Of respect and respectability

Lavender Gardens © Samantha Groenestyn; oil on canvas

Lavender Gardens © Samantha Groenestyn; oil on canvas

I lately find myself floating untethered across Europe, of unfixed address and relying on the kindness of friends. Determined to do away with distractions, excess possessions, and non-painting-related ambitions, my faithful and scuffed old suitcase and I have somewhat conspicuously fallen off the path of respectability.


Making big wishes, Vienna

Wafting from city to city, from house to house, welcomed warmly into the homes of friends, I’m permitted into the private spheres of young doctors, paramedics, physicists, engineers and environmental charity workers, and granted a sobering insight into the contrasts in our chosen careers. But I’m also freshly awoken to how difficult it is for each of us to forge our way. My friends are well-travelled, well-educated, some are employed, some have suspended employment for the sake of a relationship, some have worked offshore, some are physically overworked, others are mentally under-challenged, some need to secure funding to guarantee their own ongoing employment. Those of us with money are not necessarily respected, because their jobs are too physical or not demanding enough of their time. Those of us who are working for the betterment of the world are anxious at not contributing enough. And I, as capable as they, cling resolutely to my cause in the face of my meagre earning-power.

Married to the sea, my all time favourite web-comic

Married to the sea, my all time favourite web-comic











This unsettling confrontation with earning ability has been somewhat tempered by some thoughts from philosopher Alain de Botton. I found his book Status anxiety on a bookshelf in a new home and read it hungrily and hopefully. For at heart, we all want to occupy ourselves with something which challenges and satisfies us, and we want others to respect us for our efforts. But are our equations, prescriptions, policies and drawings enough when the measure held against our work is money? De Botton lays out an historical account of our attitude to wealth that can at least reassure the financially-challenged that they are not necessarily worthless. He describes the complete historical about-face of our estimation of wealth, and, most strikingly, its connection with virtue.

Poverty wasn’t always such a psychological burden to bear, argues de Botton (2004: 67-68), particularly in a world where one was born either into nobility or peasantry according to God’s will. One’s moral worth could not be wrapped up in one’s social standing if that immutable standing was allotted by God. Poverty might bring physical discomforts, but not shame. And since the aristocracy acknowledged that their luxuries were only made possible through the untiring efforts of the lower classes, it was only fitting that they demonstrated charity and pity toward these unfortunates. A delicate balance of interdependency between rich and poor reinforced the idea that virtue and moral worth were not reflected in wealth (2004: 70).

But in about the middle of the eighteenth century, argues de Botton (2004: 75-76), some hopeful meritocratic ideas began to take root and to dismantle these beliefs and thus to erode our collective appraisal of poverty. And, more sinisterly, supply and demand were switched. Rather than considering the role of the poor a necessary evil, fatefully bestowed, their position came to be described as dependent on the whims of the rich. Without demand, their labour would be for naught. Thinkers as forceful as David Hume and Adam Smith helped to redefine who depended on whom (2004: 76-78):

Hume loving, Edinburgh

Hume loving, Edinburgh

‘In a nation where there is no demand for superfluities, men sink into indolence, lose all enjoyment of life, and are useless to the public, which cannot maintain or support its fleets and armies.’ (David Hume, 1752).

Portrait gallery

National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh

‘In spite of their natural selfishness and rapacity, though they mean only their own convenience, though the sole end which they propose from the labours of all the thousands whom they employ be the gratification of their own vain and insatiable desires, the rich divide with the poor the produce of all their improvements. They are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessities of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus, without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of society, and afford means to the multiplication of the species.’ (Adam Smith, 1776).

Adam Smith, Edinburgh

Adam Smith, Edinburgh

Charity became a burden; the poor became a nuisance (2004: 78). Coupled with progressive ideas that every individual ought to be rewarded according to his or her abilities and achievements, the modern attitude to poverty is one of disdain. For the flipside of meritocracy is that those who do not excel deserve the hardships and stigma that they have thus earned. It seems a regrettable but inevitable price to pay. Since one ought to be able to improve one’s position, failure to do so has come to imply moral failure in a way it did not in the past (2004: 87). De Botton (p. 85) explains, ‘An increasing faith in a reliable connection between merit and worldly position in turn endowed money with a new moral quality.’ And, worse: ‘To the injury of poverty, a meritocratic system now added the insult of shame’ (2004: 91).

De Botton goes on to explore antidotes to this new state of affairs, a string of themes that reads like my biography: Christianity, Politics, Philosophy, Art and Bohemia. Perhaps my attraction to these things has lessened my own regard for money and for the esteem that comes hand in hand with it. At heart, his message is to seek value elsewhere; define worth on your own terms, as many have before. Build, adopt or steal an unshakable moral code so that in dark times you can measure your life and your own worth against this and not money; so that you can respect yourself and stay focused on your life’s work. Perhaps that confidence and determination is enough win the respect of those who doubt you.

Love Newcastle













De Botton, Alain. 2004. Status anxiety. Hamish Hamilton: London.



Ready or not © Samantha Groenestyn

What’s been on your mind lately? I’ve been thinking about poverty, and whether it has any intrinsic morality. I haven’t been reading anything that overtly argues as much, only old French novels (by Simone de Beauvoir) populated with guilty petit bourgeois intellectuals and tough millionaires imposing their will on the former, and environmental science flavoured books (by Jared Diamond) that posit the correct functioning of business as to make a profit and not to hinder itself with social concerns. Those with money look out for their own interests, and take care to ensure that their money achieves what they desire. It’s therefore easy to paint them as the bad guys, forgetting about the rest of us, forgetting that they are acting rationally given their position. This realisation that it’s perfectly rational to act in certain ways when one has money—most notably, in one’s own interest—leads me to wonder whether having money is somehow connected to one’s moral downfall.

I’ve always viewed money as an enabler. I’m absolutely not the kind of person to argue that money is the root of all evil. But perhaps, money being the enabler that it is, once you have it you are able to act as yourself, unimpeded by poverty or lack of access to resources. And in so acting, you reveal your true nature. Some people will help others with their money. Some will spend it selfishly—not in itself a bad thing. I’ve seen plenty of others feel uncomfortable with it.

Testing out J’s new picnic blanket today at New Farm Park. Yep, you can sit on it. It also buckles onto his bike in a tidy little package, and it’s also homemade by me!

I started to wonder if my personality is best suited to poverty. Can such a notion make sense in the modern world, in which everyone is aspiring to earn and multiply their wealth? When I was on a salary, I could and did buy many things. I could eat more meals out, drink fancier wine and travel, and I picked up some very nice shoes. But I did these things haphazardly, and in something of a fog of not being sure what I liked or wanted. I had the means to do things, so I did them and thought about them later. Now I’m in no such position, I do all the thinking beforehand and make carefully calculated decisions and finally, when I’ve saved up enough, execute them. Is this a virtue—being discerning in your decision-making? Lack of money somehow clears my head and enables me to see straight. It imposes discipline.

Discipline in itself may not be virtuous, but it works for me—I can better order my life and achieve what I want to achieve, resources be damned.

Freight train sunset

I recently knit these Scandinavian mittens with some tweedy Harris wool sent over from Scotland from my dear friend Anna. Brisbane doesn’t get much of a winter, but fortunately I get up at 5am a couple of times a week to go open a cafe, and I open my eyes in the dark and hope that it’s freezing, and am often rewarded with 8 or 9 degree mornings, which warm up to well above 20 C. These mittens keep my hands toasty on the longish bike-ride down.


Creators and destroyers

Sunday best © Samantha Groenestyn

Milton Glaser, designer extraordinaire (think I heart NY), calls Freud a ‘true artist’ who, ‘like all true artists, offered us only one way to view the world.’* Glaser finds Freud’s dichotomy an appealing one. As Glaser summarises it, Freud distinguishes between creativity and evil (p. 208). In less stark terms, he brands those who have sided with Eros (over Thanatos) as having devoted their lives ‘to making things, rather than controlling things’ (p. 209).

I, too, had a handy dichotomy with which to frame the world, which echoed these sentiments. I classified people as either creators or destroyers. Creators are those who produce things; destroyers those who debase them. Or, destroyers are those who reduce things to rubble, and creators are those who fashion rubble into things. The description has a nice equilibrium to it that suggests that the two camps are co-dependent. However, I then encountered a third type of person who unbalanced this pull between life and death.

The fixer, discussed elsewhere under the disgruntled tag of ‘helping people,’ takes a less autonomous path, yet—or perhaps so—is generally touted as more morally upright. The fixer does the admirably messy job of fixing people, and this being a more selfless pursuit it tends to slot comfortably into the category of Christian Good Works and parade around rather confidently as Good Works more broadly. The fixer, however, is essentially a conserver or preserver. The fixer does not like destruction, which she exists to remedy. But in this she chooses what Glaser callcontrolling things, in opposition to making them. She is a subtle foe, too focused on the equilibrium and completely opposed to the extremities of possibility.

For while the destroyer seems most at odds with the creator, the two are united by their joy in anarchy, which the fixer aims to stifle. Anarchy permits any new combination to arise, whether haphazardly—in the case of destruction—or purposefully—in the case of creation.

Destruction masquerades as creation in this common appeal to anarchy: destruction opens up infinite possibilities in the scattering of splintered shards. Yet the way these shards land is not enough to constitute creation. The destructive impulse is not to repurpose. What is ‘created’ by the destruction of things is not a considered, designed or truly authored thing. Destruction removes function, and in many instances removes aesthetics. The destructive impulse glories in anarchy for its own sake, not for what might come of it. It revels in the burning match, that fleeting burst of flame. The creative impulse is the one that puts this flame to use, restoring function.

I suppose dichotomous views of the world exist to simplify our experiences, and mine is becoming unduly complicated. I can’t even be sure that creators don’t have destroyers inside them, or that fixers aren’t just mediocre creators. I think the take home point here is that the fixers aren’t the sole moral winners, and their impact on the world, while seemingly the most significant, is but the stabilising force in a world full of talented people who shape the world in countless other ways—and more autonomous ways at that, granting, one would presume, a heftier moral agency. And while I pride myself in making things, as does Mr Glaser, and am deeply disturbed by those who delight in the ruining of things for the sake of witnessing decay, perhaps I ought to step off my pedestal too, and acknowledge what debt I owe to those who start fires.


* Heller, Steven and Marshall Arisman. 2004. Inside the business of illustration. Allworth Press: New York.

The severe-looking Dutch lady above is a tribute to my austere Dutch heritage, which comes with its own moral prejudices. It also comes with rather nice bicycles.


Hardy: Gothic defender of women

Can anyone read Hardy without feeling crushed at the injustice of the world? Most particularly at the meddling, life-destroying injustice of the world towards genuine love between two souls? Hardy is not generally listed among Gothic writers, but the tale before us is more than just a tragedy. Pummeling the reader with malady after bitter malady, improbable misfortune after unfortunate encounter, Hardy works the reader into an emotional frenzy more deeply piercing than Walpole ever manages in The Castle of Otranto, but just as unrelenting. But, more than this, Hardy ‘raise[s] the sad spectres of “othered” and oppressed behaviours, crossings of boundaries, and classes of people and finally arrange[s] for the distancing and destruction of those figures or spaces into which the most troubling anomalies have been abjected by most of the middle class’ (Hogle, 2002: 13).

Tess of the D’Urbervilles, provisionally called Too Late Beloved, is a harrowing epic of a country maiden’s swift fall from society’s favour that unravels her life in so complete a manner that one feels her final punishment a reward, though her martyrdom goes unnoticed. Hardy wastes no time in introducing death and destruction, with the unwitting Tess, a mere teen, feeling herself the cause of her family’s ruin when their only horse is slain on her watch. This early insight into her generous and self-aware nature, that cannot help but read the effects of her actions on those around her, prepares us for the more miserable self-blame to come.

Just as swiftly, Hardy brings on Phase the second: Maiden no more, Tess having fallen prey to the man her parents have urged her to request help from—Alec D’Urberville. If this isn’t enough, Tess is with child. If this isn’t enough, her mother blames her for her silliness. If this isn’t enough, the child dies soon after birth. If this isn’t enough, the priest will not baptise the dying baby. Tess names him Sorrow. On being scolded by her mother for her indiscretion, Tess finally lashes out: She couldn’t have known; she was sent into the arms of a beast with no warning from her own mother, with no novels to educate her of the wiles of man.

I would that folk forgot me quite,
Forgot me quite!
I would that I could shrink from sight,
And no more see the sun.
Would it were time to say farewell,
To claim my nook, to need my knell,
Time for them all to stand and tell
Of my day’s work as done.

Tess struggles with her sudden impurity, and seeks a fresh start—still a teen—moving away from home and finding work in a dairy. She buries her baby and buries her past, leaving her personal demon, Alec D’Urberville, behind. Her mother’s advice—the most sympathetic she ever receives—guides her, backed by centuries of mistreated women and those who blamed them for their misfortunes (p. 191):

Many a woman—some of the Highest in the Land—have had a Trouble in their time; and why should you Trumpet yours when others don’t Trumpet theirs? No girl would be such a Fool, especially as it is so long ago, and not your Fault at all.


Ah! Dairy where I lived so long,
I lived so long;
Where I would rise up staunch and strong,
And lie down hopefully.
‘Twas there within the chimney-seat
He watched me to the clock’s slow beat—
Loved me, and learnt to call me Sweet,
And whispered words to me.

Here Tess meets a face from her carefree younger days, a young man named Angel Clare, son of a clergyman who, having turned his back on the church and thus been denied a university education (something of a sore point for Hardy, reminiscent of Jude the Obscure), is training to be an ‘agriculturalist.’ A slow and sweet romance blossoms between the two that draws Tess out of her bitter mistrust of men. Hardy makes it so pure, airy and magical, that one wants to slip under it like the waters of a cool stream and revel in the morsel of happiness he allows Tess, though one knows it is but a morsel and the thick wad of pages to follow will be scrawled with agony and misfortune (pp. 192-3):

She had not known that men could be so disinterested, chivalrous, protective, in their love for women as he. Angel Clare was far from all that she thought him in this respect; but he was, in truth, more spiritual than animal; he had himself well in hand, and was singularly free from grossness. Though not cold-natured, he was rather bright than hot—less Byronic than Shelleyan; could love desperately, but his love more especially inclined to the imaginative and ethereal; it was an emotion which could jealously guard the loved one against his very self. This amazed and enraptured Tess.

Compelled into marrying him, both by her own intense feelings and his, Tess cannot be so unjust to so loving a soul as to keep such a significant secret from him. And to our minds, we yearn for Tess to find a confidant to describe her sorrows to and ease her burden just a little, and think Angel is above social conventions. But he is not. On Tess’s revelation of her unfortunate past, Angel can no longer see in her his pure country maid. Though he knows intellectually that she is not to blame, and though he knows that the world wrongs her in oppressing her for what was committed by others, he wants Tess to fulfill his ideal of a spotless dairymaid. Forgiving in the general, he cannot accept this situation in the particular, when he had such romantic notions of his own lot in life.

It is here that Hardy is the staunchest defender of womankind: the writer and the reader know that Tess is what she seems, only someone with power over her has been cruel and thoughtless with her body. The reader implores Clare to dig deeper in his heart, and the writer warns us to think again, and not to trust even the kindest-hearted man, who would yet ruin a woman because he cannot have her entirely for his own. Don’t think you are different, or that he is different!—cries Hardy. Men, forsake the chains of society and its false morality and love your women, he cries. Love them through their suffering and the crimes committed against them; don’t make them pay twice.

These feminist themes cement Hardy’s work as Gothic, for it is at its root about the clash of gender roles and expectations that ought to belong to a bygone century but still persist in his own time. Gothic is the perfect vehicle for this: ‘No other form of writing…is as insistent as Gothic on juxtaposing potential revolution and possible reaction—about gender, sexuality, race, class the colonisers versus the colonized, the physical versus the metaphysical, and abnormal versus normal psychology—and leaving both extremes sharply before us and far less resolved than the conventional endings in most of these works claim them to be’ (p. 13).

And now he’s gone; and now he’s gone; …
And now he’s gone!
The flowers we potted perhaps are thrown
To rot upon the farm.
And where we had our supper-fire
May now grow nettle, dock, and briar,
And all the place be mould and mire
So cozy once and warm.

Alec D’Urberville is Tess’s misfortune personified. Not only does he violate her in her fresh-faced youth, not only does his irremovable blight sever her from her loving husband, but he returns to haunt her—as an evangelist. It is not enough that he has destroyed her happiness, but he is now born again, of a D.L. Moody, Anabaptist-descended variety, if I am not mistaken, preaching fire and brimstone to sinners, getting about in a smock-frock and beard in place of his dandy clothes and cane of his younger, more reckless days. The Gothic coincidence which makes this twist even more painful is that he has been converted by Angel Clare’s clergyman father. D’Urberville is redeemed. Tess is condemned. D’Urberville has broken no law and is blameless in the eyes of God. Tess has flouted the law in marrying when she is physically bound to the man who first raped her; she is forever soiled in God’s eyes for seducing a man. And she believes it.

Tess Durbeyfield and Alec D'Urberville, by Hubert Herkomer

When Tess expresses her views on Christianity, only promoting the spirit of the sermon on the mount, views formed first by Clare and not wholly understood by Tess’s still forming mind, she unwittingly converts her destroyer away from God and his evangelical calling. Freed of his struggle of spirit against flesh, D’Urberville reverts to pursuing Tess with the full force of his passions. He attains his vile, domineering union, and Tess is wed to her misfortune.

And it was I who did it all,
Who did it all;
‘Twas I who made the blow to fall
On him who thought no guile.
Well, it is finished—past, and he
Has left me to my misery,
And I must take my Cross on me
For wronging him awhile.

Clare’s internal struggle continues for years, and he cannot forget his abandoned wife, whose friend had asserted, ‘Nobody could love ’ee more than Tess did! … She would have laid down her life for ’ee’ (p. 270). Yet he is still not willing to overlook her stains (pp. 264-5):

This night the woman of his belittling deprecations was thinking how great and good her husband was. But over them both there hung a deeper shade than the shade which Angel Clare perceived, namely, the shade of his own limitations. With all his attempted independence of judgement this advanced man was yet the slave to custom and conventionality when surprised back into his early teachings. … In considering what Tess was not, he overlooked what she was, and forgot that the defective can be more than the entire.

Not even Angel Clare is able to see past the vicious condemnation of victims of rape, until his own lover is tied to her destroyer. Tess is ‘too late beloved.’ The tensions are not resolved in time; Tess is a victim of her gender and of her time.

Tess finally destroys her destroyer, and is in the act emancipated. Is it symbolic? Should she have confronted injustice and misfortune earlier? But we know that she couldn’t, for, though downtrodden, she was not then thoroughly driven to despair. Tess had learned her lot in life, and feeble as it was, she had clung to it and made the best of it. In freeing herself, however, she has removed the last crumbs of respectability society had to toss her way, and is finally and completely condemned. ‘“Justice” was done’ (p. 397). It is harrowing that Hardy’s novels were also condemned in his lifetime, with his manuscript rejected ‘on moral grounds’ by three publishers (p. xix). Hardy described Tess’s ‘fall’ a ‘paradoxical morality,’ but was unable to sway conservative readers, many of whom loathed the ‘succulence’ of Tess, branding her a ‘little harlot’ properly chastised (pp. xix-xx). Here’s to a morally clear-sighted and bravely outspoken critic of his times, who, drawing on Gothic devices to present his formidable social commentary, was on our side.

Hardy, Thomas. 2008 [1891]. Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Penguin Classics: London.

Hogle, Jerrold E. 2002. ‘Introduction: the Gothic in western culture.’ The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction, ed. Jerrold E. Hogle. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.