Mandarin button  

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"Everybody continually kills the Mandarin" --Émile Chartier

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The mandarin button is a metaphor (or parable) introduced by Chateaubriand in the 19th century but during the 20th century often attributed erroneously to Jean-Jacques Rousseau via Honoré de Balzac's novel Père Goriot. It examens the roots of moral behavior in mankind. In both Balzac's and Chateaubriand's accounts the metaphor goes like this: the writer asks his reader how he would act if he could by a simple act of will, without leaving his dwelling, without being suspected nor caught (the perfect crime), kill an old mandarin living in China whose death would bring him some benefit (an inheritance in Chateaubriand's account). Not until 1994, when Italian historian Carlo Ginzburg published "Killing a Chinese Mandarin", was the probable link to Diderot's conte "Conversation of a Father with his Children" established as an inspiration for Chateaubriand.


History of the metaphor

In his novel Père Goriot (1835) Honoré de Balzac puts the following words in the mouth of Eugène de Rastignac :

As-tu lu Rousseau ? […] Te souviens-tu de ce passage où il demande à son lecteur ce qu'il ferait au cas où il pourrait s'enrichir en tuant à la Chine par sa seule volonté un vieux mandarin, sans bouger de Paris ?
Have you read Rousseau? [...] Do you remember that part where he asks his reader what he would do if he could get rich by killing in China by his will alone an old mandarin, without moving from Paris? --tr. JWG

But it seems that Balzac had in fact borrowed from Chateaubriand's The Genius of Christianity (1802):

O conscience ! ne serais-tu qu'un fantôme de l'imagination, ou la peur des châtiments des hommes ? je m'interroge ; je me fais cette question : “Si tu pouvais par un seul désir, tuer un homme à la Chine et hériter de sa fortune en Europe, avec la conviction surnaturelle qu'on n'en saurait jamais rien, consentirais-tu à former ce désir ?”
O conscience! could you be but a ghost of the imagination, or the fear of punishment by men? I wonder, I ask myself this question: "If you could by simply desiring it, kill a man in China and inherit his fortune in Europe, with the supernatural conviction that no one would ever know, would you consent to forming this desire?" --tr. JWG

Sigmund Freud in turn cites it in Thoughts for the Times on War and Death (1915) to analyze the unconscious motivations that can push an individual to accept, and even participate in, the horrors of war:

"In his novel, Père Goriot, Balzac refers to a place in the works of J. J. Rousseau where this author asks the reader what he would do if, without leaving Paris and, of course, without being discovered, he could kill an old mandarin in Peking, with great profit to himself, by a mere act of the will. He makes it possible for us to guess that he does not consider the life of this dignitary very secure. "To kill your mandarin" has become proverbial for this secret readiness to kill, even on the part of people of today."

Richard Matheson was probably inspired by the metaphor when in 1970 he wrote the short story "Button, Button", (1970) adapted in 1986 as an episode of The Twilight Zone, and as a film, The Box, in 2009.

In 1994, Italian cultural critic Carlo Ginzburg published "Killing a Chinese Mandarin: The Moral Implications of Distance" in which he pointed to Diderot's conte "Conversation of a Father with his Children" as a possible inspiration for Chateaubriand when he wrote:

"L’assassin, transporté sur le rivage de la Chine, est trop loin pour apercevoir le cadavre qu’il a laissé sanglant sur les bords de la Seine."
"The assassin transported to the shores of China is too far off to perceive the corpse that he has left bleeding on the banks of the Seine." --tr. John Morley


The reason people may want to push the button stems from an emotional detachment, the psychopathic lack of remorse, which stems from the physical distance.


See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Mandarin button" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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