Tag Archives: pity

Pity for Man pt. II

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Part II of this post.

Some months prior, I wrote a reflection comparing my previous experiences and hopes for (what I would call) an earthly communal paradise with Albert Camus’ The Fall, in which lawyer Jean Baptiste Clement confesses his selfish virtuousness in his unpaid work with orphans and widows – “the noble causes.” My encounters with the disabled and the poor in China left me not with a sense of deep sympathy, but a feeling of detachment, a complete 180 in comparison to my prior emotions of solidarity in my pre-China state of innocence, when I would watch the spectacle of the wretchedness of the Chinese poor behind electronic screens from the comfort of my airconditioned Canadian home. Justice spoke and I felt a vague wave of indignation, which I found to be empty once confronted in the flesh with dirty dismembered coal miners and rural sojourners who lacked refined and civilized urbanite mannerisms. My reflections led to a cynical conclusion as I realized that my solidarity and respect only extended to (wo)man in the abstract, not (wo)men in the concrete.

I thought of young university liberals full of moral righteousness and indignation as being unreflective and selfish unbeknownst to themselves, as they used the floating images of third world bodies as a way to clothe and brand themselves to gain status in a moral hierarchy and rise above so as to be able to look down on others from the elevated heights of ‘correct’ morality.

Jean Baptiste Clement confesses that he aimed for a moral highground that would let him become beyond reproach, setting him “above the judges whom I judged in turn, and above the defendant, whom I forced into gratitude.” While he may have provided his services gratuitously, with no strings apparently attached, even offering financial help to the family of the defendant in what appeared to be an action of pure kindness and benevolence, he did not leave them light and free but with the greater burden of existential debt.

Anthropologist David Graeber, writer of Debt: The First 5000 Years calls (in this interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SnOqanbHZi4, 9:00 ~) debt a crucial aspect of human sociality. Debt cannot be reduced to control and slavery (a forcing into gratitude). Debt is the chain linking and creating a relationship between two social beings or groups, with mutual indebtedness being a sign of a social relationship. In fact, according to Graeber, the paying off of debt was an insult, a rejection of future social interactions.

In China in full contact with some of the impoverished Chinese, I felt repulsion. Forcing these people, who I could not begin to relate to, into gratitude (or debt) would have meant the formation of a relationship, one I was not adventurous enough to start. But my cynical conclusion does not necessarily extend to everyone else, who may be by constitution more willing to engage in a relationship with this ‘other’ a fruitful, longlasting dialogue between two equals both indebted to each other. For some, (wo)men in the concrete reaffirm their belief in (wo)man in the abstract.

Pity for Man

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A mankind in solidarity, humanity in one collective voice; such are seductive concepts. It brings to my mind an image of brothers and sisters of one human race, arm in arm, with differences put aside for an unending celebration of peace, love and unity on the terrestrial plane in a lifelong jubilee. The good is reciprocated with good and becomes an end to itself.

诸重佑 (제중우), these are the Chinese characters of my Korean name, translated as ‘ giving all a heavy help.’ There was once a time when I took this as a mantra, a supernatural calling, a fate decided from birth and thus accepted the inscriptions of these characters. I remember one particular scene four years ago, when I was inspired by a book titled Leaving Microsoft to Change the World by John Wood, a former executive of Microsoft and the later founder of charitable foundation ‘Room to Read.’ I told my mother that I wanted to devote my life to helping people and changing the world. It would be a meaningful life that I would lead, soaring on lofty heights looking downward towards the crass materiality of commerce and the world below (I was a commerce student at that time).

Albert Camus’ The Fall tells in second-person narration the confession of Jean-Baptiste Clement, whose life went through a vertical translation from up to down, from a former life as a virtuous lawyer defending widows and orphans (in short, noble causes) to the seedy central district in subsealevel Amsterdam as a practising “judge-penitent.” His cynical reflections of his former life recount his gradual enlightenment on the superficiality of his existence, leading to his fall. He acted for and on the vulnerable as a way of chasing summits and becoming one above reproach to a level of purity and innocence. He was an actor on a stage; his generosity to beggars and his aid to the disabled was all a play for the surrounding public, just as when he tipped his hat to a blind man after helping him cross the street. From great heights he expressed his will for domination onto the human ants crawling insignificantly below.

One of my predominant impressions of China before my actual sino-voyage was that of pity. I heard and read and saw the conditions of the majority who were not able to enjoy North American middle class privileges. From my North American heights, I looked down onto the poor Chinese people and I felt my heart reaching across the Pacific Ocean out to their poor lives, full of pity for these not-knowing people, wishing dearly to teach them something of my North American knowledge and experiences to make an impact on their poor existences, an impact that would undoubtedly be positive (after all, I was from North America, the opulent).

While living there, I found that I could not connect with my fantasized Chinese people. I could not relate with their squalor and my sympathy turned into indifference, although pity remained. In Nietzschean terms, I was the good and they were the bad. I saw one sight (which I wrote about in a previous blog post) that made even the homegrown Chinese bourgeois turn their heads for a split second in interest. It (or he or she) straddled the boundaries between the categories of human and non-human. I had five mojitos that night, not because I felt a profound disturbance about the sight, but because I enjoy drinking and wanted to get drunk and have a good time. So much for my pre-Chinese ideals. Why did I have the desire to change the world as a younger man?

In approaching man as a totality, a reified abstraction, a personal interrogation is necessary. Why am I doing this? Who am I doing this for? Is this a self-branding initiative? Do I approach man as a collection of subjects or objects? It is a continual affirmation and reaffirmation of a belief.

I still have strong feelings from time to time about (wo)man, but I realized that I do not always like (wo)men.

 

Note: Second time using that photo, “it” is there