Tuesday, 7 October 2008
Márai on the moneyed middle class
The speaker is the owner of a factory, now in late middle age, and twice divorced.
When I consider my memories of childhood I discover this anxious, grim sense of directedness behind everything. We worked like robots, going about our rich, refined, ruthless, emotionless, robot work. There was something we had to save, something we had to prove, every day, in everything we did. That we were of a certain class. The middle-class. The guardians. We were doing an important job, we had to embody the notions of rank and manners. We were to suppress the revolt of the instincts, of the plebs; we were not to run scared, not to succumb to the desire for individual happiness. You ask whether this is a conscious project?... Well, I wouldn’t exactly say my father or mother sat down regularly at the dinner table every Sunday to announce that week’s program of action or make speeches in which they outlined the next fifty-year family plan. But I couldn’t exactly say that we merely accommodated ourselves to the idiotic demands of class and occasion either. We knew perfectly well that life had singled us out for a difficult series of tests.
It was not only our home, our carefully wrought way of life, our coupons and the factory we had to protect, but the spirit of resistance that constituted the imperatives and deeper meaning of our lives. We had to keep up our resistance to the attractive powers of the proletariat, the plebs who wanted to weaken our resolve by continually tempting us to take various kinds of liberties, whose tendency to revolt we had to overcome, not in the world, but also in ourselves. Everything was suspect: everything was dangerous. We, like others, were careful to make sure the delicate machinery of a pernickety and ruthless society should continue to work undisturbed. We did this at home, judging the world on appearances while suppressing our desires and regulating our inclinations. Being respectable requires constant exertion of effort. I am referring here to the creative, responsible layers of the middle class, in other words not the pushy lower orders who simply want a more comfortable, more diverse kind of life. Our ambition was not to live in greater comfort, or more diversely. Under out actions, our manners, our forms of behavior there was an element of conscious self-denial. We experienced it as a kind of religious vocation, being entrusted with the mission of saving a worldly, pagan society from itself. The task of those who perform this role, under oath and in accordance with the rules of the order, is to maintain that order and to keep secret that which should remain secret when danger threatens the objects of their care. We dined with that responsibility in mind. Every week we dutifully went to the theatre, to the Opera or to the National Theatre. We received our guests, other responsible people, in the same spirit: they came in their dark suits, they sat down in the drawing room, or at the candle-lit dining table with its fine silver and porcelain, where we served good, carefully-chosen food and made empty conversation about sterile subjects, and believe me, there was nothing more sterile than our conversation.
But these empty conversations had a function, a deeper purpose. It was like speaking Latin among barbarians. Beyond the polite phrases, the banal, meaningless, arguments and ramblings, there was always the deeper sense that we responsible middle-class people had come together to observe a ritual, to celebrate an honorable compact, and that the codes we were speaking in – because every conversation was about something else – were ways of keeping a vow, proof that we could keep secrets and compacts from those who would rise against us. That was our life. Even with each other we were always having to prove something. By the time I was ten years old I was as self-conscious and quiet, as attentive and well-behaved, as the president of a major bank.