On Greatness


What is 'greatness'? A quality, surely. Is it something we are born with or without, something we inherit, is it something that can be learned and taught? The topic comes to mind as I am reading Kazuo Ishiguro's novel The Remains of the Day, which broaches the topic in an unexpected way. Ishiguro's protagonist is a English butler managing a grand household in the 1950s. On a road trip to Salisbury, Mr Stevens is graced with stunning views of the English countryside, which, to him, possess a certain 'greatness' unlike any of the beautiful sceneries adorning the pages of National Geographic. It is, he ventures,

the very lack of obvious drama or spectacle that sets the beauty of our land apart. What is pertinent is the calmness of that beauty, its sense of restraint. It is as though the land knows of its own beauty, its own greatness, and feels no need to shout it. In comparison, the sorts of sights offered in such places as Africa and America, though undoubtedly very exciting, would, I am sure, strike the objective viewer as inferior on account of their unseemly demonstrativeness.

This first attempt at describing greatness is quite telling of what is to follow, which I'll get on to in a second. Although we might be a little put off by Mr Stevens' patriotism, ignoring that, it seems a reasonable enough suggestion that greatness - if it is to be distinguished from the vulgar - necessitates some demonstration of composure, or modesty, "in its sense of restraint". Mr Stevens quickly identifies this with a sense of 'dignity', bringing the question closer to home, to one much discussed by him in the 1930s: What is a 'great' butler?

In Mr Stevens' view, a clue is given by a certain elite butler society's membership criteria: "The most crucial criterion is that the applicant be possessed of a dignity in keeping with his position. No applicant will satisfy requirements, whatever his level of accomplishment otherwise, if seen to fall short in this respect." Perhaps an example will illustrate what is meant by "a dignity in keeping with his position":

Mr Stevens' father, also a butler, was trusted with driving three guests around the countryside one afternoon. Two of his passengers were already a little drunk, and their rowdy speech got louder and fouler as he drove, to the point when they were insulting him and his driving. He didn't flinch. But their unruliness went on, until they began insulting his employer. All of a sudden he stopped the car, got out, opened the passenger door and stood there, his tall frame blocking any view the passenger might have of the countryside, looking at them in silence. At first they expected him to say something, but he didn't utter a word. He didn't even look angry.

He had, it seemed, merely opened the door. And yet there was something so powerfully rebuking, and at the same time so unassailable about his figure looming over them that Mr Charles's two drunken companions seemed to cower back like small boys caught by the farmer in the act of stealing apples [...] The silence seemed to go on interminably, before either Mr Smith or Mr Jones found it in him to mutter: 'I suppose we were talking a little out of turn there. It won't happen again.' A moment to consider this, then my father had closed the door gently, returned to the wheel and had proceeded to continue the tour of the three villages.

Mr Stevens would debate with a fellow butler, Mr Graham, about what constituted this 'dignity' so well demonstrated by his father's driving incident - that perfect balance of professionalism and integrity. To Mr Graham, this 'dignity' is "something like a woman's beauty" and therefore "pointless to attempt to analyse". Mr Stevens disagrees however, for if seen like this, it implied that 'dignity'

was something one possessed or did not [possess] by a fluke of nature; and if one did not self-evidently have it, to strive after it would be as futile as an ugly woman trying to make herself beautiful. Now while I would accept that the majority of butlers may well discover ultimately that they do not have the capacity for it, I believe strongly that this 'dignity' is something one can meaningfully strive for throughout one's career. Those 'great' butlers like Mr Marshall who have it, I am sure, acquired it over many years of self-training and the careful absorbing of experience. In my view, then, it was rather defeatist from a vocational standpoint to adopt a stance like Mr Graham's.

What is interesting is that Mr Stevens isn't ruling out the possibility that 'dignity' may well be an inherited trait akin to beauty. From a vocational standpoint however, to view 'dignity' like this is indeed defeatist. It may be difficult for us to understand the relevance of this in today's climate where 'vocational' means very little. It is in fact difficult to even imagine these butlers discuss with such ardour and at such length, the meanings of 'greatness' and 'dignity'. Perhaps they are deluding themselves in attempting to believe that there is some greatness and dignity in their line of work — they are mere servants after all. Perhaps striving for 'dignity' is simply a coping mechanism for the poor and the oppressed, as if that's all they can hope for. One could also say that such things are thought of precisely because the people debating them are intelligent men and women possessed with a certain upbringing which values the serious discussion of matters such as 'dignity' and 'greatness'.

Regardless of where the conversation stems from, I can vouch that it is certainly something I have though of - albeit with less vigour - working as a waiter for several years. The way I saw it, my job wasn't what one might consider difficult. So I thought, since I'm stuck with this job, might as well become really good at it, which shouldn't be too hard considering it's just 'being a waiter'. So I learnt. Having gained quite a lot of experience as a waiter, I can say with some certainty that, looking at my colleagues at least, I at first considered 'good' in a very practical sense. A good waiter/waitress is one who knows where everything is, knows what to do and when to do it (gets their priorities straight), and doesn't make mistakes.

Having established that, and being surrounded by 'good' professionals, your mind naturally seeks out what can be better than 'good'. As I said, I was concerned with being 'really good', which, due to my competitive spirit, meant 'the best'. It is then, in the process of observing and evaluating your colleagues, that you notice which traits distinguish them from one another. You begin to understand why so and so is considered one of the best, or not. And your judgement is only ever cemented when you observe their behaviour in exceptional circumstances. That is when the best distinguish themselves from the good. For in excessively stressful situations, some will falter, panic and lose control of the situation, whereas others will rise to the occasion, composed and calm as ever, and deal with it in the most professional way - easing everybody's nerves at once.

Such is not an easy task. For instance, asking a customer to leave on account of their behaviour is a last resort, and also the easiest. Stirring the situation back to one that is acceptable, in a professional manner - that is to say, without even mentioning that the situation had become unruly to begin with, sparing the customer further embarrassment - that is perhaps a mark of greatness. Doing this, with a certain pride that it is done as 'part of the job' and nothing extraordinary, this is the 'dignity' that Mr Steven talks of. Just as what makes the English countryside's 'greatness' is its unassuming air of simplicity, so too is the waiter's 'greatness' comprised of successfully dealing with unforeseen challenges without thinking much about them: it's 'just part of the job'.

Coming back to the initial discussion between Mr Stevens and Mr Graham on whether or not the qualities of 'greatness' and 'dignity' can or cannot be learnt, it would now seem that these two things, are, more than anything, certain states of mind. The ability to perceive one's profession with the highest standards and never let go of that disposition, indeed to let that disposition guide your actions throughout the most severe tests, such is the mindset of the great butler and the great waiter. Why this mindset couldn't be self-taught, trained and sustained is curious. I agree with Mr Stevens that it would be most beneficial to think otherwise. As he puts it:

It is surely a professional responsibility for all of us to think deeply about these things so that each of us may better strive towards attaining 'dignity' for ourselves.

Here I am reminded of Albert Camus' opening lines to The Myth of Sisyphus, where he sets aside all philosophical questions pertaining to categories of the spirit or whatnot, to focus on the one question that matters the most: why live. Kazuo Ishiguro's foray into the world of butlers is a modest attempt, I believe, to answer part of that question. There is, without doubt, a deeper metaphysical level to Camus' question. Mr Stevens' notion that we should strive to attain dignity in our profession - whatever it may be - enables us to give some meaning to our lives on a not too superficial basis. Such is, to my mind, a sound basis on which to lead one's life - a disposition which doesn't preclude future metaphysical meditations on why one should live.

In the end however, one cannot help but feel a little sorry for Mr Stevens. Whatever sort of great butler he was, he became so at a great cost. Much of it comes down to his particularly stringent notion of what a great butler is: one that 'never brings his guard down until alone'. Ultimately, it is alone that the rest of his being will remain: for life is not just about work. It is recommended to have such a diligent approach to work, yet one must remember that work is not all that imparts meaning to life. Ultimately, dignity, much as honour, exists and survives as something to strive for in the face of others. These notions wouldn't exist were it not for society, just as the pleasure derived from attaining them serves some other purpose than personal satisfaction and the sentiment of accomplishment: they fulfil that desire to inspire those you love and care for. So that they might surpass themselves too. This is what Mr Stevens really wanted: to change the world, if only a small contribution. But he never understood.

Featured Posts
Recent Posts
Related Posts

© 2020 by Pierre Smith Khanna