Beauty and the Beast

by Theodore Dalrymple (March 2009)

It is more difficult to write interestingly of good people than of bad; villains are generally more memorable than heroes. A newspaper that reported only acts of kindness and generosity would be insufferably boring and would go bankrupt even faster than those that relay only disaster caused by defalcation. To adapt very slightly Tolstoy’s famous aphorism, good people are all good in the same way, but bad people are all bad in their own way.

To write of good people is often to sound either naïve or priggish; whereas to write of the bad is to appear worldly and sophisticated. One of the reasons, of course, for the difficulty of writing interestingly of the good is that there seems so much less to say of them than of the bad. The good act according to principle, and are therefore lamentably (from the literary point of view) predictable. Once you know how they behave in one situation, you know how they will behave in others. The bad, by contrast, have no principles beyond the pursuit of short-term self-interest, and sometimes not even that. They are therefore not predictable and their conduct is infinitely various. As I discovered in my medical work, the variety of human self-destruction is, like the making of books, without end; and even the least imaginative and inventive may discover new ways of exercising malignity. Since variety is the spice of prose, the bad are lingered upon with affection by most, if not by all, writers.

At the same time, of course, there is the problem of evil: how it arises, and how it triumphs. No one troubles himself to anything like the same extent over the problem of good: how it arises, or how it triumphs. Perhaps this is testimony to the victory of Rousseau’s idea that we are fundamentally good by nature, though deformed by society, over that of Original Sin, which proposes that we are all sinful from birth. Suffice it to say that no one would nowadays subscribe to the idea of one of the Wesleys (I forget which) with regard to the beating of children, that it is never too soon to begin God’s glorious work.

It occurred to me in view of the problem of good – I mean the literary problem, not the metaphysical one – to try to write interestingly of some of the very good people whom it has been my fortune to encounter in my passage through this vale of tears we call the world. Somerset Maugham once tried the experiment, but I am not sure that he succeeded. It is difficult for wasps suddenly to turn cuddly.

The first person I want to describe (and to whom I want to pay tribute) is the internist for whom I worked immediately after qualification as a doctor. In those days it was not as common as it is now for women to have reached the peak of their profession, and this woman had done so by the sacrifice, how willing or with what inner conflict I cannot say, of everything else in her life. She was what used to be known as ‘an old maid,’ and though well into her fifties, which seemed to me then a great age, still lived with her mother. Her background was obviously that of the upper middle class; I should guess her family had been in what were called ‘easy circumstances,’ that is to say in unostentatious but secure financial comfort going back generations.

She was an extremely competent and knowledgeable doctor, though very modest, and in her younger days had done distinguished research. But her most distinguishing feature was her unstinting devotion to the welfare of her patients, whom she always treated with the greatest kindness that not even the roughest of them could fail to notice. I considered them fortunate to have her as their physician, for even when she could do nothing for them her evident love for them reduced their suffering greatly, and implicitly recalled them to their duty to think of others even in extremis, which likewise reduced their suffering. Her influence on others was therefore great, but indirect. If she had a fault, it was to go on wrestling with death too long on her patients’ behalf; but when I think of the realty of the possibility of compassion, against those cynics who say that it is really something else, a disguised form of self-interest for example, it is of her that I think, between thirty and forty years ago.

Alas, not very long after I left the hospital, she was diagnosed with a rapidly-progressive form of breast cancer and died, survived by her aged mother. I still cannot think of this without being seized by sorrow. If her life was in any way unfulfilled, as it may well have been, she was too lacking in egotism to obtrude her troubles on others; I imagine a tragic resignation on her part, but perhaps I am projecting myself unjustifiably into her situation. At any rate, she sought neither fame nor fortune, but to do good in a quiet, unobtrusive way, and died genuinely lamented by all who knew her.

At the hospital also was a young Indian doctor who, being a few years older than I at the time, appeared to me to be middle aged. He was a chain-smoker, which in those days did not seem to be such a strange thing to be; no doubt it was a cause of his very early death from a heart attack.

His background was such that he should have been a spoilt brat rather than a man who inspired instant affection, again even from the roughest patients who might in other circumstances have been expected to be derogatory on racial grounds about Indians in general. His personal vulnerability – which had nothing to do with his knowledge or competence, which in fact were considerable – inspired a protectiveness in others, who therefore wished him only well. I am sure that his patients wanted to get better for his sake as much as for their own; they did not want to disappoint him.

He came from a rich family: so rich that when he, a cricket fanatic, wanted desperately at the age of ten to watch a match a thousand miles away, his father would organise a special train and pack him off in the care of assorted servants to watch it. Until he arrived in Britain, like many Indians of the upper or middle classes, he had never so much as carried a case for himself; contrary to what many suppose, such Indians experience a precipitous decline in their standard of living when they reach Europe or America.

I see him now, short and slightly overweight, a man used to the utmost luxury, trudging round the dreary hospital in his white coat at two and three in the morning, treating all manner of emergencies calmly and with immense good humour. His gravelly laughter rings still in my ears; I hear his accent also, his replacement of v by w, and vice versa.

Whenever I have reason to think of the incalculability and essential mystery of mankind, I think of him; for there was everything in his background to make him a selfish egotist, a man who considered his own whim law, yet he turned out to be a selfless, modest, amusing (because always amused) man.

In this connection, I think also of the adolescent son of a female alcoholic patient, nasty and violent in drink, whom I expected to be adversely affected by growing up in an atmosphere of every conceivable kind of squalor, physical, emotional and moral. If he had been truculent and aggressive I should have understood it; if he had thought he was hard done by, I could hardly have disagreed with him. But instead of being such a young man, he was extremely well-mannered and attentive to his own education, not resentful in the least; moreover, he looked after his disagreeable mother with a tenderness that was amazing to behold and (frankly) impossible to understand, considering the dog’s life she had led him. Where did such goodness come from? It was at least as difficult a problem as that of evil.

Having not long qualified, I went to work in a large hospital in Africa – Rhodesia to be exact. The hospital was a very good one, and the nurses of one of the wards were supervised by a senior nurse who was fat, jolly, competent and of surpassing kindness. She, too, lived with her aged mother, in what used to be known to the whites as the African township. This consisted of thousands of identical small concrete houses with tin roofs.

The township was dangerous: full of shebeens, where vast quantities of maize beer were drunk by young men who became quarrelsome and violent, inflamed by every kind of dissatisfaction and frustration. But the nurse’s home, to which I was invited several times, was a haven of tranquillity, spotlessly clean and with a tiny but immaculately kept garden.

I suppose an aesthetic snob (such as I was at the time) would have said that the interior, with its plush chairs with frilly antimacassars, was a petit bourgeois paradise; but in the context of that time and place it was a triumph of the human spirit over great adversity, a considerable achievement. I learnt (I hope) not to despise the decent ambitions of the humble, but rather to see in them the work of civilisation: something that intellectuals are very much inclined not to do, but rather to indulge in demeaning jokes about them, de haut en bas.

Quite a number of years later, I met in an obscure part of Nigeria an aged Irish nun, well into her seventies, living in an isolated convent with other nuns, who made it her work to bring food to the prisoners in the local prison. I have very little doubt that they would have been severely malnourished or even starved to death without her arduous attentions; she made sure that each of the prisoners, some of whose sentences had expired but who had not the requisite money to bribe the gaolers to release them, and others of whom had been on remand for ten years, was fed. For it was a matter of fact, accepted as a law of nature, that officialdom would steal whatever there was to be stolen.

The nun had nothing but her moral authority to effect her work, and she had no reward but the gratitude of the prisoners and the compliance of the guards. It was clear that they all now had both a respect and an affection for her; she carried around with her an aura of invulnerability to the world’s evil. But none of this had gone to her head, on the contrary; her humility was genuine and unselfconscious, and I suppose if asked she would have denied any special merit in her conduct. The reproach to one’s own comparative lack of humanity was implicit rather than explicit. The power of example is that it is exemplary, not declarative, much less declamatory.

It is not of course for me to say whether I have been able to interest the reader in some of the remarkably good people whom I have met, or whether they would really rather have heard about the baby-sitter whom I met who killed the three infants in his charge because he didn’t like the noise they were making that interfered with his concentration on television. It might be said that, having described the goodness of these five people, I would have nothing more of interest to say about them; whereas, had I chosen the four or five greatest moral monsters whom I had encountered, I would have much more to say.

But this is not quite right; the fact is that we are much more interested in the life histories of the moral monsters than in those of people like the five exemplars whom I have described. Their lives were neither uniform nor without interest, but I did not enquire into them with the same curiosity that I have employed in the cases of the moral monsters.

In summary, it may be said that evil attracts and engrosses us in a way that good rarely does.


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