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Marilyn Chandler McEntyre

In Praise of Anonymity

Michelangelo's early works, like those of most artists of his time, went unsigned. No one installed little plaques by the niches they occupied in churches or palaces to identify the sculptor, though people who knew art knew his. It wasn't until he heard someone attribute the Roman Pietà to a rival that he entered St. Peter's in the dead of night and chiseled his name on the stone at the Virgin's feet to claim the credit due.

Intellectual property law has come a long way since then, and we threaten students with explusion and worse for failure to attribute authorship properly. Every year major research universities spend a portion of their budgets settling disputes about stolen credit for ideas, inventions, or discoveries to which a price tag has been attached. Now and then the Arts and Leisure section of a major newspaper reveals another artistic "hoax" or a case of misattributed authorship. The race to identify the structure of DNA and the much bitterer race to claim credit for discovery of the AIDS virus are now famous in the besmirched annals of scientific history.

But the most prolific presence in the history of human endeavor, the one who still gets the prize for the most varied and surprising range of creativity, is old "Anonymous." "Anon," we call him or her affectionately in bibliographies. Anon has produced some of the loveliest moments in the history of the arts: sonnets and statues, illuminated parchments and luminous chants. One of Giotto's nameless apprentices painted a little fresco in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua that exudes a sweetness and truth equal to any of the grander pieces surrounding it: a figure of charity, one hand extended upward, and other downward, where her gaze falls kindly on a kneeling supplicant at her feet. She gave what she received, and was able to do the one because she could do the other. In St. Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna, an almost comic Virgin Mary, carved by some artisan who went home to several children and a potato dinner at night, gathers a crowd of assorted folk under her cape, looking benevolent but a tad bewildered at the bumptious lot she's undertaken to embrace. I want to meet the stonemason who made her at some heavenly festival of the arts; he'll still be chuckling.

In her autobiography Annie Dillard writes about a curious childhood habit of hiding pennies where strangers would find them and returning to the hiding places hours or days later to see if someone had been along to receive the surprise. Oddly, she did not wait and watch to catch the look of surprise and gratification on the face of the unknown beneficiary of her anonymous magnanimity. Imagining it seems to have been enough. It was enough to be a dispenser of grace—to commit, as we put it now, "random acts of kindness" and never be known for them.

By great good fortune I happened to be among the folks who contributed to the little volume called Random Acts of Kindness published by Conari Press in 1993. The writing of that volume came about in a highly unusual and creative way. The editors gathered a large group of friends and acquaintances at the publishing house, provided food, drink, computer terminals, tape recorders, pens, paper, and listeners, and a general atmosphere of celebration, and asked us to tell stories of random acts of kindness to them or to each other, or to write them down. When have people who had no reason to single you out and no expectation of reward been kind to you? When have you done that for someone else? The stories they gathered that night are simple, surprising, unsentimental testimonies to the forces of grace and generosity, still undefeated by capitalism, competition, and "enlightened self-interest." The acts described were more often than not anonymous. "I never got her name." "I never saw him again," people recalled with a certain touched amazement, as though finally it was the indifference to recognition or reward that made the act of kindness something not simply humane, but sacred. Anonymous gifts leave no doubt about the motive. They reaffirm the criteria Paul offered as tests of real love: that it "vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, … seeketh not her own."

It's hard to square selflessness and anonymity with an economy that depends so entirely on the idea of credit. We "give credit where it's due" because such credit establishes for us a place in the order of things; it confers power and authority on those who have earned them and, we assume, makes us all more secure knowing whom to trust. Banks assign credit levels depending on how thoroughly they know you as a consumer and can predict your getting and spending behavior. Students want credit for their work, and routinely quibble over the point that made a difference between a B+ and an A- because they're headed for med school or law school where credit matters. They need what they have done to be reckoned to them fully. Eventually that reckoning translates into billable hours. All accomplishments must be duly recorded on a transcript or a résumé or a transaction log. Otherwise how would we know where to direct our respect, whom to rely upon, whom to hire, whose company to seek?

And what if we didn't? What if we didn't know exactly who was responsible for the donation, or the damage? What happens when we don't know whom to thank or blame? What happens is a curious confusion that cuts both ways. When we don't know whom to blame, we tend to do two things: we scapegoat, fixing the blame on the most convenient suspect, usually on someone we might for other reasons have wanted an excuse to blame anyway, and at the same time we generalize the blame, enlarging it to include whole classes of people or corporate forces whose vilification serves our purposes. Criminal acts and vandalism are generally anonymous (though even there the occasional "signature clue" testifies to the longing for credit), and their anonymity forces the community to reckon with something in which they themselves may be involved: neglect of youth, conditions that drive the poor to extreme measures to survive, abandonment of each other to domestic violence and "lives of quiet desperation." An anonymous act always invokes community: we look around at one another wondering who it may be among us who has done this thing, find ourselves reassessing our relationships.

The anonymous act of generosity is perhaps the only thing that can offset the anonymity of crime. Consider what might be the opposite of the scapegoating, which cultural historian René Girard maintains is the oldest and deepest basis of human community. What if, instead of looking around to find whom to blame, we find ourselves looking around to figure out whom to thank? Who might have planted the flowers along the public path or left out cookies for the work crew or cleared the trash from the vacant lot? Suspecting one another of kindness, we might find ourselves looking with more benevolence upon each other, even, as theologian Jonathan Edwards put it, "toward being in general." The anonymous kind act is a reminder that some spirit of goodness and grace does move among us, "blowing where it listeth," and the unpredictability of its movements is part of the grace.

The discipline of anonymity is as difficult and as freeing as any authentic virtue: it upsets the order of things. It screws up the scorekeeping that keeps the game going and forces us to look beyond the game. It threatens a fairly reliable system of rewards and dares poverty. It is the kind of lofty, laughing freedom from goals and greed that Wendell Berry's "Mad Farmer" challenges us to in his "Manifesto": "So, friends, every day do something / that won't compute. Love the Lord. / Love the world. Work for nothing. / Take all that you have and be poor." In his admonitions the Mad Farmer simply underscores the examples of the greatest among us: real spiritual leaders arise among us from the anonymous ranks of the lowly and come as strangers "whose own receive them not." We are taught to consider when we may be entertaining "angels unaware," to give to "the least of these" and to care for those who are not our own—because in fact they may be. Anonymity makes a claim on us all. Those who belong to no one belong to everyone.

And those who remain anonymous voluntarily reap rewards unavailable to the rest of us. Knowing where they left the pennies for the rest of us to find is very likely a pleasure worth every sequestered penny and more. They give and go their way, free even of the burden of gratitude which, when it can't be directed to them, disseminates around the gift like a fragrance that sweetens the polluted air we breathe.

Marilyn Chandler McEntyre is professor of English at Westmont College.

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