Monday, April 25, 2016

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.  
            There’s a poem by the soldier-poet Siegfried Sassoon, written towards the end of the First World War,  which I’ve always admired both for its anger and for its subversive irony. It concerns the treatment given to maimed and damaged soldiers and it goes thus:

DOES it matter?—losing your legs?...

For people will always be kind,

And you need not show that you mind

When the others come in after hunting

To gobble their muffins and eggs.

Does it matter?—losing your sight?...

There’s such splendid work for the blind;

And people will always be kind,

As you sit on the terrace remembering

And turning your face to the light.

Do they matter?—those dreams from the pit?...

You can drink and forget and be glad,

And people won’t say that you’re mad;

For they’ll know you’ve fought for your country

And no one will worry a bit.

The line that most captures me, and that has captured other people, is the most chilling in the poem. “People will always be kind”. In fact, this line was taken as the title of a very good political novel by Wilfrid Sheed, first published in 1973. Sheed’s People Will Always Be Kind isn’t up there with the very best American political novels (Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men; Edwin O’Connor’s The Last Hurrah etc.); but it does the business pretty well in its tale of a polio-afflicted paraplegic politician.

The point, as seen by Siegfried Sassoon (and Wilfrid Sheed), is that to be “kind” is not to be truly charitable, just and loving. It is to be somewhat patronising and perhaps looking down on the object of your kindness as somebody to be pitied rather than accepted as your fellow adult and human being. We are – quite rightly and justly – “kind” to small children, to hurt animals, to the aged and the infirm, to the mentally afflicted and perhaps sometimes, but only sometimes, to the physically afflicted. These are people than whom we are physically stronger and therefore over whom we have some power. But if we are “kind” to those who are mentally and physically our equals, then we are not really treating them as our equals but as our subordinates.

I am aware that the connotations of words change over the centuries. Yes, “kind” once upon a time meant acting in a truly human way towards others – as part of humankind (and centuries ago Mother Nature was called Dame Kind). Yes, “kind” once meant polite and civil and considerate. But, like the honourable word “charity”, “kind” has suffered a lexical shift in the past century or so, and it has become the patronising thing that I have outlined above. Even Siegfried Sassoon knew this in 1918.

I have a personal reason for now discussing all this. About a month ago, there was an extraordinary and intemperate attack on me on a blogsite run by a publicist and promoter of New Zealand poetry. I was accused, as a frequent book reviewer, of being an “ultra toxic”, “smart alec” bully who had an “ego-driven” compulsion to attack and belittle people in print. This was apparently my habitual modus operandi. The charge was and is laughably inaccurate (you may check out my degree of habitual toxicity by browsing some of my reviews on the index at right). I suspected –and in a later development had my suspicion confirmed – that the publicist had taken exception to a particular review of mine and so decided, rather thoughtlessly, to launch a general personal attack on me.

I protested, not directly to the perpetrator of this nonsense, because I did not know how to contact her directly, but to various people whom I know in the publishing, writing and reviewing communities. I got many messages of support and refutation of the publicist’s rant. I suspect (but in this case cannot prove) that one of my contacts might have advised the publicist to publicly modify her views a little – perhaps because I had asked whether her statements were actionable. On the following day the publicist’s blogsite had another post saying that perhaps she had shown “unkindness” to me in her blanket condemnation of me. But there was no other word of retraction from her original statement. Instead, in her new posting, she went into a piece of self-promotion about how she shows “kindness” and consideration to anyone she is reviewing and how “kindness” should be the yardstick of all reviewing as it challenges patriarchal ideas of relative merit. There was plenty more in the same vein, the gist being that robust reviewing is “unkind” and that no value judgments on the worth of given books should ever be passed.

To me this sounds like a formula for publicity rather than for genuine reviewing and criticism – in other words, the type of “reviews” that appear on the websites of booksellers and publishers, who are naturally in the business of promoting their wares.

More to the point I am making, though, I do not wish to be shown “kindness” by anyone until such time as I am senile and dribbling into my soup. Consideration, yes; truthfulness, yes; civility, yes. But not “kindness”, which is by now an irretrievably patronising concept. Nor have I the least intention of showing “kindness” to anyone I review. I will continue to show the thoughtfulness, consideration and fair judgment that I already show. But I will also always make the assumption that any author I review is an adult, my intellectual equal, who can take robust criticism and does not need to be patted on the head with “kindness.”

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