Recommended books, Social commentary

‘Beware of Pity’: an old story with a timeless message

There are two types of pity. One, the weak-minded, sentimental sort, is really just the heart’s impatience to rid itself as quickly as possible of the painful experience of being moved by another person’s suffering.”

The novel Beware of Pity was first published by Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig in 1939. I have just read the English translation published in 2011.

It is an intense and brilliant book. As this version’s foreword says, finishing the book feels like climbing out an emotional tumble dryer.

Set in 1913, it tells the story of a young Austrian calvary officer, Lieutenant Hofmiller, who befriends a rich family who live in a castle near the town where he is garrisoned. He becomes embroiled in a complex relationship with the daughter Edith, who is disabled, and whose sufferings and emotional turbulence dominate the home. When Edith falls in love with him, Hofmiller becomes the unhealthy focus of the family’s hope.

Anti-hero

Hofmiller is a subtlety crafted anti-hero. You sympathise with him because he means well and wants to help someone in need. But he is weak. He indulges himself in the self-satisfied glow of the benefactor and cares too much about what others think. He allows himself to be drawn into a web of dependency and deceit which leads to disastrous consequences.

In one striking passage, just before the story’s denouement, he narrates how it felt to be so appreciated by the family for what he was doing:

‘I was God that evening…I had given them all gifts and raised them by the miracle of my presence, they all had my light in their eyes, when they looked at each other the brightness of their gaze was my doing.’

Contrast

Hofmiller’s approach contrasts with Edith’s doctor, Dr Condor. He has been treating her for years and is steadfast and realistic about her chances of recovery. Hofmiller is too weak to adhere to Condor’s blunt but wise instructions about what will really help Edith.  In a passage which will particularly make sense to anyone with any experience of heroin addiction, Condor says:

‘Pity, like morphine, does the sick only good at first. It is a means of helping them feel better, but if you don’t get the dose right and know where to stop it becomes murderous poison. The first few injections do the patient good, they are soothing, they relieve pain. But the organism, body and mind alike, has a fatal and mysterious ability to adjust, and just as nerves crave more and more morphine, the mind wants more and more pity, more in the end than anyone can give….’

When Hofmiller defends his good motives and kind intentions, Condor snaps back:

‘Responsibility damn it, think of the responsibility of fooling someone else with your pity! Admittedly, you played with the feelings of these good folk for the kindest and most compassionate of reasons…it all depends on what you ultimately do, it depends on the final result.’

He then states the core message of the book:

“There are two types of pity. One, the weak-minded, sentimental sort, is really just the heart’s impatience to rid itself as quickly as possible of the painful experience of being moved by another person’s suffering. It is not a case of real sympathy, of feeling with the sufferer, but a way of defending yourself against someone else’s pain. The other kind, the only one that counts, is unsentimental but creative. It knows its own mind, and is determined to stand by the sufferer, patiently suffering too, to the last of its strength and even beyond.”

Hofmiller never really does ‘know his own mind’ and allows himself to be hopelessly manipulated. His pity is well-intentioned but it is short-term and shallow. In contrast, the doctor is realistic, resilient and is the epitome of committed compassion.

Against Empathy

Beware of Pity is a bit like a fictional version of the book Against Empathy (see Head over heart: the case against emotional empathy). Both share wisdom about the dangers of an overly emotional form of empathy which focusses on the feelings of the benefactor rather than the impact of their actions. They both articulate the need for kindness to accompanied by a commitment to telling the truth.

More than ever, people are urging each other to ‘be kind’ because they see so much harsh, judgemental views being shared. But actually the answers our families, friendships, workplaces and our society needs are deeper. We need to combine kindness with a commitment to telling the truth.

Avoiding harshness and naivety

In my work, I use this diagram a lot to help discussions about how we can help people and avoid the problems of harshness and naivety:

Speaking personally, some of the deepest problems I have got myself into is when I have been overly kind and supportive and allowed the truth to be hidden. This kind of naïvity helps no one. In contrast, some of the best things I have done is when I have been willing to challenge people and be truthful.

I will never forget getting a letter from someone I had previously dismissed from their job a year earlier. They wrote to express thanks for giving them ‘the kick up the backside they needed’ because the action I took led them to properly confront the issues they knew they needed to address. Also, I have written about my relationship with my cousin who struggled with an addiction and how boundaries and truthfulness maintained our positive relationship.

True grace

Emotional responses of pity or empathy are not trustworthy guides to wise actions. They can play to our saviour mentalities and make us easily manipulated. We need to beware of these feelings.

But the message of Beware of Pity is not cynical. The real hero of the book is Dr Condor who is a model of kindness and grace to people in need. But this is not a cheap form of grace or an easy, short-term form of kindness. He both kind and tells the truth. He embodies the kind of grace and truth our world is desperately in need of.

4 thoughts on “‘Beware of Pity’: an old story with a timeless message”

  1. I loved this book when I read it, Jon. Fascinating to see your take on it! All his writing is interesting, memoir and fiction, and his ability to care for his friends as seen in, for instance, his relationship with Joseph Roth, is wonderful. Volker Wiedermann’s Summer before the Dark is a fictional take on the friendship that I found very moving. Thanks for posting!

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    1. thanks Huw. I don’t read enough fiction – but I am trying to read more. I didn’t know anything about this book or the author but my wife had the book and the title intrigued me. I was really caught up in it and the story transfixed me.

      Like

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