I recently read a novel entitled The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro about a man who looked back on key moments in his life as head butler to one of the great families of England. The Remains of the Day won the Booker Prize and I’ve seen it referred to in several books I’ve read on Leadership and Ethics. The story is this man’s life; the theme of the story is the tension between his single-minded focus on meeting the demands of his profession, and the cost of not acknowledging his very human needs, emotions, and passions.
Professionalism and passion in one’s work are both generally considered desirable traits. But as in most things, an excess of either can be an inhibitor to success at work, or stand in the way of a life well-lived. Professionalism and passion can be in tension with each other; in fact, ideally this tension should provide a balance – professionalism provides a curb on passion, and passion should provide energy to professionalism. We all have seen how an excess of passion can pervert otherwise good people and good intentions, and yield undesirable consequences. But an excess of professionalism? Is that possible? Yes, and that is the unusual message of The Remains of the Day.
In this book, the butler, Mr Stevens (I don’t think we ever learn his first name) is fully dedicated to developing himself into the ideal of his profession. The degree of his focus and dedication to becoming excellent in his profession is remarkable. Though we may not think of a butler as a ‘professional’ by current definitions of a ‘profession,’ in this man’s time – post-Victorian England – the reader is impressed by the rigorous standards and ideals of the butler in service to the gentry who were the leaders of society and guardians of the standards and values of British culture. As I read this novel however, being a butler is merely a metaphor for any demanding profession.
After reading the book, I understand how one reviewer commented that in some sense, ‘we are all butlers.’
Our narrator, the butler Stevens, is unremitting in his dedication to the standards of the ideal butler. Through hard work and discipline, he has become an example of perfect courtesy, gentility, and selfless service to the social order of the day. He accepts unquestioningly and lives fully in accordance with the values and orthodoxy of his times and culture. He takes the concept of ‘self-less service’ to his profession to its extreme conclusion. He never questions the values which he dedicates his life to preserving and embodying. He is not ‘his own man’ – his entire personal identity is in terms of the professional ideal to which he aspires. He has sublimated, and to a significant degree, sacrificed, his own humanity in his single-minded quest to live up to the ideal of his profession.
Stevens succeeds at becoming the nearly perfect butler, but evokes our pity as a human being.
One is reminded of the question asked in the Bible (Matthew 16:26) “For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world (ie, succeeds at his profession), and loses his own soul? “
Professions are by their very nature, conservative, enforcing professional and cultural standards that have evolved, sometimes over millennia. Within a profession, and for professional associations, professional excellence is the Holy Grail. But professional excellence can come at a high price, as we see in The Remains of the Day. Some of us are tempted to consider how much more ‘successful ‘ we might be in our professional lives, were we not encumbered by our humanity, our needs for love, companionship and other simple pleasures, or the demands of spouse, children, family. We could then fully dedicate ourselves to professional excellence and success.
In Stevens, the ideal butler, we are able to see what this might look like at the end of one’s life – how empty and hollow such professional excellence and success could be. As Stevens relates his life’s story, we see how his very human emotions and impulses emerged, came briefly to the surface, and with remarkable discipline and stoic will, he was able to suppress and bury them, in the interest of his professional ideal. He never allowed himself to succumb to, or even acknowledge, anything that might distract him from the perfectionism he sought in his professional life. It is a remarkable, but very sad story.
Note: The Remains of the Day was made into a movie in 1993 starring Anthony Hopkins (as Stevens) and Emma Thompson and was nominated for 8 academy awards.