Allegations of hypocrisy have been ubiquitous this year. Republicans and Democrats accused each other of it in regards to violating democrats voting norms. They also charged each other with scaremongering about totalitarianism while pursuing their own authoritarian political objectives. Alternatively, some of the more prominent proponents of extreme measures to limit the spread of the coronavirus — such as Nancy Pelosi and Chris Cuomo — have been caught violating their own recommendations. As Oscar Wilde might remind us, “My dear fellow, you forget that we are in the native land of the hypocrite.”
That “native land,” I would argue, is planet earth, at least as long as we are all subject to the consequences of the original sin of our first parents. Though labeling our political, ideological, or religious enemies as hypocrites may score us rhetorical points, the unfortunate truth of the matter is that we are all guilty of hypocrisy of one kind or another. The Count of Abranhos, a novel by Portuguese realist author José Maria Eça de Queirós and recently translated by Robert M. Fedorchek, offers such an exaggerated, absurdist depiction of hypocrisy that its humor enables us to reflect on our own (hopefully) less extreme sanctimonious tendencies.
The Count of Abranhos is the story of Alípio Severo Abranhos, a nineteenth-century Portuguese nobleman, as told by his sycophantic secretary, Zagalo. The count, Zagalo tells us, was not of noble birth. “But it is wholly inaccurate,” and a “perfidious insinuation,” to allege as some have, that he was the son of a butcher. Nor were any of his family members bakers. Such “petty, trivial probes into the privacy of a statesman’s family,” declares the Count, are “singularly odious.” Rather, writes the secretary, cautiously stating no intention to tarnish the memory of the Count’s family, his late father was a tanner. One imagines a horrified gasp from some well-bred readers.
Shame of his humble familial origins haunts Alípio. “The biggest mistake of my life was being born of such a father!” he tells Zagalo. When the Count marries into money and becomes a politician, he refuses his father’s request to finance a tailor shop in Lisbon for fear of the mockery such a business might elicit. Alípio is then “forced” to take the further step of preventing his father from embarrassing him at social dinners or soirées. When his father is naturally offended by Alípio’s actions, the Count attempts to bribe him from further bothering him. The money is refused, and Alípio doesn’t learn of his father’s death until after the burial.
The deprivation of filial piety is shocking, though is it all that different from familial relations in 2020? A mother-of-four in Georgia told the Washington Post in October that her parents were disallowed from seeing their grandchildren if they voted for Trump. Others declared they would only have children if their own parents voted for Biden. Of course, there are plenty of non-political examples: that many elderly in nursing homes are rarely visited by their families; that we contemplate euthanasia options for those whose quality of life we deem to be too low. Even those eager to obey the fourth commandment often end up ignoring elderly parents.
Alípio evinces a similar hypocrisy when it comes to moral issues. In public, the Count presents himself as the embodiment of “wise sobriety,” drinking only the customary glass of orgeat, a non-alcoholic almond-flavored drink popular in Portugal. Yet at home he drinks liberally from a bottle of gin under his bed — “a poignant example of personal respect and submission to propriety!” declares Zagalo.
The Count exhibits the same discretion when it comes to sexual dalliances, waiting until nightfall to go to the “most secluded alleys” to indulge in the “inescapable demands” of human nature. As a young student, Alípio impregnates a servant girl. Unemployed and with a baby to support, the beautiful young girl turns to prostitution. When she asks financial help of him, Alípio indignantly refuses on the grounds that if he helped her, she might have yet more children who would in turn become societal dead weight. “So much did that strong-minded, inflexible soul abhor listless acquiescence and vain piety,” recounts Zagalo, without the least hint of irony.
Ours is a culture of tremendous sexual license and libertinism. There is historically unparalleled accessibility to pornography, even in its most extreme forms. Apps and websites facilitate not only non-committal sexual liaisons but even cheating on one’s spouse. Television programming and movies promote ever more unnatural and dehumanizing forms of sexuality. Even if we have not sired an illegitimate child whom we are unwilling to support, the things that we allow ourselves to watch (or even go searching for) suggest we may not be as different from the Count as we would like to think. As our Lord declares: “But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28).
Then there is Alípio’s political hypocrisy. The Count, Zagalo tells us, is frequently incensed by the poor begging for alms “under the pretext of having hungry children or deformed limbs.” He thus proposes an “ingenious” political solution: the poor would be isolated and monitored so that they would only be awarded bread when they possess “valid vouchers of morality.” These “indigents” would lose any right to leave these prison poor-houses unless they can prove they have gained employment. “We cannot give the worker bread on Earth, but by obligating him to cultivate the faith, we prepare banquets of Light and Bliss for him in Heaven!” Alípio asserts.
Certainly poverty is a complex problem, not solved by simply increasing government expenditures or employing an army of government bureaucratic experts. Yet neither is poverty such an intractable, inexorable Gordian knot that nothing we do can alleviate any of its deleterious effects. Thus it is worrying that as religious participation continues its worrying decline in America, religiously-affiliated relief organizations that curb many aspects of poverty are also waning. Volunteerism is also suffering a dramatic decline. We fool ourselves if we believe our role (or, more appropriately, lack thereof) in this is unimportant. Indeed, Jesus seems far more concerned with the welfare of the poor than he does with the wealthy.
José Maria Eça de Queirós in The Count of Abranhos offers a most unflattering portrayal of self-righteous Portuguese nineteenth-century nobility. It is both humorous and distressing that Alípio uses his various forms of hypocrisy as weapons, and that he seems entirely oblivious to the fact that he is himself a sanctimonious scoundrel. Indeed, given our world is so often incapable of circumspection and reflection, the Count’s lack of self-awareness should be especially arresting. If we cannot understand why, it is all the more damning.