The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro is a treasure that I hope to reread again. The subtlety of this work was so much so that I did not realize a key character relationship until it was explicitly spelled out for me.
Some ideas I walk away with:
“The great butlers are great by virtue of their ability to inhabit their professional role and inhabit it to their utmost; they will not be shaken out by external events, however surprising, alarming or vexing. They wear their professionalism as a decent gentleman will wear his suit: he will not let ruffians or circumstance tear it off him I the public gaze.” (Ishiguro 43).
Early on, Ishiguro introduces the concept of dignity to describe a core factor in defining a great butler. I could not do his work justice in paraphrasing his anecdotes that embody this trait (Ishiguro 29-44).
“Dignity” is described as such tremendous devotion to the work that one remains composed and sees the work to completion, especially in the most dire and personal circumstances. “Dignity” requires an unwavering balance of many human virtues (patience, dedication, poise) and instincts (self-preservation, pride, sentimentality). Even if many of us are not butlers or in the service/hospitality industry, how can we practice this “dignity” in our professional lives?
“Much of your success lies in just how well your actions line up behind your intentions… You want influence. Well, what do you plan to do with it once you get it? Your notoriety. Your following. What do you plan to do with your money once you get it?” -Leslie Odom Jr.
“He’s a gentleman, and he fought a war with the Germans, and it’s his instinct to offer generosity and friendship to a defeated foe. It’s his instinct… [You must have seen] the way they’ve used it, manipulated it, turned something fine and noble into something else- something they can use for their foul ends?” (Ishiguro 223)
The narrator’s employer, the “gentleman” this passage refers to, was a someone of political power and connections due to his noble heritage. He sought to use this power for good, arranging gatherings frequently for the sake of peace. He had influence and was intentional in wielding it for good, but ultimately, it led to appeasement, which allowed Germany to do much bad.
How often do the outcomes of our actions follow our intentions? History tells us that a lot of bad were results, at least in part, of unintended consequences. It’s not like history’s most infamous killers, dictators, leaders slaughtered for the sake taking human lives: it was a means to an end, to serve some higher purpose or objective that could may as well have been the purest of intentions.
Executing well our good intentions is quite difficult, and I think that is largely because good execution primarily comes from how well the other party accepts our action. If I reach out to someone and ask about how they’re doing, how their life is, what they are up to, I can mean well in wanting to show that they are on my mind and are important to me and that I care about them. Now, this could go well and the other party could feel loved and cared for, or they may find my inquiries burdensome, annoying, and even mechanical. The solution seems to be trial and error, rather than inaction. If the actions of your intentions are well-received, it was well-executed. If not, try something different.
“What is the point in worrying oneself too much about what one could or could not have done to control the course one’s life took? Surely it is enough that the likes of you and I at least try to make our small contribution count for something true and worthy. And if some of us are prepared to sacrifice much in life in order to pursue such aspirations, surely that is in itself, whatever the outcome, cause for pride and contentment.” (Ishiguro 244)