Radical Gratitude

“Her daughter enjoyed a most uncommon degree of popularity for a woman neither young, handsome, rich, or married. Miss Bates stood in the very worst predicament in the world for having much of the public favour; and she had no intellectual superiority to make atonement for herself, or frighten those who might hate her into outward respect. She had never boasted either beauty or cleverness. Her youth passed without distinction, and her middle life was devoted to the care of a failing mother, and the endeavour to make a small income go as far as possible. And yet she was a happy woman, and a woman whom no one named without good-will. It was her own universal good-will and contented temper which worked such wonders. She loved every body, was interested in every body’s happiness, quicksighted to every body’s merits; thought herself a most fortunate creature, and surrounded with blessings in such an excellent mother, and so many good neighbours and friends, and a home that wanted for nothing. The simplicity and cheerfulness of her nature, her contented and grateful spirit, were a recommendation to every body, and a mine of felicity to herself.”

So much is happening in this paragraph, as with every sentence in Austen, but what interests me most is the practical advice for how to live. (And it is advice I have, hitherto, failed most shamefully to adopt.) Given the choice, most of us would choose to be Emma or Knightley, as opposed to a minor character who is both unmoneyed and unmarriageable. And as readers we are given the choice: We can choose to relate and undertake the perspective of any character we wish. Their mannerisms and habits we enact in our own lives. Very often, our imitations amount to wearing clothes that do not fit; the behaviours of our beloved characters do not match our circumstances. But Miss Bates’ behaviour is as close to a universal recommendation for how to live as is likely to be found in a novel.

I suspect that “intelligence”, or rather, that thing called G, would not have served Miss Bates any better than her own sense of humility; indeed, it would have made her life infinitely worse. Gratitude begins with humility. Satan’s pride precluded the possibility of gratitude, and thus he fell. Though this can be understood intellectually, understanding is insufficient. Humility is a thing to be felt, not thought. And most thought is overthought. 

But might not the promotion of gratitude be a classist discourse that serves to justify the interests of the powerful? Why should the oppressed be grateful for their oppression? The answer, of course, is that they needn’t be. I think one can ask these questions of the text above and receive a coherent reply, namely the acknowledgment that Miss Bates is “in the very worst predicament in the world.” Why the very worst? Because she is a woman; a man in a similar position in a similar place and time would still be better off. But gratitude does not imply complacency or submission to the status quo. Miss Bates is a true radical: She has found something within herself that cannot be taken away: An almost Stoical cheerfulness that remains constant through the whips and whims of fortune.  Call it radical gratitude, or thankfulness in thankless circumstances. It by no means precludes the possibility of radical action, but it does not seek personal happiness through such action. Gratitude is a fortress surrounding the heart.

Humility and the Written Word

“With every day that passes, I am more convinced that the act of writing is a conscious act of humility.” —Bolaño

And yet, is 2666 a humble work? Is any book for that matter? Certainly, a book may humble its readers or its characters or through misdirection diminish the author’s presence. But the impulse to write cannot be humble because it begins with an exaggerated sense of self, even if one’s purpose in writing is to master the ego (as with Marcus Aurelius, for example). Writing begins with a sense of Importance. How, then, can it ever be humble? To speak of humility is to lack humility.

For every author, the blank page is a prison of irony, from which there are many means of escape but few through which the author’s identity can squeeze intact. There is a piece of Plato or Kierkegaard or Wittgenstein forever lost between the lines. (Heraclitus is Houdini.)

The conscious act of humility is one form of escape, a self-deception in which the appearance of humility prevails; to be conscious of one’s humility is not to be humble. (Think of Augustine’s Confessions.) Just as “natural sounding” dialogue is by no means natural, the humble writer is by no means humble. And sometimes the authors most prone to accusations of arrogance, for instance, NN Taleb, are in fact the most humble of all.