The mind of John le Carre', as it is revealed in his fine novels, is a byzantine and mysterious place, filled with bottomless pools of ambiguity and dark tunnels that wind from here to uncertainty. But on one question it is startlingly direct: the moral superiority of suffering and deprivation.
This is a principal theme of le Carre''s new novel, "The Little Drummer Girl," in which a pampered young woman of the wealthy West is forced to confront the despair of the Middle East, in one scene personified by a leader of Palestinian forces: ". . . he spoke from pains she had not experienced, from a viewpoint she had yet to learn. He was not old, but he had a wisdom that had been acquired too early." Or, as le Carre' put it more forthrightly in a recent interview with Newsweek: "I've always had a frightful contempt for the self-indulgent dilemmas of affluent Western man, compared to the experiences of real hell, of people who spent 20 years in jail for almost immaterial reasons."
This is, at first inspection, unexceptionable. Is le Carre' talking about the tendency of certain affluent Westerners to dash off to Dr. Feelgood at the merest quiver or quaver of their fragile psyches? If he is, then of course he is right. Is he talking about the tendency of these same affluent Westerners to indulge themselves in great wallows of self-pity because the revenue service wants to have a chat with them or the assessment on the house has gone up or a lover has found a better offer? If he is, then, again, of course he is right.
But it is not at all clear that this is in fact what he has in mind. Rather, there is a good deal of evidence that the clear-eyed and tough-minded le Carre' has fallen for one of the persistent pieties of Western sentimentalism: The conviction that one of the chief obligations of privilege is guilt. It is a variation, albeit a subtle one, on the impulse that led parents of an earlier generation to caution their offspring to bear in mind the starving children of India as they contemplated their uneaten spinach; the underlying assumption is that there is a direct relationship between the prosperity of the West and the impoverishment of much of the rest of the world, and that it is therefore the responsibility of the West to do penance.
There is a direct relationship in the crucial sense that a substantial measure of the comforts enjoyed by the prosperous come at the expense of the impoverished, i.e., through the exploitation of their natural and human resources. But this, though most emphatically deplorable and a wholly legitimate reason for anti-Western sentiment, is not what le Carre' and others of like persuasion seem to be talking about. Their argument, stripped of whatever adornments may accompany it, is that Western affluence is morally bankrupt, that the cares of the fortunate are inherently trivial, that the only "real" world--the only world worth caring about--is the one where injustice and the whimsical twists of malign fate are daily givens, where life is hard.
The difficulty in disagreeing with this argument is that it's just about impossible to avoid sounding smug, complacent and arrogant when stating one's disagreement. Yet it is not merely supercilious to ask precisely what the Westerner of conscience reasonably can be expected to do in order to rectify the situation, in order to put matters into equitable balance. Wear a hair shirt? Wrap CARE packages? Take 40 lashes a day? Enter a nunnery? Tithe? Go to jail? Fast? Would the Westerner who imposed any of these alternatives on himself in any way alter the distance between the prosperous and the impoverished? Certainly not. He would only massage, and display for all to see, his guilt and his moral superiority.
This is arrogance of a different kind, one not notably more attractive than that of the "affluent Western man" who self-indulgently ships his tender ego out for psychiatric repairs. In the specific case of le Carre', there's also what looks for all the world like a strong element of hypocrisy. It is not easy to swallow a lecture on "what passed for pain in Western middle-class society" (as le Carre' phrases it in the novel) from someone whose well-deserved successes have made him, according to Newsweek, "a rich man" whose family "divides its time between a rambling house in London and an imposing stone house in rural Cornwall, on the southwesternmost tip of the English coast, with a sweeping view of the sea"--and who, although he "guards his privacy fiercely," recently has allowed it to be violated by correspondents of Newsweek and other publications for the purpose of promoting his new book and thus assuring himself and his publishers still further affluence.
Is it unfair to dwell on this? Hardly. Sermonizing about the decadence of affluent society has a hollow ring indeed when the preacher is one who has supped so lavishly at that society's table. Perhaps le Carre' would argue that by writing as eloquently as he does in "The Little Drummer Girl" about the agonies of the Middle East, he has paid his dues to the world's unfortunate, and perhaps he has. But that does not entitle him to moral posturing of the sort in which he engages when he natters on about the banality of "Western middle-class society."
Le Carre' to the contrary, suffering and deprivation are not virtues that separate the morally correct from the morally bankrupt. Pain does not elevate; it is merely painful. And in any event the impoverished and dispossessed of the world do not have a monopoly on pain, though that which they suffer certainly is far worse than the woes usually visited on the more privileged. Pain varies according to the circumstances one has been granted; no doubt it is true that the pain of a struggle for mere survival is deeper--"better," if you will--than the pain of trying to determine if one's life has any meaning and pertinence, but it remains that neither is any fun for the person undergoing it.
Yes: Life is hell for the Palestinian refugees and for millions of others to whom life has been unspeakably cruel. But it is not axiomatic that because they suffer, those in happier situations are contemptible--and it is a pity that a writer of sensibilities as acute as le Carre''s should succumb to so fatuous a line of reasoning.