Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Deborah Parker and Mark Parker's "Sucking Up"

Deborah Parker is Professor of Italian at the University of Virginia. Mark Parker is Professor of English at James Madison University. They are coauthors of Inferno Revealed: From Dante to Dan Brown.

They applied the “Page 99 Test” to their new book, Sucking Up: A Brief Consideration of Sycophancy, and reported the following:
Our book considers sycophancy from several perspectives—from the earliest types in classical literature, to historical examples, to modern sociology, to famous literary examples, among them Dante, Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens and Proust.

Page 99 occurs in the book’s final section, “How Low Can You Go?” where we look at Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. The book’s narrator Stevens is an aging butler who served the aristocrat Lord Darlington during the build-up to WWII. As Stevens ponders his life of devoted service, he gradually reveals that Darlington had been a Nazi sympathizer.

Much of the narration is defensive, a kind of anxious special pleading. Stevens’ suppression of self and his complicity in his master’s meddling in foreign policy, weigh heavily upon him. To justify his assent Stevens carefully develops his professional ethos through a series of anecdotes, from which he draws certain lessons that illustrate a “great” butler. A “great” butler will only “abandon the professional being he inhabits” when he pleases. Adherence to this code proves excruciating when a guest at one of Lord Darlington’s banquets wishes to show the limitations of democracy. The guest peppers Stevens with questions about various economic and political issues to expose the butler’s ignorance and Stevens performs his humiliation satisfactorily.

Key to Stevens’ maintenance of dignity here is the illusion of choice. He makes himself small out of professionalism. And with such self-deceptions, Stevens transforms a range of sycophantic roles—from the “yes-man” to the reliable doormat—into something positive. Page 99 is integral to our consideration of the blindness which accompanies some forms of sycophancy. The brilliance of Ishiguro’s novel lies in the narrator’s unreliability, his blinkered recollection of the past. Stevens is always on the verge of unhappy revelations about himself, Lord Darlington, and the nature of his service. Like a word forever on the tip of one’s tongue, this full consciousness never emerges. Flatterers fool themselves.
Learn more about Sucking Up at The University of Virginia Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue