Sunday, September 20, 2020

Become the Helper

I just finished reading The Hunt, by Maurice Sachs (1906-1945).  I picked it up, along with Sachs' previous book Witches' Sabbath, after reading about it on the Neglected Books Page.  Sachs was an odd but remarkable character: queer, notoriously charming, amoral, energetic, talented - even brilliant - but unfocused: he began many projects but finished few of them.  Witches' Sabbath was a memoir, fascinating yet exhausting as Sachs ran wildly about, cramming an immense amount of study, scamming, and socializing into his short life.  Like many queer French writers, he wrote openly about his affairs with men, and it's not surprising that Witches' Sabbath and The Hunt drew homophobic fire when they were published in France soon after the war, and in English a decade or so later.  I reminded myself as I read that these books would have been much more shocking then.

The Hunt picked up in 1940, a couple of years after Sabbath left off, as the Nazis invaded and occupied France.  Sachs was Jewish by ancestry, and though he knew the danger he faced, he not only backed away from escaping, he went the other way, into Germany itself.  He left only a fragment of The Hunt, which his publisher filled out with letters he wrote from Hamburg.  I found these letters the most interesting part of the book, especially this one:

The entry for April 23rd, 1860 in the Goncourts' Journal reads as follows: "A vague unease, for no particular reason, and it's pacing restlessly round inside me all the time.  Life is decidedly too flat.  Not two sous' worth of anything unforeseen to be had in the world. Nothing ever comes to me except catalogues, tiresome minor ailments, the same old migraines.  And that's all.  I don't inherit a fortune from someone I don't know.  That pretty house I saw for sale in the Rue La Rochefoucauld will not be presented to me this morning on a silver plate.  And when I look back over my whole past life, it has always been like that, nothing outside the usual humdrum flow of everyday events, and I have the right to call Providence a harsh stepmother.  I have only had one adventure in my whole life: I was in the arms of my nurse, looking at a toy, a very costly toy.  And a passing gentleman stopped and bought it for me."

I could not read this page without sadness and pity. What?  Could Edmond and Jules de Goncourt find no remedy for melancholy of that sort?

Good Lord! what ignorance.  The remedy was to make themselves into the passing gentleman who stopped!*

That reaction seems uncharacteristic of Sachs, who was by his own admission a very selfish person.  Even when he was generous, which was often, it was with the expectation of getting something from his beneficiaries.  Yet here he recognized the importance of being a benefactor, with no evident return.

The passage reminded me of many people today who think of Fred Rogers's exhortation "Look for the helpers" as an invitation to look to others to protect and help them, rather than to help others. I'd thought that this kind of self-pity and sentimentality the Goncourts expressed in the quotation was a much more recent phenomenon, a paradigmatic First World Problem, but there it is, clearly expressed 160 years ago, along with its refutation.


* Witches' Sabbath and The Hunt, translated by Richard Howard, Ballantine Books, 1966, p. 371