Vincent Van Gogh, 1885
The Remains of the Day [Encore Post]
by Kazuo Ishiguro
[The protagonist, a butler, is contemplating the question of what makes a great butler, and reminiscing about what his father – also a butler – taught him.]
There was a certain story my father was fond of repeating over the years. I recall listening to him tell it to visitors when I was a child, and then later, when I was starting out as a footman under his supervision. I remember him relating it again the first time I returned to see him after gaining my first post as butler – to a Mr. and Mrs. Muggeridge in their relatively modest house in Allshot, Oxfordshire. Clearly the story meant much to him. My father’s generation was not one accustomed to discussing and analyzing in the way ours is and I believe the telling and retelling of this story was as close as my father ever came to reflecting critically on the profession he practiced. As such, it gives a vital clue to his thinking.
The story was an apparently true one concerning a certain butler who had travelled with his employer to India and served there for many years maintaining amongst the native staff the same high standards he had commanded in England. One afternoon, evidently, this butler had entered the dining room to make sure all was well for dinner, when he noticed a tiger languishing beneath the dining table. The butler had left the dining room quietly, taking care to close the doors behind him, and proceeded calmly to the drawing room where his employer was taking tea with a number of visitors. There he attracted his employer’s attention with a polite cough, then whispered in the latter’s ear: “I’m very sorry, sir, but there appears to be a tiger in the dining room. Perhaps you will permit the twelve-bores to be used?”
And according to legend, a few minutes later, the employer and his guests hard three gun shots. When the butler reappeared in the drawing room some time afterwards to refresh teapots, the employer had inquired if all was well.
“Perfectly fine, thank you, sir,” had come the reply. “Dinner will be served at the usual time and I am pleased to say there will be no discernible traces left of the recent occurrence by that time.”
I believe one may begin to distinguish what it is that separates a ‘great’ butler from a merely competent one. We may now understand better, too, why my father was so fond of the story of the butler who failed to panic on discovering a tiger under the dining table; it was because he knew instinctively that somewhere in this story lay the kernel of what true ‘dignity’ is. And let me now posit this: ‘dignity’ has to do crucially with a butler’s ability not to abandon the professional being he inhabits. Lesser butlers will abandon their professional being for the private one at the least provocation. For such persons, being a butler is like playing some pantomime role; a small push, a slight stumble, and the façade will drop off to reveal the actor underneath. 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’.
There will always be, I realize, those who would claim that any attempt to analyze greatness as I have been doing is quite futile. “You know when somebody’s got it and you know when somebody hasn’t,” Mr. Graham’s argument would always be. “Beyond that there’s nothing much you can say.” But I believe we have a duty not to be so defeatist in this matter. It is surely a professional responsibility for all of us to think deeply about these things so that each of us may better strive towards attaining “dignity” for ourselves.
Copyright © 1988 by Kazuo Ishiguro
by Alyssha Eve Csuk
One of many photographs taken by Csuk in the now-decaying Bethlehem Steel plant in Pittsburgh, PA, where the rust takes striking and unexpected forms.
by Philip Levine
Half an hour to dress, wide rubber hip boots,
gauntlets to the elbow, a plastic helmet
like a knight’s but with a little glass window
that kept steaming over, and a respirator
to save my smoke-stained lungs. I would descend
step by slow step into the dim world
of the pickling tank and there prepare
the new solutions from the great carboys
of acids lowered to me on ropes — all from a recipe
I shared with nobody and learned from Frank O’Mera
before he went off to the bars on Vernor Highway
to drink himself to death. A gallon of hydrochloric
steaming from the wide glass mouth, a dash
of pale nitric to bubble up, sulphuric to calm,
metals for sweeteners, cleansers for salts,
until I knew the burning stew was done.
Then to climb back, step by stately step, the adventurer
returned to the ordinary blinking lights
of the swingshift at Feinberg and Breslin’s
First-Rate Plumbing and Plating with a message
from the kingdom of fire. Oddly enough
no one welcomed me back, and I’d stand
fully armored as the downpour of cold water
rained down on me and the smoking traces puddled
at my feet like so much milk and melting snow.
Then to disrobe down to my work pants and shirt,
my black street shoes and white cotton socks,
to reassume my nickname, strap on my Bulova,
screw back my wedding ring, and with tap water
gargle away the bitterness as best I could.
For fifteen minutes or more I’d sit quietly
off to the side of the world as the women
polished the tubes and fixtures to a burnished purity
hung like Christmas ornaments on the racks
pulled steadily toward the tanks I’d cooked.
Ahead lay the second cigarette, held in a shaking hand,
as I took into myself the sickening heat to quell heat,
a lunch of two Genoa salami sandwiches and Swiss cheese
on heavy peasant bread baked by my Aunt Tsipie,
and a third cigarette to kill the taste of the others.
Then to arise and dress again in the costume
of my trade for the second time that night, stiffened
by the knowledge that to descend and rise up
from the other world merely once in eight hours is half
what it takes to be known among women and men.
from “What Work Is” by Philip Levine, (c) Philip Levine, 2016
Medieval Flemish Tapestry
by Nicholas Delbanco
We each have known conviction, the sudden flash of rightness; Mark came to feel it then. His book had a blue cover and its title was handsomely lettered. A bird ascended – framed by temple columns – from the sea. The stages of production grew familiar. But that his work would be transformed – that strangers to another town would take his words and reproduce them – this careful rendering in multiples provided his first sense of public presence, the work existing elsewhere also. We grow used to the private response. When someone speaks our name we assume we are nearby to hear. We answer questions asked; we find ourselves aroused by provocation, flattered by flattery, angered by insult – part of a nexus of action and talk. But his career, he understood, was in the hands of strangers – someone who might read the book to whom he had not handed it, someone who might help or hinder from an indifferent distance. The recognition startled Mark. He was the master of his soul, perhaps, but not the captain of his fate. He was reading Joseph Conrad and could recite Henley’s “Invictus”; such comparatives came readily to mind.
Republished in Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar, compilation of short stories edited by Richard Ford. Copyright © 2011 by 826Michigan, Inc.