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Thursday, April 16, 2015

Empathy, Irony, And ‘La Nostalgie De La Boue’–Loving The Lower Classes

Charles Dickens was the Master of the Slums. The story of Pip (Great Expectations), his good luck, enterprise, successful struggles against adversity, and good heart is read and reread by thousands every year.  East London in Dickensian times was not the swamp of misery, disease, and misfortune that African and Asian slums are today but the crucible of character.  Ebenezer Scrooge learned before it was too late that Christmas was a time for rejoicing and, above all, charity. Adversity was no more than a bump in the road. Pip, in his fortuitous rise to the stop of London society, finally learns who is benefactor is; and in a moment of epiphany tries to regain his ties to his old family  and the moral rectitude that they insisted upon.

Dickens London

La nostalgie de la boue, or the romance of the lower classes, was popular in late 19th century France.  Then, as in many periods of literary and philosophical history, the proletariat was considered the repository for human good.  Man was created with a primal, instinctive sense of righteousness, good, and high sensibilities; but after millennia of neglect has become a creature of animal instincts and human vanity.

One can be forgiven for idealistic recreations of the past. The Owen Wilson character in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris admits that the past, recollected, is always better than the present; but concludes that we all have to make the best out of the cards we are dealt.  No generation trumps any other.

Image result for images allen midnight in paris

Rousseau did more for the cause of simple, uncomplicated man than anyone,. His ‘noble savage’ was the epitome of the sophisticate’s idealization of reality. The simpler one lives, the more essential he is.  Jesus, in his criticism of the rich (the eye of the needle, etc.) was an early partisan of the poor.  They, unfettered by the trappings of wealth which distort reality and divert one from the true path of spiritual enlightenment, are the true Children of God.

Dostoevsky, on the other hand, excoriated Jesus for having sold a bill of goods to the poor and miserable of the world. Their lives were of unmitigated pain and penury, and His promise of eternal salvation was a poor bargain for those who suffered.   There is nothing ennobling or potentially spiritual about the poor, said Dostoevsky.  They only want mystery, miracles, and authority to ease the transition from life to death.

Daumier exalted the poor and the ordinary in his engravings. There was indeed a higher value to stoicism in the face of adversity.


The ante is upped many-fold when it comes to the abject poverty of the slums of Africa or Asia. It is far harder to romanticize the life of Bombay slum-dwellers who live on the extreme margins. Rats, roaches, disease, and malnutrition are the realities of unmitigated, dire, and unmediated poverty.

Rohinton Mistry in his novel A Fine Balance is perhaps the writer who most accurately describes the life of the Bombay slum-dweller; and he does so without romanticism, cynicism, or political agenda.  His tailors are survivors and admired for their respect, patience, and long-suffering moral probity. There is no higher value to life in the slums, no particular opportunity for enlightenment or spiritual evolution.

Image result for images a fine balance mistry

Why then are some of us so respectful and admiring of the lower classes? Why do modern day ‘progressives’ celebrate the ‘diversity’ of the slums? Are they in search for a certain authenticity which has been lost in the homogenizing ascent to power and status? Is it a sense of guilt for having left the salt of the earth behind? It is some lingering notion of the purity and unalloyed innocence of a simple life? The Grapes of Wrath has become a socialist icon, a sympathy for the displaced poor who will wander forever in America, marginalized by the wealthy and the powerful. As Americans, shouldn’t we empathize more with the dispossessed and the poor who, the Bible tells us, will inherit the earth?

On the contrary many conservatives feel that the poor in America are nothing more than the albatrosses around the neck of the enterprising.  They are a drain on the American spirit.  They are complaisantly happy at the bottom, content to receive government largesse and the sympathy of liberal progressives; but responsible for the bulk of tax-heavy entitlements.  There is no romance of the poor.  Only hostility, resentment, and recrimination. They are not pulling their fair share.

‘Progressives’ have clung to the notion that the nobility of the poor can be preserved and strengthened through public generosity. It is only a matter of time before the formerly enslaved break loose from the prison of racism and enforced isolation and claim their God-given rights.  Conservatives have argued that the time for progressive rehabilitation and integration into the commonwealth of citizens is over.  Put up or shut up, they say. A hundred and fifty years is enough.

Not only is there no romance of the poor but a revulsion of them. The dysfunction, anti-sociality, rejection of majority social and moral norms, and dependence on public entitlements has turned the noble poor into the despicable poor. Jefferson was right to propose sending freed slaves back to Africa.

If, because of a perceived dereliction of moral responsibility, a refusal to adhere to the norms of the majority, and a rejection of all that is even notionally right and good, the poor choose to isolate themselves, then so be it. They have been given a chance, and there are no more.

A friend of mine spends a good part of the year in the Deep South living in a small town in Alabama. At the library, gym, and BBQ restaurants out on the highway, he has met the working poor.  The truck drivers, waitresses, health care workers, clerks, hospitality hostesses and fast-food employees who make the minimum wage with no benefits, no retirement, and no health care.  They work to make ends meet.  Work is neither rewarding nor promising. It is a paycheck.  There is no romance whatsoever, he says, about working two jobs, two shifts, and 18-hour days.  Children, grandchildren, no childcare, and sickness more than health.

“I am for the middle class”, says Hillary Clinton, echoing any number of Democratic and Republican politicians on both ends of the spectrum. “The salt of the earth. The ones who made America great.” Yet few of these political pretenders have any idea what life on the margins is like.  They either dismiss the poor as indolent takers or sanctified deservers. All lack understanding, empathy, and true compassion.

Jesus neither condemned the rich nor exalted the poor.  He only observed that a man encumbered by wealth and responsibility is unlikely to have the time, inclination, and desire to aspire to spiritual ends; and realized that the poor have all they can do to keep their heads above water and that for them too, the path to salvation is not an easy one.

Image result for images jesus christ

Dostoevsky maligned the poor and ignorant when The Grand Inquisitor states that they are only interested in miracles, mystery, and authority; and have neither the intelligence nor the will to understand the notion of free will or the promise of Paradise.

Image result for images the grand inquisitor

The most intelligent of observers have concluded that society will always be stratified.  There will always be rich and poor, privileged and disadvantaged; and that although their proportions may vary, the categories are immutable and permanent. Every animal society whether ants, bees, elephants, or human beings, is segregated by intelligence, ability, and strength.  There is no nobility in either court or courtyard.  Life is no more than a random, purposeless succession of incident banging of billiard balls.  The only commonality is human nature.  Rich or poor, we will always act defensively, in protection of territory, perimeter, and family, and in search of wealth and status.  The poor and the rich just are.

Which is why the current rending of garments over inequality is perplexing.  Of course there is social and economic inequality.  When has it been otherwise? Neither rich nor poor have a corner on morality, spiritual purity, or nobility.  It is time to stop idealizing the poor and envying the rich.

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