Attempts to describe ordinary life without an empathetic heart and sympathetic ear are often led to cliched political or social screeds marred by a partisan ideology that fails to chime the bells of the hearts of universal readers across a great divide of territorial, cultural, and biological planes that we want to cross over. In this regard, Guy de Maupassant, a great 19th Century French writer stands alone, showing us what life means to ordinary folk at the heart of its vicissitudes with an honest, profound observation of the performers of acts as an usher to the theatre of human drama.
The short stories are vignettes of collective contemporary lives of ordinary French folk from the middle class Parisian civil servants to the Normandy peasants that are all connected in one way or another in the wheel of fortune spun on the whims and caprice of Lady Fortune. Titles and ranks lose their forces in this game of cruel lottery, and the characters are fallen apart from their most cherished yearnings, treasured wishes, deluded hopes, and forced beliefs. Humanity, in general, lays bare its essence in the face of tragedy, and it is this aspect of human nature that Maupassant laments and pities as a detached observer of each act of the drama. “Two Friends” shows how life can be altered by the current political affairs of the time, while “Monsieur Parent” portrays a man consumed by solipsistic passions kept in a voluntary estrangement. The hypocrisy of religious sanctimoniousness aided by the idiosyncratic custom in the guise of regional tradition in “The Christening” is accused of a crime against humanity. The bullying of meekness and joviality in “Toine” manifests Shakespeare’s adage that the unkindest beast is kinder than mankind. And there is the awakening of greed and sloth in “The False Gems” as Lady Fortune beckons with a fortuitous lure that even you will be tempted into. The panoply of emotions, varied incidents, and inner conflicts are blatantly displayed in their revelation but are nuanced in their language.
Maupassant is a genius in this regard that he elevates the perspective on the seemingly ordinary outlook on life into the intricate psychology of the human mind with the feeling of the sublime as though seen from the position of a god or an angel not permitted to interfere with mortal life. Through the characters, Maupassant shows us what makes them behave the way they do lest we should criticize their follies and foibles a priori. He is in a way a pre-existentialist by which the experience of their characters precedes their existence. That is, if you know them, you will understand them. Maupassant through the literary looking glassed-selves of the characters tells us to read their own stories breathed in a pulsation of unfulfilled longings, disallowed happiness, and shattered dreams to find sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility toward them.
This book is not for a rapid reading at one sitting. Rather you should read this anthology of short stories chapters by chapters, words by words, day after day like you are reading psalms that speak to your heart amid the vicissitudes of life that try your trust in yourself and others. For that’s what Maupassant wants you to as life is seldom fathomable to ascertain how far it will have to be lived and how much it can be appreciated based upon your own appreciation of the meaning of life in daily life.
Author’s Note: They are on the top of the world looking down the creations below and think life is alright if only they live one day at a time. And I guess such revelation of meaning of life in nature can be on par with the “Ecstasy of Gold”.
Author’s Note: I read today’s Reuters article about an old African-American barber in the northwestern suburb of Detroit who said that Impeachment is not really a ready remedy to ease everyday man’s daily struggle with life. What concerns him more than this national headline is how he survives with a paltry daily income in harsh reality. I think it pretty much sums up a general opinion on the political pandemonium. Such stoically cool outlook on the political scene has been constant of ages, regardless of race and culture. Surely, Aristotle said that if you are not interested in politics, you must be either a beast or a divine being. But did he in fact include the ordinary folk? It has always been the common people whom the powers-that-be use as their henchmen for political hegemony. The current impeachment news only tangibly matters to the politicians and their ilk. Apart from the universal news about the epidemic Coronavirus, the article lingers in my mind with the vista of the hardworking old barber doing his daily duties to make his living in his small barber shop.
In the case of life imitating art, you tend to find meanings of events in life, to liken them to values of adversity in life, and to sublimate them to the divine auguries of purposeful human existence. In fact, this existential approach to the causality of certain human behaviors and characteristics can help you to understand whys and wherefores of the way people are and thus can even disarm all hostility towards strangers without prejudice. Such is the case of Adam Smith, the father of modern idea of Capitalism, author of “The Wealth of Nations” whose such proverbial reputation had piqued me no more than as a boring illustrative curriculum vitae of just another stuffy intellectual with privileged educational and social backgrounds until I read Stuart Kells’s article about the Real Adam Smith whom I might never have known.
Adam Smith, a posthumous son of a successful lawyer and customs official, was a rather melancholic, lonely, but humane thinker who liked to spend time with himself alone but also kept his foot in reality by observing everyday people’s lives and considering them to employ in contextualizing ills of society as a result of ineffective rules of law failing to protect the welfare of subjects. Smith’s brilliance shines on the simple and lucid illustrations of his thinking in common language that the literate and the illiterate could understand. He was a soul of the wit distinguished from his peers and progenitors favoring abstruse expressions of bombastic words pedantic of their academic learning.
Kells enlightens us that this humane trait in Smith can be originated from the traumatic experience of being kidnapped aged four at the home of his Scottish maternal uncle allegedly by a set of vagrants called ‘Tinkers’ or a party of Gypsies, the Wandering Egyptians. Although who the real culprit of this kidnapping is still a mystery to this day, what the event affected the tender mind was all over but the shouting. It was Smith’s first interaction with the world outside the safety of class, the innocence of childhood, and the security of the family. Already fatherless, the very young Smith must have felt powerless, hopeless, and homeless at the hands of his kidnappers. And this melancholy spell cast upon him became his curse and bliss as it made him look into the pains of other people and meditate on the causes and effects thereof by sympathizing with their sorrows and emphasizing with the sorrowful.
The kidnapping incident of Adam Smith read like a piece of sensational news to me, a kind of new awakening, the equivalent of modern-day news that a bestseller writer or a prize-winning writer hails from a poor family without expensive private high education. And it makes you think about what makes a person become who he or she is and appreciate the person’s values that overcome adversity. In this respect, Adam Smith is in league with Charles Dickens, who turned his suffering into works of art. It’s a triumph of the human spirit over the travesty of life. All in all, thanks to Kells’s telltale article about the wondrous event, I have abandoned my prejudice against Smith as a cold, stiff upper lipped economist and warmed to his humane side. Maybe I might even read “The Wealth of Nations” into the bargain.