On a Clean-Plucked Ostrich
"Despise whom we fleece!" exlaimed Dr. Middleton. "Oh, no, Lady Culmer, the sheep is sacred."
"I am not so sure," said Vernon.
"In what way, and to what extent, are you not so sure?" said Dr. Middleton.
"The natural tendency is to scorn the fleeced."
"I stand for the contrary. Pity, if you like: particularly when they bleat."
"This is to assume that makers of gifts are a fleeced people: I demur," said Mrs. Mountstuart.
"Madam, we are expected to give; we are incited to give; you have dubbed it the fashion to give; and the person refusing to give, or incapable of giving, may anticipate that he will be regarded as benignly as a sheep of a dropping and flaccid wool by the farmer, who is reminded by the poor beast's appearance of a strange dog that worried the flock. Even Captain Benjamin, as you have seen, was unable to withstand the demand on him. The hymeneal pair are licensed freebooters levying blackmail on us; survivors of an uncivilized period. But in taking without mercy, I venture to trust that the manners of a happier era instruct them not to scorn us. I apprehend that Mr. Whitford has a lower order of latrons in his mind."
"Permit me to say, sir, that you have not considered the ignoble aspect of the fleeced," said Vernon. "I appeal to the ladies: would they not, if they beheld an ostrich walking down a Queen's Drawing Room, clean-plucked, despise him though they were wearing his plumes?"
This snippet of highbrow victorian parlor room conversation is from George Meredith's The Egoist, one of my very favorite novels from one of my very favorite novelists.
George Meredith was kind of the John Barth of his day -- a prestige writer more known than read by his contemporary literary cognoscenti. Which is really a pity. Granted, his ornate style can be daunting and recondite at times. But he's such a brilliant author, with a razor sharp mind who possessed immense powers of psychological observation and metaphorical analogy. He was a humanist who was perhaps the first to explore the subconscious psychological and cultural motivations behind behaviors, and is perhaps the only author of his time, except for George Elliot, who wrote empathetically from the female point of view -- he was even an early advocate for women's suffrage. He is considered a proto-modernist who developed his style partly as a code to express culturally proscribed subject matter, much as Shostakovich was compelled to hide his messages in his music: eg, it was many many years before it was discovered that a chapter in his first major novel, The Ordeal of Richard Feveral, was about masturbation. His dialogues are amongst the most witty, convincing and entertaining in literature. He loved to challenge complacent readers, as well as defy convention. The Egoist is a great example of this: whereas most contemporary novels were concerned with finding the right mate and getting betrothed, The Egoist is entirely about finding a way to break an engagement from a wholly unsuitable mate -- and, it is laugh-out-loud funny to boot. It is perhaps the greatest unread masterpiece of Victorian literature. (I even wrote a screenplay adaptation of it, in case anyone's interested.) I am the proud owner of #93 of only 400 sets of the complete works of George Meredith published shortly after his death, and it's one of my treasures.
I could go on about Meredith, but that's not what this post is about.
This excerpt is one that has stayed with me through the years. I think in many ways it captures one of the fundamental schizophrenic dichotomies in human existence qua social beings: that between striving towards civilization, versus the biological recidivism of the pack mentality. I know it's a bit tough to follow for even literate readers nowadays, given the critical accolades for some of the books on Orprah's list [NOTE: this is not to say that unreadability or difficulty is automatically a sign of a great work of literature!], but just to make sure we're on the same page the topic of this drawing-room conversation concerns wedding gifts. But as with so much in Meredith there is a subtext beneath the glimmering prose: in this case the deeper meaning concerns the nature of humiliation and victimization.
On the simplest level it's about the contempt we have towards those who are victimized. Simply, we victimize those who appear as victims. Vernon is suggesting that rather than castigate the victimizer we are more inclined to castigate the victim. History is rife with examples of torture performed for the amusement for the masses.
When I read this passage, particularly Vernon's assertion that the ladies would despise a clean-plucked ostrich "though they were wearing his plumes", I can't help but think of the attitudes of imperial powers who decimate native populations in their attempts to "convert" them to civilization as they pillage their resources. Whether its christianizing the heathens while distributing smallpox-laden blankets with one hand while grabbing their resource-rich land with the other, or bringing freedom and democracy to Iraqis as we destroy their infrastructure and culture while grabbing their oil, the bringers of "civilization" reduce the humanity of those they oppress then scorn them for their own victimhood.
It's easier to victimize victims. The more victimized someone becomes, the more of a victim they appear, thus feeding a cycle that ends up reducing the humanity of both. It's all too easy to fall into the role of victimizer, to pick up a rock and join the others as they stone someone to death. It takes rare courage to side with the victim, and all too often those who do are just as likely to be stoned as well (or run over by bulldozers) for their treason. Bullies succeed in their bullying because they understand this. We all want to share in the feeling of power. Who wants to side with the weaker side? We mock the easily duped, the gullible, the losers, those we deem inferior to us for any reason, and feel they deserve their fate for having been bested. We do indeed "scorn the fleeced." The clearest contemporary example of this can be seen in the photos of Abu Ghraib.
"Why didn't they defend themselves?" we cry when we witness the ease with which Nazis filled the trenches with Jews who lined up to get shot. It's because both the victim and the victimizer shared their scorn of the victim. People fulfill the role they are asked to perform, and thus victims internalize their victimhood. The feather-plucked ostrich would sooner feel shame at being naked than accuse those who tore its feathers out; while those who pluck the ostrich and wear its feathers despise the ostrich for its nakedness.
People generally live by appearance. Countless studies confirm that one's appearance is decisive in determining how one is judged. "How you sell yourself is how others will buy you." Thus a victim fulfills his victimhood merely by being perceived as one.
America is a culture that plays with a stacked deck. The cult (and myth) of individualism is so woven into the fabric of the culture that people are blamed for their inability to succeed in life and society, regardless of how many strikes they are dealt when they are born. The myth of the self-made man so permeates the cultural air that it becomes easier to blame a solitary person for their inability to pick themselves up by their own bootstraps than it is to look at the systemic causes that practically preclude entire sectors of society from achieving success, however one chooses to define it.
Civilization is a most fragile veneer over our biological nature and it requires an attitude of respect to persist. I would go further and suggest that true civilization requires a culture of empathy, specifically an empathy that seeks to prevent all suffering, whether human, animal or even environmental. ("Pity, if you like: particularly when they bleat.") And such respectful attitudes require an amenable and nurturing culture in which such an attitude can blossom, beginning with educating our children to think for themselves and urging them towards self-actualization.
But as we shall see in a forthcoming post, such an attitude is anathema to vast sectors of society with vested interests in preventing it. The history of history can be seen as a battle between our biological nature and our aspirations towards civilization. Nature is winning.