Essay

Dirty Hands

By Gaither Stewart

Photo by Austin Ban 

“You should therefore know that there are two ways to fight: one while abiding by the rules, the other by using force. The first approach is unique to Man; the second is that of beasts. But because in many cases the first method will not suffice, one must be prepared to resort to force. This is why a ruler needs to know how to conduct himself: in the manner of a beast as well as that of man.” – Niccolo Machiavelli

“Dirty hands” in literature results when a leader encounters a conflict of duties with values and must choose between alternatives, none of which are entirely satisfactory. In Jean-Paul Sartre’s play Les Mains Sales (Dirty hands), Communist leader Hoederer explains his view to the bourgeois, Hugo, who has joined the Proletarian Party in the fictive East European country of Illyria at the end of World War Two. Despite his love and admiration for Hoederer and the model he makes, Hugo is steadfast in his refusal to “dirty” his hands:

Hoederer: You hold so tightly to your purity, my lad. How afraid you are of dirtying your hands. Well, then, stay pure. But what good will it do, and why bother coming here among us? Purity is a concept of fakirs and friars. But you, the intellectuals, the bourgeois anarchists, invoke purity as the pretext for doing nothing. Do nothing, don’t move, clasp your arms tight around your body, put on gloves. As for me, my hands are dirty. I have plunged my arms up to the elbows in shit and blood. And what then should one do later? Do you imagine it possible to govern innocently?

(“Comme tu tiens à ta pureté … comme tu as peur de te salir les mains. A qui cela servira-t-il et pourquoi viens-tu parmi nous? La pureté c’est une idée de fakir et de moine. Vous autres, les intellectuels, les anarchistes bourgeois, vous en tirez prétexts pour ne rien faire. Ne rien faire, rester immobile, serrer les coudes contre le corps, porter des gants. Moi j’ai les mains sales. Jusqu’aux coudes. Je les ai plongées dans la merde et dans le sang. Et puis après? Est’ce que tu t’imagines qu’on peut gouverner innocemment?”)

Hugo is in total admiration of this man. Ecce homo, he apparently thinks. Hugo, the bourgeois convert who hangs onto some of his fundamental bourgeois values, nonetheless approves of the Nietzschian element in his hero Hoederer whom he professes to love more than he has loved anyone else in his life. Hoederer is the philosopher’s “a man”. He is the full human being. More than a Christ. A man who can say: Hear me!… and above all do not mistake me for someone else. The reality is that Hoederer loves other men with all their faults; Hugo loves the image of men as they could become.

But like Hoederer, Hugo too must distinguish opportunists from those who become infected with the disease of corruption through their sincere efforts to govern well. Hugo recognizes that self-serving opportunists rationalize their dubious measures through self-deceptive references to “the good of the whole,” or that “the end justifies the means”. So, for him, egocentric opportunism differs conceptually from dirty hands. The question thus remains open: Does corruption in the political realm arise as a result of the very nature of governance and morality? Do rulers simply have more opportunities for temptation and therefore succumb more often than do private citizens? Or does good governance sometimes require the sacrifice of moral standards as Machiavelli suggests and Hoederer believes?

We see in nations worldwide that when corrupt governmental leaders are detected, society tends toward leniency in its “punishment” of them. But I don’t believe this leniency reflects recognition of the problem of dirty hands, in which setting people forgive and forget so easily the crimes of their governments. I think the reason for leniency is fear and awe vis-à-vis power. They don’t want to risk punishment for dissent and social scorn for being “different”. Yet, yet, Italian political leaders since Machiavelli have recognized that power truly corrupts.

“Realists” like Sartre’s Hoederer maintain that dirty hands are inevitable. “Idealists” like Hugo on the other hand hold that the problem of dirty hands is merely an excuse adduced by the morally weak to do what they want to do. So in that sense power is directly linked to morality.

It is an amazing curiosity to me that writing one hundred years earlier about the American Puritan society of the 1600s Nathaniel Hawthorne in his novel The Scarlet Letter approaches a moral theme similar to the modern one illustrated by Sartre in Dirty Hands … from however a different angle. His character, the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, in his life of everlasting guilt and penance for a previous violation of the severe moral code of his times in a moment of enlightenment feels driven to commit “some strange, wild, wicked thing or other, with a sense that it would be at once both involuntary and intentional: involuntary in his human rejection of an unfair social-moral code; intentional in that after seven years of suffering the pain of his penitence, his most ardent desire is to say NO.”

Dimmesdale thinks: “No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself, and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be true.” Dimmesdale’s penance is transformed into an accusation against an entire bigoted, hypocritical and mendacious Puritan society of the New England of the 1600s, which remained branded on subsequent generations of its descendants, including those of the Nineteenth century when his creator Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote, and so on until today as seen in the American reverence toward corrupt power, one hundred and seventy years since he wrote The Scarlet Letter.

Clearly then, POWER has always been the question of questions. For man and beast—power, power, power. Power, causing family, tribal, social, national, international, cosmic warfare. In the Sartrian play the question is political power and how to acquire it. In the Hawthorne novel, power is of a bigoted moral nature and how to acquire and exercise it, subjecting a whole society to its severe sanctimonious Puritan rules. Political power and moral power thus become one and the same with the same ultimate goal: control of common man.

Anything for POWER. A true Machiavellian, Italian Christian Democratic political leader, Giulio Andreotti achieved wide fame for his quip about power: “Il potere logora chi non ce l’ha. Power wears down he who does not have it.”

Hoederer would have no problem with these words of the “Iron Felix” (Dzerzhinskinsky): “We will turn our hearts into steel, which we will temper in the fire of suffering and the blood of fighters for freedom. We will make our hearts cruel, hard, and immovable, so that no mercy will enter them, and so that they will not quiver at the sight of a sea of enemy blood. We will let loose the floodgates of that sea. Without mercy, without sparing, we will kill our enemies in scores of hundreds. Let them be thousands; let them drown themselves in their own blood … let there be floods of the blood of the bourgeois. ” (Article in Krasnaya Gazeta, 1 September 1918.)

We see in both Sartre and Hawthorne that high-power groups will resort to most any means to acquire power¸ they love holding it and using it. Power groups also use their style of propaganda to justify their having power and are capable of the most nefarious acts to keep it. They pay little attention to low-power groups, and have a natural will to dominate. By their alienation of those with little or no power, high-power group actions elicit however resistance.

It is natural, as Andreotti said in his colorful language, that low-power groups are worn down by the lack of real power. They often express their discontent by projecting blame onto the even less powerful than themselves, thus undermining their ability to empower themselves through cooperation and coalition building.

Power plays a role in most conflicts. Within the social sciences there are various perspectives on power: “power over”, or the ability to compel someone to do something; “power with,” which emphasizes the effectiveness of joint or cooperative action; “powerlessness and dependence”; and “power to,” as in the power to act without constraint.

Hoederer conceives of a mutual interaction between the characteristics of a revolutionary leader a la Machiavelli and the particulars of a revolutionary situation often through using various strategies of influence and if necessary plunging his hands in shit and blood to accomplish it. Puritan leaders did the same and with the same dirty hands to exert power via a false morality of bigotry, privilege, religion, order and reverence for the law they themselves declared.

Personal factors include different cognitive, motivational and moral orientations regarding power. People adopt various perspectives vis-a- vis power. Some people have an authoritarian orientation that stresses obedience to authority. Others are motivated to pursue personal power, or power for their group. Peoples’ moral orientations toward power vary with their degree of moral development, their degree of egalitarian sentiment, and with their perception of the scope of justice. Understanding situational factors thus requires an examination of the structural and historical context. Significant aspects of a situation are the role a person plays and the individual’s place in the hierarchy.

Both Sartre and Hawthorne emphasize power’s demands for reverence from its adherents: acceptance of and reverence for its values and nature. That is, reverence for that one power, imposed, or, as a result of cooperation with and opposition to outsiders. A religious kind of thing. Therefore the need of some level of the divine to justify that particular power. A society in which also political power is within the grasp of Hawthorne’s priest, Dimmesdale. Sartre’s divine instead is that great majority of guileless men.

Hawthorne makes a very interesting remark—almost as an aside—that I have never noted elsewhere. One hundred and seventy years ago in reference to the severity of the Puritan society of the 1600s in which The Scarlet Letter takes places, he writes: “… the generation of Americans next to the early emigrants, wore the blackest shade of Puritanism, and so darkened the national visage with it, that all the subsequent years have not sufficed to clear it up. We have yet to learn again the forgotten art of gayety. I find that last sentence perplexing, expressive of something I have long felt though never articulated. After I left the USA, and then gradually while on visits there, long and short, I came to realize that I had concluded something similar to Hawthorne: except for perhaps short periods in American history and in certain confined places, the gaiety there has seemed to me forced and false, the kind of wild and unreal gaiety surfacing during the pestilence in a spirit of the end of time. A society of seeming. Seeming to “have good time”. A society where seeming replaces the concept of being. A narcissistic society in which the false self replaces the true self as introduced into psychoanalysis by Donald Winnicott in 1960 who saw the false self as a defensive façade which leaves its holders lacking spontaneity, behind a mere appearance of being real. Thus to maintain their self-esteem and protect their vulnerable true selves, narcissists need to control others’ behavior as in The Scarlet Letter. (Paraphrased from Wikipedia entry True and False Self.)

Sartre’s Hoederer says plainly that what interests him in men is their self, the way they are, men with all their vices. Their voices, their warm hands, their bare skin and their desperate battle again death and anguish. He loves men the way they are in life. He wants to change the world.

The bourgeois Hugo instead claims that men as they are hold little interest for him; he is interested in what men can become.

In the two books, The Scarlet Letter, set in the seventeenth century and Dirty Hands set in the twentieth, the two self-sacrificing social leaders, Hoederer the Proletarian and Reverend Dimmesdale the Moralist feel they are the chosen, the elect destined to perform the supreme acts for which they are willing to die, acts beyond the reach of common man.

Categories: Essay, Literary criticism

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