When Virtue Pays III: Pearl Hunting

I hope you all enjoyed the professor on Wednesday.  Harold Hill is an instructive example of a rather curious phenomenon—call it the anti-Shtcherbatsky, the hypocrite who, due to circumstances outside of his control but relating directly to his practice of hypocrisy, ends up a good man.  (Another example of the same phenomenon, I would argue, is Shakespeare’s Prince Hal—but that is another story.)

Harold Hill is an instructive example of this phenomenon, but I want to talk about instead about Lord George.

Who?  What?  No, I did not know you father.  I believe your father knew me.
Lord George?  He’s two doors down.

Lord George Hell is the protagonist of Max Beerbohm’s The Happy Hypocrite.  Without having any evidence to back the supposition up, I rather suspect Beerbohm of having intended The Happy Hypocrite as a deliciously wicked send-up of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.  The two works are entirely different classes of literature, to be sure, but Hypocrite’s sly inversion of some of Dorian Gray’s themes, coupled with the fact that it was published six years later, would support the hypothesis.

All people are susceptible of parody, 
but some are more susceptible than others.

It’s tempting to leave the rest of the post to Beerbohm because he’s so funny.  For example, in The Happy Hypocrite’s first paragraph:

None, it is said, of all who revelled with the Regent, was half so wicked as Lord George Hell. I will not trouble my little readers with a long recital of his great naughtiness. But it were well they should know that he was greedy, destructive, and disobedient. I am afraid there is no doubt that he often sat up at Carlton House until long after bedtime, playing at games, and that he generally ate and drank far more than was good for him. His fondness for fine clothes was such that he used to dress on week-days quite as gorgeously as good people dress on Sundays. He was thirty-five years old and a great grief to his parents.

We are not amused?  Alright, let’s have the second:

And the worst of it was that he set such a bad example to others. Never, never did he try to conceal his wrong-doing; so that, in time, every one knew how horrid he was. In fact, I think he was proud of being horrid. Captain Tarleton, in his account of Contemporary Bucks, suggested that his Lordship’s great Candour was a virtue and should incline us to forgive some of his abominable faults. But, painful as it is to me to dissent from any opinion expressed by one who is now dead, I hold that Candour is good only when it reveals good actions or good sentiments, and that when it reveals evil, itself is evil, even also.

Nnnnnot yet?  The fourth:

It is pleasant to record that many persons were inobnoxious to the magic of his title and disapproved of him so strongly that, whenever he entered a room where they happened to be, they would make straight for the door and watch him very severely through the key-hole. Every morning, when he strolled up Piccadilly, they crossed over to the other side in a compact body, leaving him to the companionship of his bad companions on that which is still called the “shady” side. Lord George was quite indifferent to this demonstration. Indeed, he seemed wholly hardened, and when ladies gathered up their skirts as they passed him, he would lightly appraise their ankles.

OK, one more and then I’ll return as critic.

I am glad I never saw his Lordship. They say he was rather like Caligula, with a dash of Sir John Falstaff, and that sometimes on wintry mornings in St. James’s Street young children would hush their prattle and cling in disconsolate terror to their nurses’ skirts, as they saw him come (that vast and fearful gentleman!) with the east wind ruffling the rotund surface of his beaver, ruffling the fur about his neck and wrists, and striking the purple complexion of his cheeks to a still deeper purple. “King Bogey” they called him in the nurseries. In the hours when they too were naughty, their nurses would predict his advent down the chimney or from the linen-press, and then they always “behaved.” So that, you see, even the unrighteous are a power for good, in the hands of nurses.

Beerbohm begins his tale with the assertion that “even the unrighteous are a power for good.”  By the end of the story that is proven true not only of Lord George but on Lord George.  He falls in love with a Good Girl, who spurns him in fine theatrical style because of his wickedness.  He buys “the mask of a saint” to wear, and wearing it woos and wins her and is happy.  His hypocrisy is ultimately successful.

Which is more, perhaps, than you can say for his hat.
Kitty Shtcherbatsky is not in love with anything good, but with the appearance of goodness; that makes her a hypocrite.  Lord George loves what is good, and loves the appearance of goodness as a means to possession of the good.  He is a hypocrite too, of a sort, but a hypocrite whose hypocrisy is directed towards something worth while.  He has a grasp of what coin is truly desirable, and he does what it takes to purchase that coin.  If that means lying, cheating, stealing, or pretending to be what he is not—so be it.  If he is not exactly admirable for this—if he is not quite the man who finds the pearl of great price—then he is at least a step ahead of Princess Kitty.  And it is worth noting the curious fact that all of his hypocrisy consists in concealing his past: in his present, he does the right thing—and, dare I say it, does the right thing for the right reason.  That, perhaps, is why he is allowed to attain, or retain, his reward.

This is where the difference between Kant and Aristotle becomes crucial.  Both philosophers would have looked with doubt upon “the pursuit of happiness” in the sense that most moderns use the phrase: that is, the pursuit of unbridled pleasure.  Moreover, what Aristotle considers happiness many moderns would call duty rather than pleasure; it is perhaps for this reason that they understand Kant a little better.  To be sure, Kant would like to see them do their duties; but he admits that those duties may be unpleasant; the moderns agree that duty is unpleasant, and decline for that reason to do it.  Aristotle would agree with Kant and the modern world, and indeed the common experience of not only modern but all fallen men, that dutythat is, virtueis unpleasant in the beginning.  Yet he asserts that in the end, what is right for a man to do becomes pleasurable to him, and more pleasurable than any sin or self-indulgence could be.  Thus, for Aristotle, the pursuit of happiness is the pursuit of duty, and vice versa.  There is no “pursuing happiness instead of just doing your stinking duty.”  It is not only permissible but right (dignum et justum est) to pursue happinessso Aristotle would say—as long as we first understand that to be happy and to be good are one and the same thing.

But this is all absurdly serious as an analysis of Beerbohm’s quirky short story.  I give you one final scene from The Happy Hypocrite.  A newly married couple is contemplating a fearsome nemesis who is about to encroach on the garden.  The wife speaks:

“There is a strange woman smiling at me across the palings,” she said. “I do not know her.”

Her husband’s heart sank. Somehow, he dared not turn his head to the intruder.

“She is nodding to me,” said Jenny. “I think she is foreign, for she has an evil face.”

“Do not notice her,” he whispered. “Does she look evil?”

“Very evil and very dark. She has a pink parasol. Her teeth are like ivory.”

“Do not notice her. Think! It is the mensiversary of our wedding, dear!”

“I wish she would not smile at me. Her eyes are like bright blots of ink.”

“Let us eat our beautiful buns!”

And on that happy note, I wish you  a “very good” weekend.

Incidentally, did you know there was a stage version of this tale, and that Vivien Leigh played “Jenny”? 
If you don’t think that’s funny, I’m sorry, but you have a heart of stone.

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