“It would seem there is a whole dimension of the question ‘what is a ‘great’ butler? I have hitherto not properly considered. It is, I must say, a rather unsettling experience to realize this about a matter so close to my heart, particularly one I have given much thought over the years.” (pg. 113) – Stevens in The Remains of the Day.
On New Year’s Eve, I completed my week-long first reading of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. The night before I made, perhaps the unregrettable mistake of watching Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Jumanji. This is to say that, I had polluted my consciousness with magical and intergalactic-swashbuckling-light saber-fighting story of Good v. Evil in the former, and overdone-overtold-over-hyped story of a Star Wars and next in the latter a story of yet another realism low-tech in nature, of a bunch of American high school-kids on detention but plunged into this role-playing game called Jumanji (a story read when the book came out in the early 80s).This is to say that my polluted mind was not yet ready to be immersed again into the second half-ending of my reading of The Remains of the Day. From hyper-realism to Victorian narratives I had to suddenly vacillate by way of a viewer/reader response to literature.
That sort of confession to a reader’s idea of pollution aside, I will share my thoughts on this elegant novel, written by a recent Nobel Laureate, the Nagasaki-born British author of Japanese descent. I was not ready to read a Victorian novel, after immersing myself for the last six months of 2017 with a set of seven novels – of two major work of the Japanese Haruki Murakami, three of the British-Indian Salman Rushdie, and two of the Indonesian Eka Kurniawan. I analyzed each in depth, by way of closely reading them as a writer, drawing out the author’s craft and style and each story’s subtext.
Reading The Remains of the Day
Reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s, The Remains of the Day brought me the sense of immersion of my undergraduate readings of Chaucer, Jane Austen, Johnathan Swift and the like, and of late Virginia Woolf, especially her rendering of elegance of sub-textuality in her classic essay “The Death of the Moth.” I am also reminded of Anton Chekov’s presentation of the themes of linguistic-structural violence, guided by a style of crisp absurdism, in his classic short stories such as “The Death of the Clerk,” and “The Huntsmen.”
Ishiguro’s work, beginning from the opening chapter, like the feel of literary-exploratory magic itself brought me into this world of Victorian elegance and the highly-stylized form of English spoken as elegance as the Queen’s — because precisely that was what the author had intended to convey: the power of discourse and the inherent complexity of class-semantics and semiotics that the reader, beyond the sensitivity of the novice, needs to read into.
I shall discuss one aspect of this excellent novel: of the elegance and violence, of the meaning of existence when the question of self-dignity is put forward, of the author’s weaving of the contradictions inherent in language itself, in its rustle and carnivalesque of its function as a shaper of reality.
But what is the novel, at least through my own understanding, about? Why did I feel both angry and calming at the end of my reading? What was it in the craft and form of The Remains of the Day that has left me savoring the elegance of the literary presentation of a Master-Slave narrative, or of oppression?
Voice of hidden slavery?
The most poignant moment that signified the author’s deployment of language of narratology and the sense of elegant despair and irony of human dignity is half-way through the story when the butler of Darlington Hall, the protagonist Stevens reacted to news of his father’s death of a heart attack. Here the scene is so elegantly crafted both in dialogue and dramatic expose’ that represented the height of human absurdity when we speak of the one’s aspiration to reach the greatest height of professional and ultimately be crowned with the much-coveted sense of existence: dignity. The most poignant moment was as such when Stevens’s father (himself a butler at Darlington Hall) was pronounced dead of exhaustion just when the most important dinner was happening. Stevens’s response when told by Miss Kenton, the housemaid, of the death was emblematic of the ethics of butlership he was passionately proud of:
“Dr. Meredith has not yet arrived.” Then for a moment she bowed her head and a sob escaped her. But almost immediately she resumed her composure and asked in a steady voice: “Will you come up and see him?”
“I’m very busy just now, Miss Kenton. In a little while perhaps.”
“In that case, Mr. Stevens, will you permit me to close his eyes?”
“I would be most grateful if you would, Miss Kenton.”
She began to climb the staircase, but I stopped her saying: “Miss Kenton, please don’t think me unduly improper in not ascending to see my father in his deceased condition just at this moment. You see, I know my father would have wished me to carry on just now.”
“Of course, Mr. Stevens.”
“To do otherwise, I feel, would be to let him down”
“Of course, Mr. Stevens. (pg. 106)
Poignant is the underlying tone of the conversation, at the finest moment of Stevens’s encounter with a dilemma of choice of action. However, it is being interpreted and played out by the butler, the central dilemma is the maintenance of dignity as the language of properness demanded. In fact, this is what I feel, the only theme of the story– a deep-play, anthropological and philosophical explorations of the idea of “dignity”, elegantly presented in the tradition of a Socratic dialogue (such as in Plato’s “Meno“, “Crito” or even “Symposium“) framed, as I felt as well, in the tradition of (Clifford) Geertzian and (Bronislaw) Malinowskian or even (Franz) Boas-ian way of presenting an anthropological study.
The way the character Stevens presented in a narrator’s voice that utilized the not-often-used “You” (besides the First Person unreliable/always conditional voice of narration) made me smile: it reminds me of the classic piece of Anthropology “The Naciremas.” Ishiguro executed the narration brilliantly, I supposed, in making the reader feel the importance, and exclusiveness of the world of high-brow culture, Queen’s English, linguistic social markers, and the high-aristocratic-untouchable feel of the Victorian-remnants-of-it-albeit, that was currently dealing with a period of decision-making as grave and world-shattering as one involving the intricacies of power relation in and of World War I: of the defeat of the Germans and what Britain is to do about it in face of an American intervention.
Behind the authoritative voice of “you” lies the story of hegemony and class and personal-structural violence of the human condition narrated as “I” in which the “colonized has become the colonizer of his own colonialized condition” as the Algerian thinker, author and psychiatrist spoke Albert Memmi wrote about in his seminal work on mental oppression, The Colonizer and the Colonized, an existentialist-theoretical-narrativistic text in the tradition of Franz Fanon’s Black Skin White Masks and later in Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and in the work of other writers writing about the colonized mind that has turned many a human being into “little brown brothers” as Mohandas K. Gandhi once called slaves wishing to think like their masters.
I am reminded as well of Malcolm X’s notion of “house slaves” and how the indentured serfs would appropriate the language of their masters and defend the narrative of their existence, because the language of colonizer has tamed the raging fire of freedom in the colonized. Such are the instances of the power of the language of social control as presented by Ishiguro in the most elegant way in The Remains of the Day. What else of not “suicidal and pathological” could one not describe the butler Stevens in the scene of the discovery of his father’s death”, described earlier, a total detachment of the feelings of grief or a most intelligent hiding of such feeling, because he had a more important matter to attend to: serving the masters of imperialism, rather than grief of a loved one. For Stevens, one can be a slave in the home of the rich yet be a master of one’s enslaved condition where dignity and professional pride is concerned. He summarized the ethos governing his profession:
“The great butlers are great by virtue of their ability to inhabit their professional role and inhabit it to the utmost; they will not be shaken out by external events, however surprising, alarming or vexing. They wear their professionalism as a decent gentleman will wear his suit: he will not let ruffians or circumstances tear it off him in the public gaze; he will discard it when and only when, he wills to do so, and this will invariably be when he is entirely alone. It is, as I say, a matter of ‘dignity.'” (pg. 42)
Stevens the butler is not only the story-teller but a mirror and embodiment of the absurdity of language and social reality and the structural violence inherent in the narratology of social and cognitive class. It is a Gramscian story of hegemony at its literary best. I shall explain below with reference to an example in the traditional Malay culture I grew up in.
The Queen’s English and the decomposing empire
About a quarter way through the novel, having been sucked into the author’s narration par elegantly-excellence, and being reminded by the butler of highest distinction of the importance of correct usage of the English Language, and to be proud of the greatness of England, and especially of such exquisite landscape such as Oxfordshire (indeed beautiful from my own visits,) I asked:
Is this a BREXIT novel?
It has come to win the Booker Prize in 1989 (and for Ishiguro the Nobel Prize in 2017) at a time when Britain needed its early cry of ethnocentrism and nationalism, a decade or so before Brexit? is that what the sub-sub-sub-text of The Remains of the Day about? I suspect so but will propose this idea through a few selected passages by way of a close reading of the tone as well as the semantics of narrative style.
Of course this is just a side note of the larger topic of analysis: of uncovering of the elegant violence of the story.
Class and Violence in the Malay court language
A few years ago, sitting under a tree in my garden, on a pleasantly breezy early Autumn, I thought of the language I grew up in and that evening composed these verses. They have a bearing on the sense of hegemony I feel engulfing the tone of the novel:
“Pronouns, pathetically yours …”
Sitting in my garden under a flame of the forest today
I closed my eyes
Autumn breeze so refreshing
I am at the mercy of the beauteous rays of sunlight
so warm as if love is in every speck of light
bathing me with my eyes closed, my soul scattered in the universe
Three wind chimes surrounded me
One made of steel
One made of wood
One made of bamboo
together — music so magnificent they made
Three winds of culture blew into my slumber
as i think of pronouns in a land I once knew
why did god in scriptures speak in shifting pronouns?
ahh … i thought … not an important thought at this moment
i was as if like a dry autumn leave blown to a land yonder
as i asked with eyes still closed
if i meet an ancient Malay king
will i use to pronoun “patik”
when i feel it sounds like “pathetically yours”
or will addressing them and their monopolized status divinely-sanctioned with a “you and I’ will suffice?
i suppose i have the answer: “patik” or “pathetically yours” will not go
as i think the word “beta” as the pronoun of the monarchy conjures in my mind “of an experimental “beta-testing” version of a government … if it works it works ..
no — i then say, neither “patik” nor “beta” will go well with me
yes – “pathetically yours” and “beta-testing” will they sound to me
I shall settle with “you and i” as i address these human concepts of ascribed power i shall not agree ..
if there is “your high-ness” there must be “your lowliness” i must say. in the mind of both they must agree to play this game of pronouns i should say
no– i thought: i shall not play this game
the autumn wind blows
my eyes still close
such a beauteous day
i though the wind in its glory has brought me
like that single red leaf drying
to that land i once knew
has brought this “pathetically yours”
to where i ought to belong, the old folks would say
with a deep deep breath i took, like a buddha under a flame of a forest
i opened my eyes
i am still here … i am … that red leaf .. saved from being crushed perhaps
by pronouns …
Those were my words on the remains of the hegemony still permeating the mind of the Malays. Neo-feudalistic construction of reality that produced prison-houses of language.
The Malay form of court address, upon critical analysis, is both elegant and pathetic, useful in structuring a system of violence in the mind: of blind obedience, fear of the unknown, and the slaves being made to feel good being controlled and commended well by the master. because, borrowing Mr. Stevens the Butler’s logic, the latter is to be pledged unconditional loyalty to because he or she has to deal with matters of higher and more complex significance: matters of the “fate of humanity”. Or, in the case of Malay feudalism, the Master to rule as ordained by a good and just God – the god of humanity.
Authorial “You” and sinisterism
Back to Ishiguro’s literary thesis on language of the master-slave construction.
There is, I feel, sinisterism in the way at times the narrator Mr. Stevens uses the pronoun “YOU” in talking about the prestigious household and the master he worked in and for respectively.
The “you” is a not-often used voice in fiction unless the impact intended for a complex ideological sophistication wherein the interlocutor is speaking with exclusivity and authority guarding his/her well-preserved and conserved terrain.
In The Remains of the Day, I paid attention to how the authorial voice of the Second Person is used and situate it within the larger goal of the narrator: to preserve exclusivity of his dungeon of oppression, as I see it. But how is this both a Pathos and an Eros of the sociolinguistic, idiolectic, and narrativistic proportions? What is Kazuo Ishiguro trying to tell the reader of the human condition as narrated by a highly-regarded butler of the highest gentlemanly standard?
Why is the Second Person “you” used, and how is this effective in narrating the “remains of the day” of the feudal mind? This is element of craft is worthy of further study
The novel is a subtle critique of the hidden curriculum of mental colonization of the British colonial empire, as it waned down during the time of Winston Churchill. In its naturalness and exquisiteness of depicting the finesses-ness of the language of high-culture of “exemplary butlerism,” it presented the readers with a way of looking at irony of social class, framed intellectually. Ishiguro presented the classic example of how language defines, deconstructs, and destroys reality by having the butler speak about the elements of power and knowledge or as Michel Foucault puts it “power/knowledge” (the hybrid-matrix of the cultural control of the mind, body, and meaning of life as homo economicus of the modern human being, and how the Marxist notion of whoever controls knowledge controls, and how the culture of control is also evident in the world of linguistic reality as well, as radical sociologist such as Pierre Bourdieu wrote about in his explanation of “habitus”.
Ishiguro, Kazuo (1993). The Remains of the Day. New York: Vintage International.