Thursday, July 28, 2016

`To Be Anything You Like Except Kind'

People have always feigned kindness, especially in unkind ages. It’s useful to be seen committing kind acts and repeating kind sentiments. Our fellows are gratified and so are we. To be congratulated on our kindness releases a warm tide of self-congratulation within: I really am a good person. Everybody says so. It must be true.

I’m reading Chinese Shadows for the first time since shortly after it was published in 1977. The author is the Belgian-born Pierre Ryckmans (1935-2014), who wrote under the name Simon Leys. He was a sinologist, novelist, art historian, translator and essayist who settled in Australia. One of the essential books published in recent years is Leys’ The Hall of Uselessness (2013), a collection of essays. Leys had lived and taught in China, knew the culture and language, and witnessed some of the ravages of Mao’s Cultural Revolution first-hand. Chinese Shadows and Leys’ other books on China were violently condemned by Mao’s Western apologists. In Chap. 2, “Follow the Guide,” Leys addresses the “deeper scars” left on the Chinese who survived the Cultural Revolution:

“. . . I cannot but wonder if the history of the last twenty years has not borne fruit, twenty years of systematic incitation to `class hatred’ and the denunciation of basic human impulses, such as compassion for suffering, whoever is the victim (this is now condemned as the expression of a bourgeois humanism that denies the class struggle), has not brought about the general and willed lowering of the traditional virtues that give harmony to Chinese life.”

All of which sounds eerily familiar. Leys notes that Mao didn’t invent class hatred and violence. He had a handy model in the Soviet Union of Lenin, Stalin and their successors. He was just more ambitious. I didn’t remember this, but Leys then quotes from Nadezhda Mandelstam’s Hope Against Hope (trans. Max Hayward, 1970):

“There were once many kind people, and even unkind ones pretended to be good because that was the thing to do. Such pretense was the source of hypocrisy and dishonesty so much exposed in the realist literature at the end of the last century. The unexpected result of this kind of critical writing was that kind people disappeared. Kindness is not, after all, an inborn quality—it has to be cultivated, and this only happens when it is in demand. For our generation, kindness was an old-fashioned, vanished quality, and its exponents were as extinct as the mammoth. Everything we have seen in our times—the dispossession of the kulaks, class warfare, the constant ‘unmasking’ of the people, the search for an ulterior motive behind every action—all this has taught us to be anything you like except kind.”

Kindness, in other words, is not a virtue, not the unforced impulse that makes human relations sufferable. It is, as Ambrose Bierce defines it in The Devil’s Dictionary, “a brief preface to ten volumes of exaction.”

1 comment:

The Sanity Inspector said...

But on the other hand...

It’s an almost incredible fact, that in the middle of the 19th century there was no children’s hospital in London. And children weren’t taken into ordinary hospitals for fear that they might be infectious. (…) As I look at it I’m more than ever convinced that humanitarianism was the great achievement of the 19th century. We are so much accustomed to the humanitarian outlook that we forget how little it counted in earlier ages of civilisation. Ask any decent person in England or America today what he thinks matters most in human conduct, 5 to 1 his answer will be kindness. It’s not the words that would have crossed the lips of any of the earlier heroes of this series. If you asked Saint Francis what matters in life he would, we know, answered chastity, obedience, poverty. If you asked Dante, Michael Angelo, they might have answered disdain of baseness and injustice. But kindness, never.
-- Kenneth Clark, Civilisation, 1969