Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Tree of Knowledge: Charity seemed to have fled from the world

Parts Two (“The Minglanillas”) and Three (“Sadness and Sorrow”) round out the medical student days of Andrés Hurtado. We follow him through his fourth and final year at medical school, his first (temporary) position in the country, and the care and death of his younger brother. All quotes are from The Tree of Knowledge by Pio Baroja, translated by Aubrey F. G. Bell (Alfred A. Knopf, 1928).

We meet many characters in Part Two, most from the lower classes. Baroja does not pull any punches on these characters—he paints their flaws as well as their attributes, if they have any. So many of these characters seem to be searching for happiness but it isn’t available. A woman (Nini) and her mother deceive themselves about a well-to-do student’s intentions. A journalist attempts to get something from every woman he meets before she finds out how poor he is. The exception is Lulu, the woman Andrés meets (but doesn’t try to seduce). Described as having plenty of charm but worn out at the age of eighteen, she has never had anything enjoyable and does not even try to find a pleasant life.

Like Antoñito Casares the journalist mentioned earlier, there are plenty of people willing to prey on those futilely searching for happiness. Virginia Garciá bills herself as a midwife but what goes on in her house horrifies Andrés: inducing miscarriages, providing abortions, and procuring sexual services for rich men. Virginia’s services are needed since these women have no one else to turn to in their time of need. As Andrés sees it, “Charity seemed to have fled from the world.” (93) Many of the poor seem resigned to their status, believing “the rich, and especially the aristocracy, belonged to a higher order than other men. To an aristocrat everything was permissible—vice, immorality, egoism; he was as it were above common morality.” (109) Andrés found such a philosophy strange that those that “have” have additional rights and privileges over those who “have not”.

So many people seem ill-used, not just by other people but by institutions that are supposed to protect them. The priests described so far have little interest outside their own personal pleasure. Baroja has little good to say about the government, whether through prosecuting those that break the law or in protecting those infringed. People like Victorio, a money-lender’s nephew who takes advantage of others, will more than likely become rich and prosper by preying on others. “In spite of his exploiting the poor and playing Don Juan among the girls, the people of the neighbourhood did not hate Victorio; they all thought what he did very natural and logical.” (119)

The last chapter of Part Two provides a preview to further philosophical discussion between Andrés and his Uncle Iturrioz. His uncle takes a utilitarian view of justice—essentially what suits us is justice, what doesn’t isn’t. He makes it clearer on the macro level: “Justice is a human illusion” (126). Iturrioz believes that man has only “two practical courses open, either to abstain from action and contemplate everything with indifference, or to limit his action to a small area” (124). This doesn’t immediately help Andrés, who is looking for a "possible plan to live with a certain decency” (127). He looks to order his life so that he can improve himself and help those around him. Andrés holds to what he has read in Schopenhauer: suffering is basic to life and our influence for good is minimal.

Even though Andrés has studied medicine, gets his license and is about to get his doctorate, he finds himself powerless from protecting his younger brother, Luisito, from death. Part of that had to do with his taking a temporary position away from Valencia where his brother was recovering. Another reason was his inability to convince those around him to help his brother convalesce. His family wants to stay in a setting not conducive to Luisito’s recovery. Despite Andrés’ attempt to educate the servants as to what his brother needs, their ignorance and superstition keep them from assisting the invalid in the manner needed. Even worse, Andrés feels indifference, an absence of sorrow upon reading of Luisito’s death.

No comments: