Thursday, 14 August 2008

The Eyewitness

The subject is greed. Or is it status? Or ambition? But then again it might be aspiration. Where do you start?

Here's a fat-cat. Consider him. He earns, let us say £200,000 pa. Is that well and truly fat? No, not quite grotesque enough. Let's start with a good Premier League footballer, who earns, say, £35,000 a week. He goes in for his next contract, knowing that one of his team mates is getting £40,000. Why isn't he getting the same. He demands a raise. Meanwhile, the £40,000 a week man...

And so on upwards, ad inf till you get to Frank Lampard and Cristiano Ronaldo. Is he asking for the raise because he desperately wants another £5,000 per week? Because he needs the extra spending power?

Unlikely. He wants it because he thinks he is as good as the better paid team mate. For him it's status! Respect! Self-respect! Plain justice!

He's an idiot, of course. It's mad money. But he doesn't have to be a footballer. He could be anything. Why does he consider it necessary to have madder money than the next man?

This is what Márai proposes in the voice of a woman remembering her husband in the early days of marriage, before they divorced a long time ago: husband said that this man acted as the ‘eyewitness’ to his life. He tried very hard to explain this. The way he put it was that in everyone’s life there was an eyewitness, someone with whom we had met in youth, the other being the stronger, and everything we did was an attempt to hide whatever we are ashamed of from this merciless judge. The eyewitness does not believe us. He knows something about us that no-one else does. We might become ministers of state, we might be awarded the Nobel Prize, but the eyewitness just smiles. Do you really believe in all this?...

And he went on to say that everything we did was, to some extent, done for this eyewitness: it was he who had to be convinced, it is to him we must prove something. Our careers, the great struggles of our individual lives were all, first and foremost, for the benefit of the eyewitness.

The 'this man' in the case of the story, the 'eyewitness', is a successful writer. The husband is a prosperous industrialist. but, in the terms of the book, and in the opinion of his (granted, subjective) wife, a very decent man. A gentleman. And so he is, and yet... (in Márai the story is always in the and yet.)

According to Márai then, the driving force is fear - the desire to hide something from one with a God-like eye. It is the naked Adam and Eve hiding from God in Eden. Status is the fig leaf.

As regards the question of whether the desire for status is a pathological condition that could be treated, he attempts no answer. There is the religious option, making humility a virtue (yes, but I am humbler than you are!), or the collective option in which it is the self is entirely subsumed into a greater good (you are all individuals!- I'm not!).

Márai has extraordinary persistence in pursuing the human predicament down its narrowest alleyways. He is unremitting in pursuit. He also wrote an early autobiographical book Confessions of a Bourgeois (not yet in English, but in French).


Anonymous said...

From this description, the ‘eyewitness’ sounds like a capitalist version of Dostoevsky’s double, Rilke’s angels, Yeats’ daimon -- and Nabokov’s stranger:

As usual he discriminated between the throbbing man and the one that looked on: looked on with concern, with sympathy, with a sigh, or with bland surprise… The stranger quietly watching the torrents of local grief from an abstract bank. A familiar figure, albeit anonymous and aloof. He saw me crying when I was ten and led me to a looking glass in an unused room (with an empty parrot cage in a corner) so that I might study my dissolving face. He has listened to me with raised eyebrows when I said things which I had no business to say. In every mask I tried on, there were slits for his eyes. Even at the very moment when I was rocked by the convulsion men value most. My saviour. My witness. (I forget what story.)

Must admit I hadn’t heard of Márai. I’m out of touch. From the Amazon links, it looks like Embers also deals with the doppelganger theme.

George S said...

There are certainly common factors, though, pretty much as usual, Márai takes the least metaphysical, most psychological line. In Embers the relationship between two men is the point and is explored in great depth, across class, money, rank etc. In the book I am referring to, The Real Thing (provisional title), the suggestion is simply that we find someone we admire and transfer our superego to them. They embody our and others' expectations of ourselves.

Just an extension of 'If only mum (dad/ wife/ best friend) could see me now' and 'I'm so glad mum /dad etc are not here to see this.'

It's not metaphysical or psychotic or pathological. It is, according to Márai (or so I think) perfectly normal, if not generally admitted.

Anonymous said...

Ah, I see. Thanks for clearing that up!