Vile Bodies

A Freak Show Called Generosity

March 08, 2014

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Oscar Pistorius

 

An artist who seems to me as genuinely compassionate as Vélasquez is Daumier. The latter was a man of strong convictions, yet he managed to criticize what he disliked without hatred and never without humor. He ridiculed his political bêtes noires, Louis Philippe and Louis Napoleon, without depriving them of their humanity. While he found their pretensions ridiculous (as all human pretensions are), one could not imagine him inflicting cruelty on them as individuals. 

His was a genuinely generous heart. One of my favorites of his pictures is of the fairground impresario ushering us into his booth to look at his prize freak, an enormously fat woman”€”freakishly fat for those days, not these, when much fatter women are commonplace. She stands on a pedestal, waiting to be stared at and walked around like a statue. This picture is tragic. The woman is no jollier than is her exhibitor, and we sense that they find the métier disagreeable. They are driven to it by poverty, and the woman must keep her fatness up if they are to make a living. Slimming would mean starvation for both. 

Nor is there strident criticism in this picture of us, the impresario’s potential clients, for we too are worthy of compassion if our lives are so reduced in scope, so exhausted by work, that we find distraction in staring at a freak. This is a picture made more in sorrow than in anger, in fact entirely in sorrow”€”and compassion.

Although our conditions of life have softened immeasurably since Daumier’s day, his generosity of spirit is not easy to find today. Perhaps this is because we demand so much more of life than anyone demanded in his day, when even the lives of the richest hung by the narrowest of threads. Our criticisms of life are correspondingly harsher, less tolerant and forgiving of human weakness, and less fatalistic than Daumier’s. Though we are unprecedentedly fortunate, we are filled with bitterness and hate; our kindness, such as it is, has correspondingly become brittle, impersonal, theoretical, abstract, bureaucratic, and ideological, reflective of no genuine feeling. 

Thus we promote an immense freak show, a Fellini’s Satyricon of sport, and call it generosity.

 

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