With Charity Toward None: A Fond Look at Misanthropy

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9780312071240: With Charity Toward None: A Fond Look at Misanthropy

A humorous look at the misanthropic life discusses famous misanthropes ranging from Rousseau to Richard Nixon for readers who are tired of ""goo-goo humanitarianism and sensitivity that never sleeps."" By the author of Reflections in a Jaundiced Eye.

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With Charity Toward None
AUTHOR'S NOTEFrom The American Heritage Dictionary: "misanthrope also misanthropist n. A person who hates or scorns mankind. [Fr. < Gk. misanthropos, hating mankind: misein, to hate + anthropos, man.]" 
Firsthand, behind-the-scenes information is the kind America likes. Not unmindful of other portions of the equine anatomy, we are the land of the horse's mouth. Alcoholics write books about alcoholism, drug addicts write books about drug addiction, brothel keepers write books about brothel keeping, so I have written a book about misanthropy.As with repressed Victorians and sex, friendly Americans harbor a secret fascination for the forbidden subject of misanthropy. It reared its head when I told certain people that I was writing this book. Their first response was a hungry-sounding "Ohhh," followed by eager suggestions of whom to put in it.The name proffered most often by intellectual men was Franz Kafka, accompanied by a supporting quotation that they all seem to have underlined: "Nervous states of the worst sort control me without pause. Everything that is not literature bores me and I hate it. I lack all aptitude for family life."My own favorite Kafkaisms are "A friendship without disruption of one's daily life is unthinkable," and "All that I have accomplished is the result of being alone." As heartwarming as these sentiments are, Kafka's life suggests that his real problem was not so much misanthropy as emotional pulverization by a misanthropic father. According to Franz, the elder Kafka possessed "a knowledge of people and a distrust of most of them," and manifested "aloofness, self-confidence and dissatisfaction with everyone else."Kafka's free-floating guilt included guilt over his unsociable nature, which he tried to change--something no self-respecting misanthrope would ever do. As a student he took on what we would call extracurricular activities, joining political clubs and even a seance. But despite interesting associates that included Max Brod and Franz Werfel, Kafka never felt comfortable in groups. Writes Louis Untermeyer: "After an hour of talk his nerves would give way, his lips would twitch, his extraordinary black eyes would burn, and he would be racked with headaches."I know the feeling well, but it is not misanthropy in the strict sense. It is what comes over a touring writer who is too tired to hate. Kafka's whole life was a book tour, which is another way of saying that he was temporarily haunted on a permanent basis. It takes energy to be a misanthrope but Kafka was so overwhelmed by people that he had no strength left to hate them.My consultants recommended several nihilists and existentialists but I rejected them all. A black turtleneck sweater does not a misanthrope make. Nihilists and existentialists tend to bebohemians, who invariably run in packs; despite their alienated stance they have always struck me as a sociable lot who surround themselves with people because they are forever saying "Nothing matters," and they need someone to say it to.I have also eliminated pessimists and fatalists such as Oswald Spengler and T.S. Eliot. If we take as one definition of a misanthrope, "Someone who does not suffer fools and likes to see fools suffer," we realize at once that we are dealing with an individual who has something to look forward to. Misanthropes have the "vision thing" down pat. Anticipating the spectacle of seeing fools suffer makes us wake up in the morning with a song in our hearts, even when the suffering fool is an American president with the power to drag us all down with him. A misanthropic Philistine no doubt would have said, "Hey, wouldn't it be a gas if we could get this guy Samson to come over to the temple?" No matter what wastelands we must endure, our motto is: It was worth it.Every woman who volunteered names recommended Dorothy Parker, but she is not to be found herein. A romantic masquerading as a cynic, Parker hated to be alone, and attempted suicide several times after broken romances. Misanthropes love to be alone, and our attitude toward broken romances is the flip side of America's favorite maxim: "A lover is a stranger you haven't met yet."One woman suggested Jane Austen based on the quotation: "I do not want people to be agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them." This remark bespeaks a standard occupational hazard in an otherwise outgoing lady. Writers are more interested in people than fond of them; life is a laboratory and people are the mice, but it does not follow that all writers are misanthropes. Austen became a writer because people fascinated her,arts and all. I became a writer so I could stay home alone. There's a difference.Many suggested Greta Garbo but I never seriously considered her despite such promising statements as, "For a Swede it is just as natural to be alone as it is for an American to get together."Garbo was more "world-weary" than misanthropic and it's just as well; had she been a misanthrope she would have been an exceedingly frustrated one. Her intense desire to be alone paradoxically required her to cultivate legions of people: the rich whose chateaux and hunting lodges she borrowed to find privacy and solitude; and the entourage of sycophantic fixers who made reservations, handled customs, ordered lunch, and shoved her into taxis so she would not have to deal with people.Two statements by Garbo convince me that she does not belong in this book. Of swashbuckling Douglas Fairbanks she said, "He makes me feel tired," and in Grand Hotel she delivered with striking conviction her famous line, "I have never been so tired in my life." Being a misanthrope would have been too much trouble for this listless, phlegmatic woman. The necessary savage indignation would have demanded too much energy and left her even more exhausted than she already was.I mention W.C. Fields briefly, but I have left out Oscar Levant, Alan King, Andy Rooney, et al. They are not misanthropes but pseudocurmudgeons whose function is to give Americans someone we hate to love, but love anyway. These cute grouches also give real misanthropes a bad name, especially when they turn up on Jerry Lewis's telethons. After all, if you can't hate children, whom can you hate?I am unable to detect anything as simple as misanthropy in the great monsters of history. Some were insane, like Caligula and Ivan the Terrible. Others, like Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin, exuded a certain heavy-handed bonhomie (Saddam Hussein appearsto belong in this category) that suggests normal conviviality, or at least a willingness to give it a try.As leaders of great masses of people, monsters must be able to use their personalities to mesmerize their followers and forge primal bonds with them by becoming father figures. Whatever this gift is called--heart, the common touch, public relations--no misanthrope could hold such a pose for more than five minutes, and then only on a good day.Many monsters, like Adolf Eichmann and his French Revolutionary counterpart, the Jacobin prosecutor Fouquier-Tinville, were also solid middle-class citizens given to civic joinerism, good neighborliness, and exemplary behavior toward friends and family. Hannah Arendt attributed this conundrum to "the banality of evil," but Talleyrand came closer to the mark when he said: "A married man will do anything for money."Finally, I have eliminated "affectless" psychopaths. Misanthropes were sensitive back when sensitive wasn't cool; to us, life is a Chinese water torture and every drop is a tidal wave. This is not to say, of course, that we aren't psychopathic in our own fashion, but we don't commit crimes because we know that prison life is communal. (If ever you meet someone who cannot understand why solitary confinement is considered punishment, you have met a misanthrope.)All of the misanthropes I discuss in this book portend or illuminate some contemporary American problem. For this reason, Jonathan Swift, perhaps the most famous misanthrope of all time, makes only a passing appearance. If we discount the effect on his temperament of Menière's disease, which is still being debated and can never be known, the chief cause of Swift's misanthropy seems to have been disgust at the many second-rate people he was forced to deal with in his clerical career. Devious peers and their double-crossing sycophants controlled the churchlivings and deaneries Swift sought to obtain. His story is a miasma of petty intrigues that, while universal in some respects, offers no striking analogy to American life and is, in my opinion, boring: if you have plowed through one Swiftian fight you have plowed through them all.I have left out H.L. Mencken for similar reasons. So much has been written about him, especially since the publication of his controversial diary last year, that his misanthropy, while indisputable, has become a cliché. I have chosen instead to include a chapter on his forerunner and idol, Ambrose Bierce, about whom not nearly enough has been written.I had planned to include Mark Twain and Ring Lardner because both have been called misanthropes by many critics. In Twain's case the assessment is based on the emergence, toward the end of his life, of a "dark side" in his writing. I got tired of reading about this late-blooming "dark side" because misanthropes are born, not made. If Twain's outlook grew bleak in his last decade it was because he was hit by family tragedies--and because it was his last decade. "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg" (1899) paints human nature as thoroughly rotten, but it is the normal bitter wisdom of old age, not misanthropy, that speaks to us. America expects old people to exit cute, but some old people refuse to exit cute and Mark Twain was one of them.He has also been taken too literally, as in his essay "The Damned Human Race," about M...

From Kirkus Reviews:

Queen bee of the it's-not-really-all-in-fun division of barbed humor, King (Lump It or Leave It, 1990, etc.) restrains her vaunted bawdiness a little here and presents an impassioned survey of the general condition of aversion to the whole of humanity. Forget about making nice, says the author. As cleverly irritable and cheerfully disrespectful as ever, King eschews descriptions of such easy paragons of political incorrectness as H.L. Mencken or W.C. Fields to make her point. She does, however, trace the proud history of misanthropy with unmanicured thumbnail sketches of several other leading exponents, drawn from real life and from fiction. Dian Fossey, Ty Cobb, and Coriolanus, with their famed contumely; G. Gordon Liddy and Louis-Ferdinand C‚line, led by their demented different drummers; Rousseau and Bierce and the heroines of long-forgotten potboilers--all are trotted out, snarling. The ``real'' Richard Nixon is finally identified as Alceste, MoliŠre's misanthrope in the dewlapped flesh. And don't forget Timon of Athens or Irving Berlin of Broadway, meanies both. Not one to shortchange the customers, King offers a nice assortment of one-liners. On dying alone: ``I'd rather rot on my own floor than be found by a bunch of bingo players in a nursing home.'' A closet misanthrope's fantasy (which she predicts will catch on): ``involuntary euthanasia.'' Is a misanthrope a natural-born grouch, simply a realist, or just a curmudgeon with a short fuse? Gadfly King never quite decides. While working it all out, though, she whacks organized feminists, affirmative activists, goody-goodies, and everybody else with impartial ferocity. Following Groucho, who intoned the noble anthem of misanthropy so long ago, whatever it is, she's against it. She's got a point. -- Copyright ©1992, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.

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