by Clarence Brown
American Reporter Correspondent
May 3, 2002
RISING TO THE BOTTOM
SEATTLE, Wash. -- If living a moral life is the loftiest of human aspirations, should we not take our standard of this life from those at the top of society, the loftiest of human types, those to whom we look "up"? We seem to take much else from them -- house design, hairstyles, dress length, dietary norms, even the latest small talk -- so why not the idea of good and bad?
Yet it strikes me that, in life as in fiction, morality rises from the bottom up, not from the top down.
Take a trivial example. Our "cleaning ladies" will come today. They arrive at 8 o'clock. By 7:30 I have nearly finished tidying up the clutter of the last two weeks. I pick up the litter of newspapers in the living room and take it to recycling, I put away dishes in the kitchen, I make the bed, I stow the grandchildren's toys in the closet, I file letters that have been lying about, I move books overdue for review to the top of the pile, I ... in other words ... clean up before they come to clean up.
Is it that I am ashamed for Maria & Co. to see the squalor in which I actually live? Before they come to sanitize my cage? Quite possibly.
A Victorian phrase comes back: "Not in front of the servants!" In the world of upstairs/downstairs, the tag end of which I knew as a child in the pre-War South, the upstairs had very little privacy, for the downstairs, without actually prying, and without even wishing to know, could not avoid sharing the secrets of the aunt who secretly drank, or the young master who fancied the chauffeur, or the old master who dyed his hair or knew how to doctor the odometer of a car that had begun to bore him.
Toni Morrison's wonderful novel "Tar Baby" (1981) depicts such a world.
Good as it is, I think the novel rests on the foundation of a good old formula.
1: Isolate your characters in some small, preferably exotic, but in any case easily controllable setting. Not too exotic; an offshore island not far from Florida, as in this case, is ideal.
2: Make them extremely wealthy. Who wants to read about the ennui of earning a living? Jobs just get in the way of romance. But extremely poor, even homeless, is also good. Just so no one has to get up and be on time at the office every day. Dostoevsky knew this.
3: Make the mix improbable, and the wilder the better. Old husband, young wife, whites living amicably cheek by jowl with blacks. In "Tar Baby," a beautiful black model from Paris, her education paid for by the patron of the story, is living upstairs, though she is the niece of the below-stairs couple who are the entire domestic staff.
4: Introduce into this status quo a wild card. In Morrison's book, he is a kind of black satyr, gorgeously muscled and dreadlocked, who has jumped ship and swum ashore, hiding for days undetected in the closets of the mansion.
The old couple, the black butler and his wife the cook, sheathed in an impregnable dignity and a sense of the rightness of things that nothing, not even the glamorous young woman nor the imperious employer can alter, would be my guide to the moral life.
Much of their ethic trickles down, it is true, from above. But they have changed it utterly beyond recognition, for they have believed it and lived it.
Their dignity and probity, if it rises, is the only hope of the upstairs.
Clarence Brown is a cartoonist, writer, and Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at Princeton University.