From The Underground Grammarian

MERELY DECENT IN THE COLD

Volume 13 Number 4
May 1989


One must think like a hero to behave like a merely decent human being.


The epigraph above is also an epigraph to John le Carre's latest book, The Russia House. They are the words of May Sarton, about whom, surely to our harm, we know nothing. She is probably someone we should read.

We do read everything that le Carre writes. Had we any influence, we would use it on the Nobel Prize people. His books are always about the theme that lies beneath all of our thinking, the principle that informs the sorry particulars of the life of the mind of which we so often write, to wit, the desperate lot of the individual shivering in the cold mist of foggy abstractions--the Party, the Church, the School, the State, and, foggiest and coldest of all, the monster called Society as a Whole.

In general, reviewers have not been delighted with The Russia House. For one thing, George Smiley is gone, and thus, of course, Alec Guiness is gone. And Karla is gone, resting comfortably, no doubt, under the name of Saunders out in the country. The Americans, with two small exceptions, look very bad indeed, which, to some reviewers, brings forth the dubious but comforting opinion that le Carre just can't get Americans right. To us, they looked just right. Futhermore, there is indeed very little of what is called "action" of the sort expected in what is called "the spy thriller." No sudden death. No dagger. Most of what happens, happens in the inner life, in the minds of persons. And it is exactly that--the inner life--that we have been taught to deem just about as interesting to watch as growing grass or drying paint. To the ordinary trainee produced by our informing institutions, anything at all, football, lotteries, Vanna White, clean needles, tricky congressmen, cholesterol, ozone, Donald Trump, whooping cranes, fires of suspicious origin in deserted buildings, quintuplets in Omaha, rape and robbery, or battle, murder, and sudden death--anything is found worthier to be considered than what is going on in his mind.

And that is why we must read more of May Sarton. She knows the secret. She knows that what goodness we can hope to do must come not out of training, not out of disposition, not out of the fear of law or censure, not out of respect for authority or creeds, not out of cultural heritage or social membership, but out of our thinking.

She might have said much the same thing the other way about: that a merely decent human being looks to the rest of the world like some sort of a hero. What would we say, after all, were some congressman to be exposed as nothing more than an honest man, living by principle and choosing his deeds not according to what some guidelines will permit but by thinking about worth? In him would we not find a hero, however much his colleagues might find him a sap? Think what perfectly legal opportunities for self-inflation and enrichment he would have denied himself, to say nothing of all the reelection insurance he could so easily and so ethically have taken out. Think, too, how poorly he must live, out in the cold, on nothing but his salary.

But think even more about this: How could he have come to such a condition in the first place?

The narrative voice of The Russia House is well named Horatio B. dePalfrey. He draws his breath in sadness to tell this tale, and absents himself from felicity for a long while indeed. He is a man who knows about goodness, and who recognizes it when he sees it. But he is a devoted man, a man who has given himself and his freedom away to an abstraction. A fascinating condition. He is at once treacherous and loyal, a loyal servant of the state, and a betrayer of the decent person that he knows how to be. That is the condition also, of course, of George Smiley, and it is one of John le Carre's best virtues that he shows us the hidden darkness in the hypotnic creeds and causes to which we give ourselves, and by virtue of which we discover the exquisite pleasure of deeming ourselves selfless servants of a Worthy Cause.

But the beam in dePalfrey's eye does not affect his seeing. Of one of his colleagues, he asks himself: What had Clive studied, ... if he ever had? Where? Who bore him? Sired him? Where did the Service find these dead suburban souls with all their values, or lack of them, perfectly in place?

The questions are familiar. But they are, perhaps, a bit too English in their frankness. Whether out of politeness or cowardice, easily confused, we will not ask of a practiced and competent opportunist, who bore him? who sired him? It is a well (and wisely) kept secret among even our schoolteachers, that for many of their students there is no hope for a decent and thoughtful life simply because their parents have never shown them any such thing, and have indeed shown them, and have, if only in symbol, commended to them, lives operated entirely by the energies of appetite and untended by reflection.

And the first of those questions is so English that its meaning might easily escape the ordinary American reader. What had he studied? It is not exactly what we would ask. We are interested, mostly for reasons that we call practical, to know what someone has learned. And with that in mind, we will also ask, in what did he major? Those questions suddenly seem pointless when we are wondering why someone lives in a certain way, and does not seem capable of living otherwise. What we truly do need to know where we detect the unprincipled and unexamined life is just what dePalfrey asks. What did he study, which is also to ask, where did he get his practice in examination and reflection, and furnish his acquaintance with the countless particulars of human experience and the remarkably few principles that inform them?

Later on, and thinking yet again of poor Clive, dePalfrey muses thus: Clive affected to consider this on its merits. But I knew ... that Clive considered nothing on its merits. He considered who was in favour of something and who was against it. Then he considered who was the better ally.

This is not an uncommon way of behaving. Indeed, it is frequently among those skills both taught and learned in our schools. Under various names, you can even major in it. For the little children, it is called relating well to self and others, for the bigger children, management. For the biggest children, politics.

What is required in one who would consider something on its merits, asking only if it is better or worse, without regard to consequences? Two things at least--the thoughtfulness out of which to derive and consider some principled understanding of better and worse, and the heroism out of which to choose in the light of principle without regard for the consequences. It is not easy. Who does it too often will surely find himself out in the cold some day, companied only, and only perhaps, by one obscure and impoverished congressman.

And what it takes is study, not the acquisition of techniques and information, but study--reflection, integration, comparison, thinking and rethinking, testing, criticizing, doubting, wondering, and many hours of brooding in the still watches of the night.

Now it is perfectly possible, in fact it is almost inevitable, to do well in our schools and become employable without ever having spent one moment in study. Most of the courses we offer are not suitable for study. No one needs to study such "subjects" as computer science or accounting; it is enough to learn them. And even such things as history or mathematics, which are suitable for study, are rarely taught as though they were; they can easily be reduced to empty exercises in the accumulation of skills and information, which has also the virtue of making them all the easier to "master"--which is to say, "pass."

And all of schooling, futhermore, is justified as the path to national productivity through the happy agency of personal profit. In such a context, the idea of making judgment without regard for consequences is absurd; the "realistic" judgment must be made out of nothing but regard for consequences.

And now we can answer dePalfrey's last question: where does the Service find these dead souls? The Service produces them. If the thoughtful hero is rare, it is because the entire system that we call "education" is designed to produce exactly what we have, a nation of unprincipled cowards. It works.

No matter what the papers say, there is no Crisis of Ethics upon us. It is just Life as Usual, and one of its major subdivisions, Politics as Usual. Sometimes we hear about it; sometimes we don't. If our politicians want a list of what is ethical and what is not, it is because they seek not goodness but safety. If they were thoughtful and brave, they would need no such list.

And now our schools will teach ethics. It's all the rage. They will provide the ethics list to little kids, lest anyone have to think about anything. That is to say, the Service will raise up unto itself the dead souls that best serve the Service.


From v 13 n 4 (May, 1989)

The Underground Grammarian
Post Office Box 203
Glassboro, New Jersey 08028

R. Mitchell, Assoc. Circ. Mgr.