes eyes to incipient fascism." Follow Professor Bates on Twitter at @RobinRBates

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