With Charity Toward None: A Fond Look at Misanthropy

With Charity Toward None: A Fond Look at Misanthropy

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by Florence King

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New York Times
The only trouble with this book is that its covers are too close together.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Misanthropy, as defined here: ``If ever you meet someone who cannot understand why solitary confinement is considered punishment, you have met a misanthrope.'' Sounding a war cry, King slings as many Molotov cocktails at her brethren as she does at the enemy, occasionally leaving the reader hard put to distinguish the good misanthrope: former president Nixon was wrongly perceived as a hypocrite, although he was actually only trying to hide his misanthropy, argues the author; misanthropes Ty Cobb, Irving Berlin and James Gould Cozzens, on the other hand, are dismissed as merely boring. Such distinctions are crucial to King, who considers misanthropes with ``naked intellect'' like Flaubert society's true friends because they hold us to the highest standards, while ``tender misanthropes,'' like Rousseau with his sensibilite and, in our own day, Oprah, Donahue and Geraldo, encourage us to discount dignity and character. Also bristling this snarling misanthrope's fur are affirmative action--``favoritism for blacks''--and feminism. Citizens of King's designated ``Republic of Nice'' and probably even those in the ``Republic of Mean'' are likely to return their own anger to this diatribe, while the stateless will dismiss King's posturing as dyspepsia manifest.
The New York Times
The only trouble with this book is that its covers are too close together.

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With Charity Toward None

AUTHOR'S NOTEFrom The American Heritage Dictionary: "misanthrope also misanthropist n. A person who hates or scorns mankind. [Fr. < Gk. misanthropos, hating mankind: misein, to hate + anthropos, man.]" 

Firsthand, behind-the-scenes information is the kind America likes. Not unmindful of other portions of the equine anatomy, we are the land of the horse's mouth. Alcoholics write books about alcoholism, drug addicts write books about drug addiction, brothel keepers write books about brothel keeping, so I have written a book about misanthropy.As with repressed Victorians and sex, friendly Americans harbor a secret fascination for the forbidden subject of misanthropy. It reared its head when I told certain people that I was writing this book. Their first response was a hungry-sounding "Ohhh," followed by eager suggestions of whom to put in it.The name proffered most often by intellectual men was Franz Kafka, accompanied by a supporting quotation that they all seem to have underlined: "Nervous states of the worst sort control me without pause. Everything that is not literature bores me and I hate it. I lack all aptitude for family life."My own favorite Kafkaisms are "A friendship without disruption of one's daily life is unthinkable," and "All that I have accomplished is the result of being alone." As heartwarming as these sentiments are, Kafka's life suggests that his real problem was not so much misanthropy as emotional pulverization by a misanthropic father. According to Franz, the elder Kafka possessed "a knowledge of people and a distrust of most of them," and manifested "aloofness, self-confidence and dissatisfaction with everyone else."Kafka's free-floating guilt included guilt over his unsociable nature, which he tried to change—something no self-respecting misanthrope would ever do. As a student he took on what we would call extracurricular activities, joining political clubs and even a seance. But despite interesting associates that included Max Brod and Franz Werfel, Kafka never felt comfortable in groups. Writes Louis Untermeyer: "After an hour of talk his nerves would give way, his lips would twitch, his extraordinary black eyes would burn, and he would be racked with headaches."I know the feeling well, but it is not misanthropy in the strict sense. It is what comes over a touring writer who is too tired to hate. Kafka's whole life was a book tour, which is another way of saying that he was temporarily haunted on a permanent basis. It takes energy to be a misanthrope but Kafka was so overwhelmed by people that he had no strength left to hate them.My consultants recommended several nihilists and existentialists but I rejected them all. A black turtleneck sweater does not a misanthrope make. Nihilists and existentialists tend to bebohemians, who invariably run in packs; despite their alienated stance they have always struck me as a sociable lot who surround themselves with people because they are forever saying "Nothing matters," and they need someone to say it to.I have also eliminated pessimists and fatalists such as Oswald Spengler and T.S. Eliot. If we take as one definition of a misanthrope, "Someone who does not suffer fools and likes to see fools suffer," we realize at once that we are dealing with an individual who has something to look forward to. Misanthropes have the "vision thing" down pat. Anticipating the spectacle of seeing fools suffer makes us wake up in the morning with a song in our hearts, even when the suffering fool is an American president with the power to drag us all down with him. A misanthropic Philistine no doubt would have said, "Hey, wouldn't it be a gas if we could get this guy Samson to come over to the temple?" No matter what wastelands we must endure, our motto is: It was worth it.Every woman who volunteered names recommended Dorothy Parker, but she is not to be found herein. A romantic masquerading as a cynic, Parker hated to be alone, and attempted suicide several times after broken romances. Misanthropes love to be alone, and our attitude toward broken romances is the flip side of America's favorite maxim: "A lover is a stranger you haven't met yet."One woman suggested Jane Austen based on the quotation: "I do not want people to be agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them." This remark bespeaks a standard occupational hazard in an otherwise outgoing lady. Writers are more interested in people than fond of them; life is a laboratory and people are the mice, but it does not follow that all writers are misanthropes. Austen became a writer because people fascinated her,arts and all. I became a writer so I could stay home alone. There's a difference.Many suggested Greta Garbo but I never seriously considered her despite such promising statements as, "For a Swede it is just as natural to be alone as it is for an American to get together."Garbo was more "world-weary" than misanthropic and it's just as well; had she been a misanthrope she would have been an exceedingly frustrated one. Her intense desire to be alone paradoxically required her to cultivate legions of people: the rich whose chateaux and hunting lodges she borrowed to find privacy and solitude; and the entourage of sycophantic fixers who made reservations, handled customs, ordered lunch, and shoved her into taxis so she would not have to deal with people.Two statements by Garbo convince me that she does not belong in this book. Of swashbuckling Douglas Fairbanks she said, "He makes me feel tired," and in Grand Hotel she delivered with striking conviction her famous line, "I have never been so tired in my life." Being a misanthrope would have been too much trouble for this listless, phlegmatic woman. The necessary savage indignation would have demanded too much energy and left her even more exhausted than she already was.I mention W.C. Fields briefly, but I have left out Oscar Levant, Alan King, Andy Rooney, et al. They are not misanthropes but pseudocurmudgeons whose function is to give Americans someone we hate to love, but love anyway. These cute grouches also give real misanthropes a bad name, especially when they turn up on Jerry Lewis's telethons. After all, if you can't hate children, whom can you hate? I am unable to detect anything as simple as misanthropy in the great monsters of history. Some were insane, like Caligula and Ivan the Terrible. Others, like Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin, exuded a certain heavy-handed bonhomie (Saddam Hussein appearsto belong in this category) that suggests normal conviviality, or at least a willingness to give it a try.As leaders of great masses of people, monsters must be able to use their personalities to mesmerize their followers and forge primal bonds with them by becoming father figures. Whatever this gift is called—heart, the common touch, public relations—no misanthrope could hold such a pose for more than five minutes, and then only on a good day.Many monsters, like Adolf Eichmann and his French Revolutionary counterpart, the Jacobin prosecutor Fouquier-Tinville, were also solid middle-class citizens given to civic joinerism, good neighborliness, and exemplary behavior toward friends and family. Hannah Arendt attributed this conundrum to "the banality of evil," but Talleyrand came closer to the mark when he said: "A married man will do anything for money."Finally, I have eliminated "affectless" psychopaths. Misanthropes were sensitive back when sensitive wasn't cool; to us, life is a Chinese water torture and every drop is a tidal wave. This is not to say, of course, that we aren't psychopathic in our own fashion, but we don't commit crimes because we know that prison life is communal. (If ever you meet someone who cannot understand why solitary confinement is considered punishment, you have met a misanthrope.)All of the misanthropes I discuss in this book portend or illuminate some contemporary American problem. For this reason, Jonathan Swift, perhaps the most famous misanthrope of all time, makes only a passing appearance. If we discount the effect on his temperament of Menière's disease, which is still being debated and can never be known, the chief cause of Swift's misanthropy seems to have been disgust at the many second-rate people he was forced to deal with in his clerical career. Devious peers and their double-crossing sycophants controlled the churchlivings and deaneries Swift sought to obtain. His story is a miasma of petty intrigues that, while universal in some respects, offers no striking analogy to American life and is, in my opinion, boring: if you have plowed through one Swiftian fight you have plowed through them all.I have left out H.L. Mencken for similar reasons. So much has been written about him, especially since the publication of his controversial diary last year, that his misanthropy, while indisputable, has become a cliché. I have chosen instead to include a chapter on his forerunner and idol, Ambrose Bierce, about whom not nearly enough has been written.I had planned to include Mark Twain and Ring Lardner because both have been called misanthropes by many critics. In Twain's case the assessment is based on the emergence, toward the end of his life, of a "dark side" in his writing. I got tired of reading about this late-blooming "dark side" because misanthropes are born, not made. If Twain's outlook grew bleak in his last decade it was because he was hit by family tragedies—and because it was his last decade. "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg" (1899) paints human nature as thoroughly rotten, but it is the normal bitter wisdom of old age, not misanthropy, that speaks to us. America expects old people to exit cute, but some old people refuse to exit cute and Mark Twain was one of them.He has also been taken too literally, as in his essay "The Damned Human Race," about Man's greatest defect, which he says is "permanent, indestructible, and ineradicable":I find this Defect to be the Moral Sense. He is the only animal that has it. It is the secret of his degradation. It is the quality which enables him to do wrong. It has no other office. It is incapable of performing any other function. It could never have been intended to perform any other. Without it, man could do no wrong. Hewould rise at once to the level of the Higher Animals. Since the Moral Sense has but one office, the one capacity—to enable man to do wrong—it is plainly without value to him.I read this not as misanthropy but as an intentionally sophistic jeu d'esprit—the moral sense as the clitoris of the human spirit—that rings with the same love of exaggeration that infused his joyous early works.In his 1929 critique in The Nation, Clifton Fadiman accused Ring Lardner of a "perfectly clear simon-pure, deliberate misanthropy." Why? Because his characters are "mental sadists, four-flushers, intolerable gossipers, meal-ticket females, interfering morons, brainless flirts, liars, brutes, spiteful snobs, vulgar climbers, dishonest jockeys, selfish children, dipsomaniacal chorus girls, senile chatterers, idiotically complacent husbands, mean arrivistes, drunks, snoopers, poseurs, and bridge players."Anyone who would end a list like that with bridge players betrays a certain desperation, and the use of dipsomaniacal for drunken is cause for deep suspicion, which I promptly developed. It deepened still more when I came across a 1932 assessment by Ludwig Lewisohn, who found "icy hatred and contempt" in Lardner's "bitter and brutal" stories.I read some of these bitter and brutal stories but their misanthropy eluded me. What did Lardner do to the Lit Crits to make them so mad? The first hint comes in Lewisohn's remark about the ease with which Lardner continued "to sell his merciless tales to the periodicals that cater to the very fools and rogues whom he castigates." The cat comes completely out of the bag with Harry Salpeter's charge in The Bookman: "[Lardner] had too many high-priced magazine fish to fry to worry about his place in the pantheon of American literature."In other words, Lardner remained popular with readers of TheSaturday Evening Post after the literati, closet misanthropes without peer, had deigned to discover him.The Lit Crits were discovering "tragic visions" right and left during the twenties and thirties—Melville was their chief victim—so I took the misanthropy charges against Lardner with a grain of salt. To me, he was an O. Henry in a bad mood or a Lewis Grizzard liberated from good ole boyitis, but not a "simon-pure" misanthrope. Besides, in the course of my research I came across that Fadiman quotation so many times—writers hand down quotations like family silver—that I decided Lardner deserved a break whether he was a misanthrope or not.Like any other personality trait, misanthropy is a matter of degree. Taken in the literal sense, the obvious problem is one of logistics: hating the entire human race is hard to do—though a few have done it and I will discuss these heroes in subsequent chapters.In the figurative sense, however, misanthropy is a realistic attitude toward human nature that falls short of the incontinent emotional dependency expressed by Barbra Streisand's anthem to insecurity, "Peepul who need peepul are the luckiest peepul in the world." Considered in this context, an examination of misanthropy has value for Americans who do not necessarily hate everybody, but are tired of compulsory gregariousness, fevered friendliness, we-never-close compassion, goo-goo humanitarianism, sensitivity that never sleeps, and politicians paralyzed by a hunger to be loved.With the second sense in mind, I have written this book to try and cut through some of the confusion and win one for the Sonofabitch.WITH CHARITY TOWARD NONE: A FOND LOOK AT MISANTHROPY. Copyright © 1992 by Florence King. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.

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