10 August, 2006

On the pleasure of contempt

I grow tired of show and tell, whether it be my books or my city. Back in Arizona, where the humidity is almost unbearable, and where there are serial killers at large in the vicinity, I can comfort myself with the thought that had I travelled two days later, my flight would have been cancelled, due to the latest machinations of those crazy jihadists (probably). Thankfully, Tempe is unlikely to be bombed, except perhaps by any Thessalians outraged with what America has done to their name. Still, at times like this, Hazlitt springs to mind:
The pleasure of hating, like a poisonous mineral, eats into the heart of religion, and turns it to rankling spleen and bigotry; it makes patriotism an excuse for carrying fire, pestilence, and famine into other lands: it leaves to virtue nothing but the spirit of censoriousness, and a narrow, jealous, inquisitorial watchfulness over the actions and motives of others. What have the different sects, creeds, doctrines in religion been but so many pretexts set up for men to wrangle, to quarrel, to tear one another in pieces about, like a target as a mark to shoot at?
You can trust old Hazlitt. After all, he was a man who knew the delights of contempt, not just hatred. Never put any faith in a man lacking contempt, gentle reader. Everyone can and does hate, as Hazlitt demonstrates, but not everyone can contemn. It requires a nobility of the soul. My closest friends, including Mrs. Roth, are all world-class at contempt, and even my second-tier buddies could do pretty nicely at the regionals.

Contempt is an unreligious experience. It makes bystanders uncomfortable, even very angry bystanders. Why? Because as much as a good Christian can hate the Muslim, the Devil, premarital sex, the love of money, etc., still this hatred is framed within a very rigid framework of moral values. There is something reliable and comforting about this sort of group hatred, or even about common private hatreds, such as one's loud neighbours, or cellphones on the train—'pet hates'. We can be religious about these hates, by which I mean we can put a collective and ritual faith in them. Contempt is another matter entirely: it's like Ascension-period Coltrane to hatred's Wagner. True contempt is free and nihilist, unoccasioned, and inopportune. It does not rage, neither does it dissipate. Rather it just exists, and deepens, calmly hidden, like a riverbed potholed by steady currents. It is private, and primary, and nasty. One does not discover hatred within oneself, but one does discover contempt. It is the canker that comes with any measure of greatness, a moral bezoar-stone revealed only by the scalpels of intuition. This is why contempt cuts against religion and spirituality, the brow aimed upward, which hates its oppressor, and pities its inferior—that pity being almost like contempt, but po-faced and self-righteous, aloof and spineless. Those who do not feel contempt fear it, and rightly so; they comfortably hate it as disrespectful or inappropriate. These types laugh at bedroom farce, but not at burlesque.

Never put any faith in a man lacking contempt, for he has no nobility, no greatness—he has not the divine bile or melancholia, and he is without the bitter humour of the afflicted.


Andrew W. said...

I am much less contemptuous than I used to be. When I look back to my early 20's, a feeling of contempt was there nearly all the time. A decade on, not so much.

I can still summon contempt, or experience it, but perhaps my caution when that feeling arises is because I am wary of its cousin, righteous indignation.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Don't get me wrong--I don't advocate universal contempt, all the time. There is no nobility in being suffocated with contempt. And righteous indignation is certainly something to be wary of.

Andrew W. said...

That's a good way of putting it.

The space in which my contemptousness roams is tighter yet simultaneously less oppresive.

And I didn't take you as advocating such a thing. I enjoyed the reminder to enjoy all the passions given to us by our primate ancestors!

Sir G said...

contempt is a social version of disgust (it is a disgust with people). as we grow up and broaden our tastes through experience, our capacity for disgust, and therefore contempt, diminishes. it is replaced by increased inclination to pity.

Conrad H. Roth said...

I think contempt is something more proud and more ironic than disgust. One might well resist the softening that comes with age, as my friend the Spaniard does so well, a proud and admirable contempt has remained with him for 80 years.

misteraitch said...

For me, contempt has a specific direction about it (from above to below, whether the high ground be moral, legal or physical) whereas hatred does not—as also implied, I suppose, by beneath contempt. I like the thought of contempt as a competitive sport: it’s one I should like to see televised!

Conrad H. Roth said...

Yes, an interesting distinction which had not occurred to me; though, I suppose, a parallel observation to my stipulation that nobility is requred for contempt.