Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Pull out his eyes, Apologize, Apologize

In commenting upon my interpretation of Lolita as an act of repentance, R. J. Keefe is “heartened by [my] students’ insistence upon apology as a principle that perhaps clouded their literary perceptiveness. In a thousand cases out of a thousand-and-one, saying ‘I’m sorry’ is a moral act that’s both difficult and necessary.” I believe that it is neither, but rather that saying “I’m sorry” now serves as a substitute for genuine repentance.

More and more I have been struck by the rise of the conditional apology. “I am sorry if you are upset,” a person says—leaving the clear implication that you should not be upset, and that he is apologizing merely to placate you. The onus shifts onto you. A particularly sorry example of such a conditional apology was delivered to a friend. After twenty years of working for a company, he suffered misfortune—his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. Neither the president of the company nor even the vice president of his division contacted him, offered any help or condolence, sent a card or flowers, visited his wife in the hospital. A few months later, a coworker’s wife was diagnosed with lung cancer. Knowing that this coworker was in better favor with the president and vice president, my friend wrote to them, urging them not to do to his coworker what they had done to him. The president wrote back: “I am sorry if you felt ignored by me.” The vice president wrote to protest. He knew for a fact that the president was concerned about my friend’s wife. Why, the president had said as much to the vice president!

Jane Austen was not impressed by the power of saying “I’m sorry.” Here are three passages from Emma in which the phrase is insufficient to effect repentance, and in fact stands in its way.

After quarreling with Knightley over whether Harriet ought to have turned down Mr. Martin’s marriage proposal, Emma reflects to open Chapter 9:

Mr. Knightley might quarrel with her, but Emma could not quarrel with herself. He was so much displeased, that it was longer than usual before he came to Hartfield again; and when they did meet, his grave looks shewed that she was not forgiven. She was sorry, but could not repent.Austen carefully distinguishes between feeling sorry and repentance. Knightley, of course, is the novel’s moral compass—the “true north of virtue,” as Stanley Elkin once put it in class. Much later, in Chapter 43, on a trip to Box Hill, he must reprove Emma for an unkind remark to Miss Bates, an old friend. Frank Churchill asks to hear one funny story, or three dull ones, from each member of the party. Miss Bates jokes at her own expense that finding three dull stories should be easy for her. “Ah! ma’am, but there may be a difficulty,” Emma says. “Pardon me, but you will be limited as to number—only three at once.” Miss Bates is deeply hurt, but blames herself. When they are alone, Knightley lets Emma have it:Emma, I must once more speak to you as I have been used to do: a privilege rather endured than allowed, perhaps, but I must still use it. I cannot see you acting wrong, without a remonstrance. How could you be so unfeeling to Miss Bates? How could you be so insolent in your wit to a woman of her character, age, and situation?—Emma, I had not thought it possible.Harsh words, and well-deserved. Her reaction? “Emma recollected, blushed, was sorry, but tried to laugh it off.” Once again, feeling story prevents the correction of course that repentance would demand. Feeling sorry and laughing off the hurt, in fact, go hand in hand.

Two chapters later, as the novel begins its slow descent toward a conclusion, Emma seeks at last to repair her relationship with Jane Fairfax, a beautiful and accomplished young woman—a natural candidate for friendship—whom she dislikes for no reason that she can say. Jane, however, rebuffs Emma’s attempts at reconciliation. For her part, Emma is filled with remorse:She was sorry, very sorry. Her heart was grieved for a state which seemed but the more pitiable from this sort of irritation of spirits, inconsistency of action, and inequality of powers; and it mortified her that she was given so little credit for proper feeling, or esteemed so little worthy as a friend: but she had the consolation of knowing that her intentions were good. . . .Small wonder Jane is resolved to receive no kindness from Emma. She is still laboring under the moral error of believing that feeling sorry, very sorry, is enough to undo the damage she has caused.

It is not. It never is.


Nige said...

Yes indeed - and it is the double meaning of 'sorry' (regret at what happened /repentance for one's own part in it) that is exploited ad nauseam by caught-out politicians when they make their weasel-worded 'apologies'.

Jim H. said...

Unfortunately, too, in today's litigious society, saying "I'm sorry" can have real world consequence, leading, e.g., to legal liability as an admission against interest.