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
Vincent Van Gogh, Autumn Landscape at Dusk (1885)