I was reading a novel by Marcel Ayme, Uranus, which takes place in the compromised and mixed-up world of France after the Second World War, where many citizens knew their neighbours had been collaborators and denunciations were rife. One collaborator is being hunted in a bombed-out town and one man decides to give him shelter. As we read through the novel we see it is more out of a sense of the unevenness of life that he decides to help this Nazi-sympathiser. It is more because half the people who are so smugly chasing him had been collaborators too. As he says at one stage ‘les raisons ne sont que les facades de nos sentiments’. Our reasoning is merely the facade for our feelings. In other words, his irritation guides his judgement.
I was reading this in the cafe this morning. When I came out I was putting a five pound note back into my pouch when a youngish woman came up to me and began the round-about preamble to asking me for some money. I said no. Then she asked me for a cigarette. I said I didn’t smoke. Then, because she saw I was folding a £5 note she said, are you sure you can’t spare some money? I was so irritated by her attempt to manipulate me that I gave her short shrift. I escaped her manipulation of my sympathies but fell into the trap of my own manipulation of my own empathies. And then, as I walked home to make my fried eggs, I began the internal justification of my refusal to hand over any cash, my attempts at reasoning being the after-the-event unravelling of the magma of irritations and sentiments that had assailed me in the confrontation. Even the slightest encounter is too complicated to make sense of.