Since re-reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, The Remains of the Day, starting Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers (which I’ll have to write more about later) and seeing Wes Anderson’s recent film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, ideas about what it means to be authentically honorable have been ricocheting off one another in my thoughts. But if I were to put them on a spectrum, I’d do it this way:
1) In the case of Ishiguro’s steadfast, almost slavish butler Mr. Stevens, honor is only attained through such an immense humility that his life option become limited: he cannot wed, he cannot fall in love, he cannot make his own life decisions, and he cannot speak up to his boss for any reason at all. Being a good butler, an honorable “professional,” means being an invisible assistant to support the sometimes severely misguided whims of his masters under the presumption that they are the true men of value, men worth his devotion. In other words, real honor is a whole kind of self-sacrifice. In this way, it is also very Buddhist.
2) Anderson’s Gustave M. floats about the Grand Budapest Hotel snapping staff to attention with only an incoming whiff of his perfume, sways the hearts of elderly women and occasionally but comfortably mutters “fuck” without, per se, Steven’s anxious sense of “forgetting himself.” Instead, Gustave is meant to stand out: having spent this own youth as an invisible lobby boy in the hotel he now runs, Gustave has long ago become brave enough to begin affairs with hotel patrons, speak up to those that annoyed him, and motivated staff to the ultra-precise limits of coordinated, clockwork timing. Through a fine mixture of kindness, wit, and planning he is able to rebel from many of the confinements Stevens found himself bound by. Still, these same limitations, bestowed upon Gustave by what it means to be an honorable attendant, lock Gustave in a timeframe older and more refined that his current environment, a place defiled by fascists and Fritz Lang-inspired cold-blooded killers.
3) Far off this spectrum and yet in a similar, somewhat self-inflicted trap, Kushner’s protagonist, Reno, finds herself tight-rope-walking between worlds of expectation and honorable freedom. As she blasts across the Nevada desert on a motorcycle, navigates the tight conditions of the New York art scene, indulges in the ultra-saturated thrill of risking death, and is hit hard by sharply-sensitive social interactions, Reno (like Stevens and Gustave M.) is placed in circumstances that force her to confront her own, self-prescribed and self-guided limitations and choose how and why to defy each. When she is alone, as Stevens so often says, she can be herself and literally lives on the bleeding edge of death. Around others, like Gustave M., she is of another age, and seems somewhat misaligned with the requirements of the world around her. In this particular sense, honor arrives for Reno in the opposite way it arrives for Mr. Stevens. Where Mr. Stevens must be honorable 23 hours a day and completely alone in order to relax, Reno’s honor arrives from the isolated process of creating her art, while the world itself has maybe lost its honor long ago–a reality Gustave M. must face as well.
This conflict between what we consider honorable compared to what is dishonorable reads, to me, similarly to the commonly-mentioned Christianity trope of “the world” or what is “worldly.” Behaviors that are within the realm of religious expectations are seen as heavenly, even divine, while anything that would be seen as a vice, per se, is called “worldly.” Thus, in another, more extreme similarity to to Buddhism, wanting that which is worldly makes you evil (or, at least, wrongheaded).
Today in Crimea the expectations of protestors that want (and maybe always wanted) better communication and collaboration with Western modernity, have been subverted. Already their Russian-allied President Yanukovych has harassed his own citizens, imprisoned protestors and sanctioned their torture in order to “convince” the country that re-aligning to Russia is the only way forward. Expectations have thus been thwarted and the democratic process appears, to Ukrainian citizens, to have completely failed.
Is it especially divine to submit, or not to protest? I wonder. What were the Crimean people to do? Bind themselves to the stunted kidn of behaviors that allowed Yanukovych to re-route their government in the first place? Is that, truly, honorable? Subtly and with more hope and justification as a background actor, Stevens may say so. Able to move to action and coordinate groups of allies everywhere he goes, Gustave M. would not and would likely have left the country. And Reno would be there and in prison.
What’s amazing to me is that these are all technically honorable, depending on how you define honor. Reno’s honor could be viewed as rebellious, or even worldly, when it truly is not. Gustave’s could be seen as selfish as well, when it is merely a relaxed form of Stevens. Even Mr. Stevens wanted, so badly, to see what his life would have been life had he only said something… tried to keep Lord Darlington from falling under the influence of Hitler. Or else left Darlington Hall altogether, knowing in his heart that it was worth it to live a life of his own.
A young Mr. Stevens may not have seen Reno or Gustave as honorable, but an older Mr. Stevens would have loved Gustave (though still not completely understood Reno’s ability to be find honor from within). On the other hand, Reno may never have felt that either men were truly honorable; as they each spent so much of their lives not following their explicit, self-driven dreams.
Still, it’s amazing, I think, that we can describe all of these viewpoints as honorable internally but can be so quick to judge when they do not align with our personal sense of what honor or duty are. Though ultimately it’s our place as individuals to define our own moralities, so much of our environments fix (or constrain) our definitions of what moral decisions are.
At the very least, we should not see them as dichotomous though. Lots of people mean lots of perspectives, and breaking everything into the black-and-white of spiritual versus worldly does a completely disservice to the nuances of each of our lives. In other words, I think it’s okay for us to want for ourselves and the people we care about, just as it’s okay to want for others, like the safety of those in Ukraine right now.
How else can we gauge whether or not the world has become a better place?