The Varieties of Travel Experience   /   Summer 2024   /    Notes & Comments

Be Mean

The Case for Truth

Matt Dinan

Mean Mr. Bennet (Benjamin Whitrow) in the 1995 A&E production of Pride and Prejudice.

Allow me a small confession: It has been some time since I have truly enjoyed an essay in a literary magazine. There are too many essays, and vanishingly few good essayists. There seems to be real confusion about whether style can conceal a fundamental incuriosity, whether sufficiently inventive prose can paper over the refusal to think. (It can’t.) Even accomplished writers don’t seem to recognize what is interesting about their own thoughts and experiences. A good essay is not merely mental stenography. And what is more tedious than reading yet another essay that, after lengthy perseveration, locates one more reason for endorsing the conventional view? How often are you actually surprised by something you read—even by yet another hairsplitting “case against” something perfectly worthy or good? And when essayists are self-consciously short on ideas, which is more often than you might think, they will sometimes experiment with being a little bit mean. Like a kitten nipping at your heel, a mean and petty takedown is a good way for a writer to draw a few moments’ attention—never mind how much harder it is to be compelling while also being nice.

Another predictable device in the essayist’s self-exculpatory toolkit is to return to the beginning of the form, to blame poor Montaigne, pointing out that this genre is propaedeutic, an artful introductory exercise, not a means of definitive argument. But Montaigne was a subtle and imaginative thinker, a cautious skeptic, who truly tried to help us see old things afresh, to assemble a thoughtful compendium of things usually beneath the notice of philosophy—like smells, or thumbs.

Along those lines, one of Montaigne’s more important insights, commemorated and analyzed without pretension by political theorist Judith Shklar in Ordinary Vices, is his rejection of cruelty. For Shklar as for Montaigne, cruelty, despite its casual ubiquity, is simply the worst vice we can display. The “horror of cruelty,” Montaigne wrote in “On Conversation,” “impels me more to clemency than any model of clemency could draw me on.” It is not an argument, but perhaps Montaigne is indicating that cruelty is not subject to debate. Cruelty is something done by a human being to another creature—God or the gods could be cruel, but cruelty qua cruelty, Shklar argues, is a sin not against God but against humanity. A good theorist, she defines cruelty as the “willful inflicting of physical pain on a weaker being in order to cause anguish and fear”—although I would add emotional pain to her definition. It is hard to think about cruelty because it is superfluous and superabundant, and to dwell too long on it is to be tempted by misanthropy. When confronted by cruelty, we can usually only flinch and look away. Genuine cruelty might in fact be “not thinking about it”—not thinking about being cruel, distancing yourself from yourself to do something indefensible; in this way, its misanthropy extends even to your own humanity.

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