Apr 27 2020

Pity for Poverty

typewriter

[The following was a major cut made to a book review I’ve submitted for publication. But I find the cut interesting enough.]

Even if we approve of a person who, from a sense of duty in charity, is sorry for a wretch, yet he who manifests fraternal compassion would prefer that there be no cause for sorrow. It is only if there could be a malicious good will (which is impossible) that someone who truly and sincerely felt compassion would wish wretches to exist so as to be objects of compassion. Therefore some kind of suffering is commendable, but none is loveable.

––Augustine, Confessions (3.3.3)[i]

BOSWELL. ‘Sir, I have not so much feeling for the distress of others, as some people have, or pretend to have: but I know this, that I would do all in my power to relieve them.’ JOHNSON. ‘Sir, it is affectation to pretend to feel the distress of others, as much as they do themselves. It is equally so, as if one should pretend to feel as much pain while a friend’s leg is cutting off, as he does. No, Sir; you have expressed the rational and just nature of sympathy.’

––Boswell, Life of Johnson, March 25, 1776

After reading, among other things, Chris Arnade’s Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America (2019), I find myself often wavering between the sympathies of Bishop Augustine, Dr. Johnson, and James Boswell above and the considerations below from longshoreman-turned-philosopher Eric Hoffer (1902–1983):

The burning conviction that we have a holy duty toward others is often a way of attaching our drowning selves to a passing raft. What looks like giving a hand is often a holding on for dear life. Take away our holy duties and you leave our lives puny and meaningless. There is no doubt that in exchanging a self-centered for a selfless life we gain enormously in self-esteem. The vanity of the selfless, even those who practice utmost humility, is boundless.

––The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (1951)[ii]

I waver because for the past twenty years I have ridden the city bus to either school or work in Austin, Texas. As a straight white male alumnus of the University of Texas I have had on that bus the privilege to witness and encounter the less-privileged laugh, converse, fight, beg, pontificate, flirt, and sleep on buses and at bus stops. I’ve seen addicts, the unlucky, and the mentally ill ask strangers for directions to navigate the city, money for bus fares, cigarettes and lights, and even request prayer from strangers who—judging by the perplexions on their faces––seemed never to have prayed before. (But pray they all did!)

Yes, within this city I’ve stepped over a live body sprawled on the sidewalk, stiff and oblivious in a trance induced by the synthetic pseudo-cannabis called K2. I’ve handed my doggy bag full of fresh leftovers from lunch to the passerby beggar asking for something to eat. Very rarely (but not quite never) have I given a downtrodden individual a small amount of cash and a strong hug.

Occasionally I’ve traveled abroad and (again) witnessed and encountered les míserables in larger cities such as London, Paris, Dublin, and Berlin as well as smaller ones like Belfast, Oxford, Seville, and Bologna. Though I don’t recall any encounters with homelessness in Stratford, throughout my travels on the local bus and overseas I have, as Jacques says in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, “gained my experience.”[iii] But the price for the “rich eyes” of a traveler means that, also like Jacques, I now possess the “poor hands” and empty pockets that so unimpressed fair Lady Rosalind. Such has been the life of writer Chris Landrum. Thus:

“We may have uneasy sensations from seeing a creature in distress, without pity; for we have not pity unless we wish to relieve them.”

––Samuel Johnson (1709–1784)[iv]

“Pity is one form of being convinced that someone else is in pain.”

––Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951)[v]

“The name of this intense, pure, disinterested, gratuitous, generous attention” is love.”

––Simone Weil (1909–1943)[vi]

NOTES

wood

[i] Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick, (New York: Oxford UP, 1992) (III, iii, 1), p. 37.

[ii] Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (1951), (New York: Harper & Row, 1966) §11, p. 23.

[iii] William Shakespeare, As You Like It IV, i.

[iv] James Boswell, Life of Johnson, 18 July 1763.

[v] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe, P.M.S. Hacker and Joachim Schulte, (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 1953, 1958, 2001; revised Fourth Edition eds. Hacker and Schulte, 2009) I. no. 287.

[vi] Simone Weil, “Human Personality,” (1943), Simone Weil: an Anthology, ed. Siân Miles, (London: Virago Press, 1986) 92.


Apr 28 2017

Touring Ireland in the 1720s and 1860s

Touring Ireland in the 1720s and 1860s

First from Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) writing in the 1720s:

Nothing hath humbled me so much or shown a greater disposition to a contemptuous treatment of Ireland in some Ministers, than that high style of several speeches from the throne, delivered, as usual, after the royal assent, in some periods of the two last reigns. Such high exaggerations of the prodigious condescensions in the prince, to pass those good laws, would have but an odd sound at Westminster….

From whence it is clear, that some ministries in those times were apt, from their high elevation, to look down upon this kingdom as if it had been one of their colonies of outcasts in America….

Whoever travels in this country, and observes the face of nature or the faces, and habits, and dwellings of the natives, will  hardly think himself in a land where either law, religion, or common humanity is professed….[1]

For suppose you go to an ALEHOUSE with that base money, and the landlord gives you a quart for four of these HALFPENCE, what must the victualler do? His BREWER will not be paid in that coin, or if the BREWER should be such a fool, the farmers will not take it from them for their bere, because they are bound by their leases to pay their rents in good and lawful money of England, which this is not, nor of Ireland neither, and the ’squire their landlord will never be so bewitched to take such trash for his land; so that it must certainly stop somewhere or other, and wherever it stops it is the same thing, and we are all undone.[2]

To me, the Esau reference below makes no sense unless Swift is being hyper-ironic:

A people long used to hardships lose by degrees the very notions of liberty; they look upon themselves as creatures at mercy, and that all impositions laid on them by a stronger hand, are, in the phrase of the Report, legal and obligatory. Hence proceeds that poverty and lowness of spirit, to which a kingdom may be subject as well as a particular person. And when Esau came fainting from the field at the point to die, it is no wonder that he sold his birthright for a mess of pottage….

I entreat you, my dear countrymen, not to be under the least concern upon these and like rumours, which are no more than the last howls of a dog dissected alive, as I hope he hath sufficiently been….[3]

The gentleman they have lately made primate would never quit his seat in an English House of Lords, and his preferments at Oxford and Bristol, worth twelves hundred pounds a year, for four times the denomination here, but not half the value; therefore I expect to hear he will be as good an Irishman, upon this article, as any of his brethren, or even of us who have had the misfortune to be born in this island….[4]

This is an Irish Holyday when our Scoundrels will not work, else perhaps my Letter would have been shorter. [5]

As when some writer in a public cause
His pen, to save a sinking nation, draws,
While all is calm, his arguments prevail;
The people’s voice expand his paper sail:
Till pow’r, discharging all her stormy bags,
Flutters the feeble pamphlet into rags.
The nation scared, the author doom’d to death,
Who fondly put his trust in pop’lar breath….

Beware, and when you hear the surges roar,
Avoid the rocks on Britain’s angry shore.
They lie, alas, too easy to be found;
For thee alone they lie the island round.[6]

A generation after the 1720s on finds remarks on traveling in Ireland from Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) in James Boswell’s (1740-1795) Life of Johnson (1791):

Boswell. “Pray, Mr. Dilly, how does Dr. Leland’s History of Ireland sell?” Johnson (bursting forth with a generous indignation). “The Irish are in a most unnatural state; for we see there the minority prevailing over the majority. There is no instance, even in the ten persecutions, of such severity as that which the protestants of Ireland have exercised against the Catholicks. Did we tell them we have conquered them, it would be above board: to punish them by confiscation and other penalties, as rebels, was monstrous injustice. King William was not their lawful sovereign: he had not been acknowledged by the parliament of Ireland when they appeared in arms against him….”[7]

He [Johnson], I know not why, shewed upon all occasions an aversion to go to Ireland, where I proposed to him that we should make a tour. JOHNSON. ‘It is the last place where I should wish to travel.’ BOSWELL. ‘Should you not like to see Dublin, Sir?’ JOHNSON. ‘No, Sir. Dublin is only a worse capital.’ Boswell. ‘Is not the Giant’s-Causeway worth seeing?’ JOHNSON. ‘Worth seeing? yes; but not worth going to see.’

Yet he had a kindness for the Irish nation, and thus generously expressed himself to a gentleman from that country, on the subject of an UNION which artful Politicians have often had in view—‘Do not make an union with us, Sir. We should unite with you, only to rob you. We should have robbed the Scotch, if they had had any thing of which we could have robbed them….’[8]

[Johnson said] ‘Hospitality to strangers and foreigners in our country is now almost at an end, since, from the increase of them that come to us, there have been a sufficient number of people that have found an interest in providing inns and proper accommodations, which is in general a more expedient method for the entertainment of travellers. Where the travellers and strangers are few, more of that hospitality subsists, as it has not been worth while to provide places of accommodation. In Ireland there is still hospitality to strangers, in some degree; in Hungary and Poland probably more.’[9]

And from Joseph Le Fanu (1814-1873) on traveling in Ireland in the 1860s:

I don’t apologise to my readers, English-born and bred, for assuming them to be acquainted with the chief features of the ‘Phœnix Park, near Dublin. Irish scenery is now as accessible as Welsh. Let them study the old problem, not in blue books, but in the green and brown ones of our fields and heaths, and mountains. If Ireland be no more than a great capability and a beautiful landscape, faintly visible in the blue haze, even from your own headlands, and separated by hardly four hours of water, and a ten-shilling fare, from your jetties, it is your own shame, not ours, if a nation of bold speculators and indefatigable tourists leave it unexplored. [10]

NOTES

[1] Swift, Jonathan. “A Proposal for the Universal Use of Irish Manufacture, in Clothes and Furniture of Houses, &c.” 1720? Edited with an introduction and notes by Angus Ross and David Woolley. Oxford World Classics.1984. Revised 2003. pp. 404–05.

bere: (OE or ME) clamour, outcry, shouting, roaring; the noise of voices of men or animals.

victualler: a purveyor of victuals or provisions; spec. one who makes a business of providing food and drink for payment; a keeper of an eating-house, inn, or tavern; a licensed victualler.

[2] Swift, “[Drapier’s Letters I] A Letter to the Shop-Keepers, Tradesmen, Farmers, and Common-People in General, of the Kingdom of Ireland.” 1724. Jonathan Swift – Major Works. 424–25.

[3] Swift, “[Drapier’s Letters IV] A Letter to the Whole People of Ireland.” 1724. Jonathan Swift – Major Works. 434–35.

[4] Swift, “[Drapier’s Letters IV] A Letter to the Whole People of Ireland.” 1724. Jonathan Swift – Major Works. 434–35.

[5] Swift, “Swift to Charles Ford, August 16, 1725.” Jonathan Swift – Major Works. 467.

[6] Swift, “Horace, Book I, Ode xvi, Paraphrased and Inscribed to Ireland.” 1724. Jonathan Swift – Major Works. 461, 462.

[7] Boswell, Life of Johnson, ÆTAT 64, May 1773, p. 397.

[8] Boswell, Life of Johnson, ÆTAT 70, October 1779, p. 744.

[9] Boswell, Life of Johnson, ÆTAT 71, 1780, p. 772.

[10] Le Fanu, Joseph Sheridan. The House by the Churchyard. London: Tinsley, Brothers. 1863. Reprint. Dublin: James Duffey. 1904. “Chapter XVI – The Ordeal by Battle,” 74.