Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Isabel Dalhousie is my Valentine

Alexander McCall Smith has created many wonderful characters. Isabel Dalhousie is my favourite. A moderate and thoughtful woman, albeit somewhat nosy, she edits the Review of Applied Ethics and walks around Edinburgh observing and thinking about human foibles. In The Forgotten Affairs of Youth (Alfred A. Knopf 2011), she chats with a Jane, a fellow philosopher who asks her whether we need religious belief. Isabel ponders, her thoughts real and human.

"Isabel did not answer immediately. The problem for her was the divisiveness of religion, its magical thinking, its frequent sheer nastiness. Yet all of that existed side by side with that spirituality that she felt we could not do without." (40-1)

Isabel is thoughtful, yes. Yet she can still speak to her broker of the exhilarating "whooshing" sound made by throwing caution to the wind. (p67) Not that she indulges in that kind of behaviour often. Isabel's mother left her quite a lot of money, and she supports the arts and certain charities, often with anonymous donations.

She has such a kind and tolerant understanding of the human heart, and she realizes that ordinary human issues are "not solved by ingenious schemes; in most cases, inaction [is] the solution." (p 73) In other words, we must resist doing what we may later regret.

A philosopher with her feet firmly on the ground, Isabel has a sense of proportion about herself and her imperfect fellow creatures. Yet as she selects submissions to be published in the Review, she wryly recalls that "While Rome burned, philosophers fiddled with concepts."

Then, glancing out the window into the garden, she sees a familiar wild animal who lives there, Brother Fox. Before she knows it, she is engaging in an imaginary conversation. A philosophical fox, he politely questions the basis of her argument.

Unlike her housekeeper, Grace, Isabel feels that when people address you, they are owed a response. She defines this as a minimal moral obligation acquired by proximity. This morning I recalled Isabel's kind view on my morning commute to work. I was greeted by six or seven people who then tried to push free newspapers on me.

Do I have minimal moral obligation to respond to them? On this question, I tend to agree with Grace, who feels she is is "'entitled not to be disturbed'" when she's going about her business. (178-9) Even though I'm inclined to disagree with her on some points, I've enjoyed Isabel's musings immensely. This latest book is as enchanting as its predescessors.

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