In line with the phrase “The grass is greener on the other side,” have you ever thought that sins, or passions, are darker on the other side too? But of course, these statements are not contradictory at all, since the grass one is about envy, while the one on sins is about self-justification and judgment of others, all of which come from lack of humility, i.e. pride, and the devil.
Indulging in self-justification and judgment of others is a delightful pastime known as small-talk or gossip, and is sometimes the subject of splendid light-hearted pieces of literature that, although full of ill-disguised sanctimoniousness and a wide display of other passions, offer compelling glimpses on the social customs of their day.
Take for instance The Luncheon, a short story by Somerset Maugham. A woman goes out to lunch with a young aspiring author whom she admires but who is in a tight financial condition. She devours one delicacy out of season after the other, while keeping saying she doesn’t eat anything for lunch. The young author wonders how he is going to pay the bill and years after finally has his revenge by seeing her overweight. Let’s see what sample of sins we’re offered – complacency, gluttony, obsequiousness, and schadenfreude.
Or take this, The Three Fat Women of Antibes, also by Somerset Maugham. I adore this story’s focus on food as prism through which to observe social interaction and attitudes, but nevertheless, it is one of the most obnoxious stories Maugham has ever written. Three fat women try to lose weight in a clinic in a resort, where they meet a woman with a dashing spirit and a healthy weight, whom they attract to their company to be their fourth at bridge. Her unrestricted diet and the three other women’s restricted ones, soon become the reason for mounting tension that is also fueled by personal conflicts unrelated to food.
Maugham laughs at all of them, but somehow makes the healthy-weight woman his positive character, untouched by envy and pettiness if only because her ability to eat whatever she likes has prevented the seeds of these two weeds from growing. She, however, very much like the author, suffers from complacency. So, instead of everybody working on their issues – feeling superior in one case, and using food as a substitute for emotion in the other, both groups choose to point their finger at the shortcomings of the other party, which somehow, seem to deserve harsher reprimand than their own.
In line with this, let’s take a look at another story, very much in line with the approaching Nativity Lent. It is by Russian author Stepan Grigoryevich Pisakhov (1879-1960), and is called How the Merchant’s Wife Fasted. I have been unable to find an English translation, but the Russian text is here. In Russia of the 19th century, the merchants’ wives, called kupchiha in feminine singular, were an aggregate image of crass riches, bigotry, narrow-mindedness, and gluttony. Kupchihas were the then trophy wives – attractive, beautifully dressed, white-skinned, and fat. The kupchiha of this story sees it as her duty in life to eat – dairy foods during Maslenitsa, or the week preceding the Easter Lent, and substantial amounts of lent-appropriate food during the Easter Lent itself. The prevailing feeling during the Lenten period, though, is not one of restrained corporeality but rather of inconvenienced corporeality, subsisting on eating what it should, but dreaming of eating what it shouldn’t. At the end the poor kupchiha becomes delirious with frustrated desire, and the author is as happy as punch to have told such a hilarious story.
I am an avid reader, but the more I read, the more I realise that what literature most of the time offers, is not glimpses on the various points of view that seem to be Truth to people in various circumstances, but rather glimpses on various collections of passions and shortcomings that seem to distinguish one person from the other. There is one single Truth, and it is not not “out there” as the X-Files claim, but it does hurt. It has been right in front of us for about two millennia, and it is that we’re all pathetic but can mend this if we do our work before it is too late. Laughing at others before mending yourself is like saying: “My state of being pathetic is better than your state of being pathetic.” …Nice, no?
Various groups at whose status of being pathetic societies typically love to point their finger, have taken advantage of the process of human individuation and feeling of entitlement in the Western civilisation, and have fought hard to be granted the right of being pathetic without being commented upon, like that privileged majority. This has snowballed into politically-correct phrases such as “Check Your Privilege,” which basically suggest that you are not allowed to approve or disapprove of anything without feeling guilty. What makes this new attitude to thinking so pernicious is that there is a grain of truth in it, but the essence of the truth has been modified to make thinkers dependent on bodies dispensing correct thinking according to the fashion of the day. Modified, you know, like modified starch, designed to fill in the void resulting from the lack of substance. What this “Check Your Privilege” line should suggest instead, is that you’re not allowed to approve or disapprove of anything without being humble. And remembering death, but that’s digressing into a wholly different topic.
Finally, a story showcasing all of the above. It is The Stupid Frenchman by Anton Chekhov and is a nice little essay on gluttony, complacency, stereotypes, and bravado resulting from blending in with what others do.
The story is about a Frenchman who works as a clown in Russia, and once dines in a Russian restaurant only to observe a Russian man eating 15 blini, or pancakes, with butter, salmon, and caviar, washing it all down with vodka, as breakfast he thought was modest, fully appropriate, and in line, in both substance and quantity, with what all other people in the restaurant were having. The French clown initially thought the man was desperate and trying to commit suicide by overeating. By the closing of the story he ended up marveling at that wondrous country that bred men with such huge stomachs and insatiable appetites.
Now, I admire Chekhov, I really do, but I think this clown was made French because of the stereotypical belief that the French are somehow born with a gene for eating in moderation that spills over into a specific savoir-faire in cooking and living in general. This myth persists to date in all those books on French chic, but I can’t feel inferior in any way to a nation that has produced a work with the subject of Rablais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel. So please.
People are the same wherever you go,