Quivers of conscience

Garvey, John

Commonweal: 38 Of several minds: John Garvey QUIVERS OF CONSCIENCE THE KOOL-AID OF HUMAN KINDNESS IN ONE OF Peter DeVries's wonderful novels a man is forced to listen to a writer he cannot abide...

...what they are doing in Afghanistan is awful...
...But I wonder what it means...
...It would not be as simple as hypocrisy, because hypocrisy has come to suggest a degree of conscious self-deception...
...Howard Hawkes and Hitchcock are my favorite directors...
...During the Christmas season these tokens are waved all over the place...
...It is said that Hitler cried at the death of his canary...
...Gary Hart...
...I have had a lot of advertisements mailed to me, for magazines and political causes, which had as their main appeal the notion that by responding I could prove myself different...
...By responding to that appeal to my worst sympathies, don't I come close to answering in a way which ought to terrify me the question, "Who is my neighbor...
...This ought to disturb us...
...To get at it we need pay attention now examples...
...But what sort of enlightenment is it that depends on maintaining a distance between oneself and the other, the fool out there...
...It is like a form of war-paint at parties where people don't know one another very well: above their heads, in comic-strip balloons, you can read "Mahler...
...you can find out whom to approach for help during the next political campaign, and whom to avoid...
...You can tell fairly quickly whom you will be able to talk with next time without having your own tokens shoved aside too rudely...
...We take our own opinions as proof of our moral righteousness...
...This moral tokenism isn't confined to our seasonal self-contradictions...
...To interpret this quiver of consciousness a little like the experiments Gal-vani did when he ran electricity into severed frog legs and made them jerk as a sign of decency is obscene...
...Self-deception itself is not good enough...
...The DeVries line sums up an aspect of our character which takes up lots of space...
...Updike...
...There seems to be a human need to identify the self or whatever it is that we come to identify as the self with something larger...
...But outrage over the "right" things or the "wrong" things makes us real...
...He's talking to "I still get mad about Watergate...
...Far be it from me to complain about being an easy touch for these things...
...I'm the sort of person who can cry every time Old Yaller dies...
...too-bad-about-starving-Ethiopians...
...It is a common and embarrassing experience to find ourselves moved against our wills...
...if we can be moved to tears by something certi-fiably sad, we must have a heart after all...
...I think we tend to use this reaction to keep ourselves from becoming aware of how truly stony-hearted we are...
...People live by such tokens all year round, form friendships around them, look for the latest variations on the theme, "what belief makes me decent...
...We enjoy the distance, the little lift we get when we see the neighbor's bumper sticker and thank God we didn't vote that way...
...We would like to think that being moved this way proves that we are compassionate people...
...too broad...
...The homeless and hungry and handicapped go back to being nameless spongers once more, when the Christmas season is over...
...I know from personal experience that it has nothing to do with being a decent human being...
...The self is itself frequently no more than a bag of disparate reactions...
...Our sick status is this: we love all the tokens which make us different from our neighbor...
...In my home town the local paper (generally right-wing and more or less quiet about what goes on in the state captial, which wouldn't be so bad if the state capital didn't happen to be here) calls its annual "be nice" campaign "Friend-in-Need...
...No matter the tears we shed then show that we really do care, we aren't such bad folk after all, we can think well of ourselves...
...I miss the style of the forties...
...It is an emotional token, advanced across the board to show that we are basically decent and sensitive people...
...Fletcher Farrar, Jr., editor of Illinois Times, a local alternative weekly, has made the important point that the local daily's editorial page ordinarily does everything it can to discourage any governmentally-sponsored measure which might help the poor...
...Newspapers run campaigns to raise money for the "neediest" (there is something Victorian about the sound of that word), and assistance finds its way to people who are apparently invisible the rest of the year...
...There ought to be a word for it...
...That shorthand may be useful in its way, but we talk and mink this way for another and less obvious reason...
...we love it, in some part of the soul...
...The sentimental movie, the late-night rerun showing a kid with a quivering lip and dead parents, cops with rescued puppies, name it...
...I think all it proves is that I am not dead yet...
...Instead, it makes us feel good...
...A pin could do the same thing, but wouldn't return the ego-satisfying dividends...
...At times like this, or at any of the other times when we are moved to what we think of as compassion, we take our sensitivity as something which all by itself validates us as moral people...
...Apparently a similar sort of sentimental art is popular in Iran, where pictures of young weeping women are popular...
...It is certainly less costly to be moved to tears than to be moved to action...
...I would never buy war-toys for my children...
...There are appeals made to us, through carefully bought mailing lists, which pose us against all the others "the others" being those people who are bigoted, racist, unenlightened, narrow...
...It's a little like the old joke,' 'A friend in need is a pest" . . . except at Christmas, when he gives us an opportunity to act like Scrooge running out for a goose...
...The difference had to do with sophistication and political enlightenment...
...so does political or moral or religious passion applied in any direction...
...Having the right opinion somehow makes us good...
...Unlike us, in other words...
...JOHN GARVEY 25 January 1985: 39...
...Or rather, not from our neighbor but from the wrong sort of neighbor the one whose opinion or set of opinions shows him to have the wrong war paint, the unacceptable perspective...
...We put from our minds the fact that we will probably try to find a way to tax the goose-bones the day after the end of the holiday season...
...This process of identifying ourselves with the right passion is made easy with simplification better the bumper sticker or button or subscription to the right magazine than the more difficult work of thought and (God forbid) any self-doubt about the issue or range of issues at hand...
...Our teariness at the appropriate moments is a matter of convention, an observance of a piety upon which everyone agrees...
...I wish I could offer a citation, chapter and verse, but as I recall it DeVries says of his unwilling listener, "His sneer was strangled on a sob...
...A few years ago Americans loved pictures of wide-eyed and rather solemn-looking children, the kitschiest of them all showed John-John Kennedy saluting his father's coffin...
...Commonweal: 38 Of several minds: John Garvey QUIVERS OF CONSCIENCE THE KOOL-AID OF HUMAN KINDNESS IN ONE OF Peter DeVries's wonderful novels a man is forced to listen to a writer he cannot abide read a tear-jerking story which is as manipulative as it could be, and yet (as Galileo is said to have said under his breath) it moves...

Vol. 112 • January 1985 • No. 2


 
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