ALL IS VANITY

ALL IS VANITY

“You’re so vain…”   Most of us have been accused of this at some time (generally by people who don’t like us and whom we suspect of jealousy.)

When I was thinking about this first, I thought, you can’t be ‘vain’ if you actually possess the quality being examined.  Can Kiri te Kanawa be accused of vanity over her beautiful voice?    I thought not.   It is glorious.    She IS a diva.

 

But then I thought of the wretched business man I wrote about last week who resembled Fred Goodwin in his destructive uselessness, and realised that he was undeniably handsome, and indubitably vain.   He placed an inordinately high value on his looks.   It’s fine to be good-looking and certainly of great benefit to the person possessing the beauty, but it’s not really of over-riding importance.    He (The Pretty Face) was a case in point.      Yes, he was good to look upon, but a half hour spent in the company of an ugly man who had wit enough to make you laugh; or  even with an ordinary fellow, but kind and decent, would be far more rewarding than wasting time on his dull, self absorbed and terminally boring self.   The Pretty Face also didn’t like any competition:  he took care to surround himself with men and women whose looks would not detract attention from himself, like a bride who chooses for her bridesmaids only girls whom she regards as less attractive than herself.   (Whereas if you’re confident in yourself you might like to surround yourself with  a bevy of lovely girls, thinking the more the merrier, and the great impact you, as a group, will create.    The bride is after all The Bride anyway.   On that day, nobody else will get a look in.)   Or maybe you should just have the people you love, whatever their appearance?

The same things I’ve said about beauty apply to, say, cleverness.   Yes, of course intellligence and academic ability are good things.   But you want someone who possesses these qualities also to be practical and sensible and useful, and not so clever that he can’t apply his massive intellect to cooking a meal or navigating a city.   We had one acquaintance (not half as clever as he thought) of whom it was said by an unkind observer,    that he must find it tiring having to push his brain around in a wheelbarrow, so enormous and weighty it was.

Vanity, I discovered when I looked it up, actually means ‘worthless’ as in All is Vanity.    But I think in modern usage, we tend to mean overly proud, or arrogant.   There again, if one has some special talent or skill, one should be confident in it.   If you are an ace sailor and can sail the seven seas and bring the boat safely in to any port, then you’re good, and you know you’re good.   You’re only ‘vain’ (as the word is used now) if you think you’re the best navigator since Captain Cook; and that you are on this list through undoubted merit and that everyone else of your acquaintance who sails is just a trifling amateur.   But if you genuinely believe this (even if it is only in your secret heart) then we don’t need to worry about your vanity because sooner or later the oceans will swallow your boat and the sharks will devour you.

And vanity in women?  Who’s the fairest of them all?   Well, eventually even her mirror told her it wasn’t  her.   There shouldn’t be competition in beauty.   It’s at least in part in the eye of the beholder.        Besides, there’s room for all of us.    And anyway, full blown beauties can be both tiring and boring, as though like Trollope’s Lady Griselda Dumbello, all they had to do was ‘appear’ and be A Beauty.   (Trollope’s names are not a coincidence.   He had a firm of family lawyers called Bideawhile an d Slow.)

I suppose the term vanity could be applied to those people who are only interested in themselves and their affairs;  who see their own lives in glorious technicolour which quickly fades into shadow and sepia if the subject strays off themselves for more than a few minutes.   Vanity could also apply to people who are always boasting – how rich they are;  how cultured they are;  how well-connected they are;  how desirable to the opposite sex etc etc.

However you define vanity, it clearly isn’t a desirable quality.   We should all try to cultivate humility, and conclude (and believe) that our fellows are, on balance, the equals of ourselves.   That way you might just defend yourself against hubris, and avoid being eaten by sharks.

PS   Talking about  our old  friend Trollope.   We were discussing between ourselves recently the use of the word ‘flitting’ in relation to house removals, and the Shorter Oxford Dictionary making no mention of that meaning, I concluded it was used in this manner in Scotland only.    Imagine my surprise to find, reading early this morning the concluding chapter of The Warden by Anthony Trollope  (published in 1855) the following sentence referring to the Warden’s removal from  the Hospital to lodgings:   “After this manner did the late Warden of Barchester Hospital accomplish his flitting and change his residence.”

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TROLLOPEs

TROLLOPES

I’ve been reading, mostly in the early hours of morning over  the last few months, the entire works of Anthony Trollope, and now alas I’ve come to the end of them.   Forty seven of his novels I’ve enjoyed, plus some travel writing, some criticism and an autobiography.

Now I’ve passed on to Thomas Hardy, and I loathe the man personally as much as I loved Trollope.   It’s not that there aren’t good things about Hardy.   His power of conveying in all its transient beauty the short period where England passed from being an agricultural community to an industrial one, is second to none, and his use of metaphor is superb.    ‘Curls nestled under her bonnet like swallows’ nests under the eaves of a house’ …    But skilled writing  should flow across your consciousness as though it were a stream slipping past your hand as you dabbled it in the water, whereas Hardy’s is  laboured and creaks from the effort.   His women are insufferable – stupid, ignorant, weak, inferior creatures – and his men are arrogant on the one hand  – they know so much more than the women! – and needful and self conscious on the other.

Whereas Trollope knows the value of money and understands at a glance the exact nuances of the English class system (which though to a lesser extent still functions down to this day) – he also understands what it is to be a lady or gentleman (although even he himself cannot define that precisely in words) – he knows that the real value of people has nothing to do with either wealth or rank.

Hardy on the other hand wasn’t a gentleman in either the class sense or in any other sense, and his view of the class system was distorted because he resented his place in it and sought to improve it.   You trust Trollope’s judgement, absolutely, whereas Hardy’s is you feel, highly subjective and unreliable.

Finally, you care about Trollope’s characters and want them to come to a happy ending, which, Trollope being a fine and truthful novelist, is not always guaranteed.    Hardy’s characters are not entirely believable;  you don’t like them and you couldn’t care less what happens to them.

I had previously subscribed to the criticism levelled at Trollope: that his plots rolled along without much planning by him, just episodic as it were, and in support of this is cited the alleged story that Trollope killed off the dreadful Mrs Proudie, the Bishop’s overbearing wife who ran the diocese with a feeble and acquiescent husband, when dared to do so by someone at his club.    It is true that viewing only external events, Mrs Proudie’s death is entirely unexpected.   But re-reading that novel recently, I do not think the criticism is  fair, for Mrs Proudie is undone by the refusal of a man she despises, poor and in danger of being (unfairly) disgraced, to bow down before her spurious authority.   He dismisses her from the Bishop’s study and addresses her as ‘Woman’ and she finds herself with no alternative but to leave.    She is powerless before his virtue and incorruptibility and so she dies (of a heart attack shortly afterwards.)      On reflection I do not think this is evidence of a haphazard  approach to his plots, but indicates his power and subtlety.

So, I can’t decide whether to abandon Hardy now and save myself annoyance, or to read on and hope I come to appreciate his merits more?   After all, I can’t just keep re-reading Trollope for the rest of my life.   Can I?