Literature: February 2004 Archives

Someone It Would Be Better Not to Know


from The Spoils of Poynton
Henry James

It was hard to believe that a woman could look presentable who had been kept awake for hours by the wallpaper in her room; yet none the less, as in her fresh widow's weeds she rustled across the hall, she was sustained by the consciousness, which always added to the unction of her social Sundays that she was, as usual the only person in the house incapable of wearing in her preparation the horrible stamp of the same exceptional smartness that would be conspicuous in a grocer's wife. She would rather have perished than have looked endimanchée.

It would be better not to know this person, and yet too often we ARE this person. Perhaps not in matters of attire or anything so seemingly superficial. But it seems to be a quality of the human animal that we must make us/them distinctions. "Oh, we would never go to THAT restaurant, they make lima bean souffle with lard." "Oh we couldn't worship at that church, they hold hands during the 'Our Father.'" "We couldn't consider a mass in the vernacular--it is so completely ordinary and devoid of the majesty and true worship of our Lord and King." And so on. This internal riving is ugly and unbecoming no matter what justification we drum up for it. Yes, it's perfectly fine not to care to hold hands during the 'Our Father.' (In fact, it appears to be the "rule.") Yes, preference for the Latin Mass is perfectly legitimate. It is in making a point of these distinctions that we are becoming like the woman in James's passage. We harden and abrade. We choose our own and exclude those who do not toe the line. We ridicule the One who would dine with tax collectors and prostitutes.

It is very difficult to see sometimes. But perhaps a little time could be spent profitably seeing where we build fences rather than bridges. We do our Lord no justice in supporting an idea or artifact, no matter how good, by hurting people. We do ourselves no good if our self-esteem is erected on the thousand little cuts we need to give those around us.

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This page is a archive of entries in the Literature category from February 2004.

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