The Face of Practical Charity
In Proust we read a very true insight into the face of practical charity, as he calls it. I like the Moncrieff translation better, but here is his and Lydia Davis’s:
When, later, I had occasion to meet, in the course of my life, in convents, for instance, truly saintly embodiments of practical charity, they generally had the cheerful, positive, indifferent, and brusque air of a busy surgeon, the sort of face in which one can read no commiseration, no pity in the presence of human suffering, no fear of offending it, the sort which is the ungentle face, the antipathetic and sublime face of true goodness.
In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust. Lydia Davis translation, p. 84
Later on, when, in the course of my life, I have had occasion to meet with, in convents for instance, literally saintly examples of practical charity, they have generally had the brisk, decided, undisturbed, and slightly brutal air of a busy surgeon, the face in which one can discern no commiseration, no tenderness at the sight of suffering humanity, and no fear of hurting it, the face devoid of gentleness or sympathy, the sublime face of true goodness.
Remembrance of Things Past. Scott Moncrieff translation, p. 62
Now I read a similar insight in Anthony Trollope’s Richmond Castle, first published in 1860. Trollope had during the 1850s, the Famine Years, worked in Ireland for the Post Office. Here is his insight:
And now the famine was in full swing; and strange to say, men had ceased to be uncomfortable about it. The cutting off of maimed limbs, and wrenching out from their sockets of smashed bones, is by no means shocking to the skilled practitioner. And dying paupers, with “the drag” in their face–that certain sign of coming death...–no longer struck men to the heart. Like the skilled surgeon, they worked hard enough at what good they could do, and worked the better in that they could treat the cases without express compassion for the individuals that met their eyes.
In administering relief one may rob five unseen sufferers of what would keep them in life if one is moved to bestow all that is comfortable on one sufferer that is seen. Was it wise to spend money in alleviating the last hours of those whose doom was already spoken, which money, if duly used, might save the lives of others not yet so far gone in misery?
And so in one sense those who were the best in the county, who worked the hardest for the poor and spent their time most completely among them, became the hardest of heart, and most obdurate in their denials. It was strange to see devoted women neglecting the wants of the dying, so that they might husband their strength and time and means for thew ants of those who might still be kept among the living. P. 370.