September 29, 2014

The poison of cynicism

By Alice von Hildebrand *

It is hardly conceivable that one, having lived in this imperfect world of ours, could say of his death bed: “In my whole life, I have never heard a remark that was either unkind or offensive.”

Alas, most of us will acknowledge that they have often been wounded by nasty and unkind words, thrown at their face, at times, for no reason at all. It would be sheer naiveté ever to forget that we are living in a world of sinners (with the one exception of the Holy Virgin), and that inevitably people having an “unbaptized” tongue will say things that afflict others.  St. James has warned us: “If anyone thinks that he is religious and does not bridle his tongue…this man’s religion is vain.” (James 1:26)
How is one to respond to these aggravations, sometimes viciously aiming at wounding us? 

Let me briefly mention the classical response given by saints – not forgetting that holiness does not make one “insensitive,” but does shield these beloved children of God from giving the “wrong” response which most of us are tempted to give: such as “tooth for tooth” which often degenerates to “teeth for tooth.” How tempting is the sweet taste of revenge!

Many are those who claim that to love the offender is not only against “nature,” but also against the elementary laws of justice. Was it not Confucius who said: “If you love your enemies, what is left for your friends?”

The saint will not only forgive the person who shot these poisonous “arrows” at him, but will “love his enemy, and pray for those who persecute him.” He will also look for excuses to decrease the culpability of the offender. One thing is certain: a saint will neither nurse a grudge nor “bite back”; moreover he will not, with God’s grace, feel “dispensed” from loving his neighbor.

Not only is it not easy to become a saint.  It is plainly impossible without divine help. “Without me, you can do nothing” is something that those striving for holiness should daily meditate on.

Let us now briefly mention the responses that the “average” man (that is most of us) is likely to give.  How tempting to label as “wicked” or “evil” those who wound up and declare the offender to be unworthy of either forgiveness, let alone love. Someone betrayed by a “friend” will probably cynically redefine friendship as a bond “valid” as long as the so-called friend may use you as a tool for his personal advantage. But once he no longer “needs” you, having squeezed the lemon, he will discard the rind. Moreover, how many people wish to be burdened with friend who is bankrupt and desperately in need of financial help? It is tragically true that the “defeated” person is “usually” abandoned by all. This was tragically formulated by Horace. “Donec eris felix…multos numerabis amicos….Tempora si fuerunt nubile, solus eris” – Whereas a successful man has innumerable friends, most of them being sycophants, a man in distress is, alas, often a lonesome man.  

A disappointed man might tell you that true friendship might be found in some pieces of literature, but never in real life. On the other hand, those of us blessed with true friends – for they do exist – ought to wake up in the morning and go to bed at night with the word “thank you” on their lips. 
But those who have been disappointed or wounded are likely to fall into the temptation of assuming: “No one is worthy of love, not a single one; only simpletons can fall into the trap of trusting others. They are either near sighted or plainly stupid.” A cynic is liberated once and for all from the “burden” of admiring anyone, or looking up to anyone as a model!  
Nevertheless among these “defeatists”, there is a gamut of possibilities. Some of them, acknowledging defeat, will withdraw from a world of illusion, lies and betrayals and will escape into the “desert”. This was the choice made by Moliere’s hero: Alceste in the Misanthrope.  The girl he loved having refused to join him in this seclusion, gives the final blow to his already wounded soul.

Others choose to remain in this evil world, convinced that they have the mission to open people’s eyes to its viciousness. Their favored tool is the wounding knife of cynicism. “Oh! Sweet revenge.”

What is striking about their attitude is that they definitely seem to enjoy their role as “seers,” that is, superior people blessed with a sharp eye sight, people who can smell evil from far away. In other words, they are the clever ones; they pride themselves of their talents as “detectives of evil,” and enjoy their superior intellectual vision. They will, on principle, reject any argument or even proof that their “wisdom” is flawed and poisoned by an unhealthy self-assurance. “I am always right; I see what I see.”        

Literature generously gives us priceless information on this topic. Not surprisingly, the richest field for cynical remarks are women, love, marriage, faithfulness, religion.  Let us not forget, however that bad marriages often make the headlines; very happy ones “treasure” their happiness in the secrecy of their home.

Marriage is an ideal field because many enter into it assuming that, like all fairy tales, it will end with the words: “they were happy forever after.” Let us not forget, however, that some of the greatest poets (Dante comes to mind) have found admirable words to sing the praise of their “dame.” Petrarch dedicated a sublime canto to the encomium of Laura who – alone in his eyes – deserved to be called a Woman: “che sola a me par donna.” That is, incarnating as she does, the plenitude of all female virtues, she alone is worthy to be called “lady.” But many are the writers who – disappointed in marriage – revel in opening our eyes to its false promises and its dangerous appeal. There is such a thing as “literary revenge.”
French writers are particularly talented at making cynical remarks: the sharp Latin mind is quick at detecting flaws in others.

A couple of examples will illustrate this. According to Alexis Piron marriage has only two good days: the entrance and the exit (this is not a quote – p. 172. Most of the cynical remarks that I use are taken from French Quotations by Norbert Guterman, Double Day – sometimes using my own translation).

The following one is just as cynical. A husband visits the tomb of his deceased wife, and meditates on the fact that “there she lies” reveling in her peace and in mine. (Jacques de Lorens, p. 68)

Vauvenargues’ words are loaded with cynicism. He writes: “We feel nothing more sharply than the loss of the woman we love, nor for a shorter time.” (N.G.) He is trying to convince us that “faithfulness” is nothing but an appearance soon denied by facts. How refreshing by comparison to recall the words of Kierkegaard that the test of true faithfulness is our relation to the dead.

In this light of these remarks, we can measure the harm that can be done by cynical literature; and how a young person feeding on it can enter life already “blasé” and disappointed. Yet one great true love should suffice to re-open for us the gates of hope. Is this “light of hope” often offered in contemporary education and contemporary literature? Are we not living in a decadent society where many of us have lost what Dante beautifully calls: “la speranza dell’altezza.” How many of our contemporaries having given up the bright light of faith, live like moles in a dark den, convinced that this earth is to be “enjoyed” in any way one pleases, and then when the game is over, gratefully greet assisted suicide. 

Montaigne clearly deserves a special place in our list of famous cynics. Speaking about marriage, he compares it to an aviary:  the birds inside the cage desperately wishing to get out; those outside, desperately wishing to get in. (p 50)  In other words, once you have “tasted” how bitter-sweet the marriage bond is, understandably your one great wish is to regain your freedom.

As these cynical arrows being mostly shot by men, it is inevitable that they aim at flagellating the female sex. It is always tempting – starting from Genesis – to put the fault on the “other”, be it a serpent or Eve.
But if all the cynical remarks uttered by women’s tongues had been recorded, I am far from certain that they would not deserve the first prize of eloquence.

Understandably, the male sex, being physically the stronger one, is easily tempted to equate superiority with strength.  This is wittily expressed by Alexander Dumas (fils) who tells us that, according to the Bible, the woman was created last. It must have been on Saturday night. There are clear signs of fatigue. (326) But a witty tongue could remind him that “last” often means better: the final copy comes after the rough draft!
The same author is also makes the venomous remark that “the chains of wedlock are so heavy to carry that one needs to be two…and often three.” (ibid)

Every gift of God – and the creation of Eve was one for Adam who gave expression to his joy upon perceiving her – if not “baptized” turns to a terrible caricature.  This found its expression in the following words of Paul Valery: “God created man and finding him not sufficiently alone, gave him a female companion to make him feel doubly lonesomeness.”  (382) Alas, this is acknowledged to be a real possibility by the very talented French philosopher, Gabriel Marcel, (see his play: Le Coeur des Autres), it can and does happen that two people linked by the bonds of matrimony, have nothing to say to one another. This sheds light on many cases of matrimonial infidelity.

How tempting it is for a cynical tongue to lash at “virtues.”

“Few virtuous women do not weary of being so.” (N.G.)  Once again, we owe this nasty remark to La Rochefoucault. My translation “Few are the virtuous women who do not get tired of their ‘trade.’” (p. 92) The message is clear: some women who have little appeal for the other sex, take refuge in “virtue,” but as soon as there is a flicker of hope the pride of being “virtuous” loses its appeal and collapse.

Once virtue is “vilified”, virginity is bound to follow suit. Not surprisingly we are “indebted” to Voltaire for this gem: “One of the superstitions of the human mind is to suppose that virginity could be a virtue.” (N.G. p. 187)

Should one be surprised that someone who dared write the blasphemous words: “ecrasez l’infame”  which have been interpreted by some as being directed to Christ, should shed subtle ridicule one of the most sublime flowers of Christian love? Various interpretations could be given to these diabolical words; but being given the fact that he was a radical atheist and viewed religion as an evil, it seems legitimate gives credence to this negative interpretation.

It is not difficult to detect the venom hidden in these “witty” words. Similarly it is well known that those afflicted by sexual impotency are likely to denigrate this sphere as dragging man down on a purely animal level. I heard one afflicted by this grave flaw, saying: “this is a domain where animals are man’s role model.”

It is clearly redolent of the witty fable of La Fontaine; a fox unable to reach juicy grapes, proclaimed them to be “unripe.” These words are a cover-up for poorly disguised bitterness and resentment.

Inevitably, God and religion are preferred butts of atheists. Once again Voltaire deserves a “special” place whose poisonous pen in 18th century France has done much harm not only to the Church but also to French society. In such cases, the word “enlightenment” actually mean that having rejected the blinding light of faith, and like moles chosen to enter into a dark den, proudly lighten the candle of rationalism. The following remark looks “innocent” but is, in fact, loaded with venom. He writes;
“If God did not exist, he should be invented.” (p. 180) Clearly man thrives on illusions and should not be deprived of this pleasure!

Baudelaire, however, manages to trump this nasty remark when he writes: “God is the only being who, in order to reign need not even exist.” (N.G. p. 313) Comments are unnecessary.

How very many of us forget that whatever gift God has given us – and being a talented writer is one – should be put at His service. Clearly the Evil one aims at having these gifts put at his service through by pride, ambition, and hunger for fast fame.

How often do educators tell children that whatever gift they have should be put at God’s service?  This should give them food for thought.

Alice von Hildebrand is a lecturer and an author, whose works include: The Privilege of Being a Woman (2002) and The Soul of a Lion: The Life of Dietrich von Hildebrand (2000), a biography of her late husband. She was made a Dame Grand Cross of the Equestrian Order of St. Gregory by Pope Francis in 2013.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.

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