‘You’re No Good’

In stories, as I have said before, the substance – the events of the story – is the payload, and style is the rocket that delivers it to its target. The same is true, mutatis mutandis, in the other arts. More than fifty years ago, Clint Ballard Jr. created a payload that is still hitting targets today: a three-minute poison-pen letter in rhythm & blues form, called ‘You’re No Good’. It was recorded in a fairly pedestrian R & B style by Dee Dee Warwick, the younger and lesser-known sister of Dionne Warwick, and subsequently by Betty Everett, the Swinging Blue Jeans, and divers other artistes.

But it was Linda Ronstadt who built the rocket that was truly fit to put it in orbit and rain its astringent soul upon the world. Ronstadt belonged firmly to the singer-songwriter tradition that was strongly en vogue in the 1970s, and her version is fuelled by, well, Linda Ronstadt. Her vocal performance delivers the raw emotion that the song demands, refined through the filter of her great musical skill and showmanship. Others before her had sung the song; Ronstadt sold it.

But there is more than one way to build a rocket. Twenty years later, Aswad, a British reggae band heavily influenced by American soul music, recorded their own version of ‘You’re No Good’. I happened to hear it for the first time last night, and was struck by the unexpected power of the recording. The sound is as lush as a Turkish bordello; about fifteen layers of flavoured syrup poured over a base of crystallized honey. It ought to be unbearably cloying. But it is all done in the service of the song; the rocket is built precisely for its payload. Where Ronstadt gave us a show of emotional sincerity, Aswad’s vocalists deliver the words with authority and gravitas, with thick layers of musicianship to make the bitter pill palatable.

When you hear Linda Ronstadt sing ‘You’re No Good’, you feel that you have been told off. When you hear Aswad, you have simply been told: not with bitterness or rancour, but with the finality of a magistrate passing sentence. That, at any rate, was my reaction. I encourage you to judge for yourself:

But there is something rather odd in being told with magisterial finality that you are no good. It may be utterly sincere, but it is not true. This is a point that I should like to go into, for it is a matter of unexpected controversy.

Chesterton would have us never say that something is not good; he would prefer that we say, for instance, ‘This is a good knife, but not good enough for the purpose at hand.’ There are objects in this world that are sold as knives, allegedly for use, but that will not cut any substance under the sun, including butter. I have been cursed with such objects at picnics; it takes about three ounces of force to bend them, and five to break them, and thereafter you have to eat with your fingers; and so I cannot quite agree with Chesterton’s categorical generosity.

But perhaps Aquinas (whose philosophy G.K.C. was striving to follow) can help us over this difficulty. He would have said, no doubt with justice, that the horrid plastic thing I was given at the picnic may have had the form of a knife, but it had not the substance; it was no more a real knife than Madame Tussaud’s waxwork Queen Elizabeth is the real Queen. A real metal knife may be very dull, but it is at any rate good for something; and with this caveat, I think we can let Chesterton’s dictum stand.

We have all seen plenty of this kind of ersatz: books that contain no information and tell no tale, records (supposedly of songs) that contain no singing and no music, public services that deliver no service and have open contempt for the public. Such things are sold to us (sometimes very expensively) as a kind of placeholder; often enough, we are told that if we want the actual function of the object, we have to pay extra. The thing actually sold is a formal equivalent, but not a functional equivalent, of the thing we think we are buying.

But there is no merely formal equivalent to a human being. The most gullible customer can quickly spot the difference between Mme Tussaud’s Queen and the genuine article. He has never met the real Queen, but at least he has a vague general knowledge (derived, perhaps, from fairy tales) that real queens are apt to move about and talk. What Aquinas calls the substance of the Queen is not there. Substance in this connection does not mean matter; it is not (directly) a question of the organic molecules that a body is made of. The substance of a human being is what makes it human: what makes it capable of functioning as the thing that it is. There are certain things that a human being is good for; and the qualities that make one good for those things are the substance of humanness.

When you say ‘good for those things’, you are at once admitting the general question of goodness, and answering it in the affirmative. Every living thing, as such, is good; life itself is a type of good. The mosquito may be very inconvenient to us, but it is a delicacy to the catfish; and indispensable to the mosquito. Every living creature is useful to itself; its purpose may be fair or foul, but whatever it is, if you take away the creature, the purpose is utterly defeated.

It is often hard to see this with human beings, because a human is a very dangerous animal. If we were judged simply by the harm we might do, we would probably be against the law. Many persons wish to ban guns because they are sometimes used to kill people. The gun-owner responds to this by saying, ‘Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.’ And the more consistent kind of gun-controller is apt to reply, ‘Well, in that case, maybe we should ban people, too.’ The Human Extinction Movement is a real thing, and a real nuisance.

It may seem odd that the people who wish to abolish humans should also wish to abolish guns, which could be so useful to them in their noble mission; but they are fastidious, and stick to their principles, and do not wish to have truck with anything that might be harmful. Their consistency does them credit – I think. Eventually they may become consistent enough to have the same kind of objections to plague germs and predators and politicians and pamphlets; but it seems unlikely at present. They have not got it in them to perceive the central paradox of existence. Every thing that exists, as such, is good; but every thing, just because it exists, can be used to do evil. I have yet to see the rise of a Movement to Abolish Everything; but I continue in good hope.

The fact is, the only way to completely extinguish the good that there is in a man, is to extinguish the man himself. We talk of dehumanizing our enemies, and sometimes we accuse them of dehumanizing themselves; but really they are only dangerous – only capable of being our enemies – because they are so thoroughly human.

This is true even of the worst specimens. A rather saintly German pastor, who had suffered terrible things at the hands of the Nazis, was once brought before Hitler himself. When asked what the Führer looked like, he said, ‘Like any man; that is, like Christ.’ He was capable of seeing the image of God even in his most dangerous enemy. He would not have said to Hitler, ‘You’re no good’; he would have been more likely to say, ‘You have a great capacity for good; why don’t you use it?’ It probably would not have averted the war or the Holocaust, because Hitler was convinced that these things actually were good; but it would at any rate have left the door open for a miracle.

Years later, another visitor came away with a hauntingly human image of Hitler. Siegfried Knappe, a young Wehrmacht officer (he was twenty-eight when the war ended) who was briefly the youngest divisional commander in German history, was in Berlin during the final agony of 1945. His superiors sent him to Hitler’s bunker to deliver some bad news, fearing (with justification) that he would do drastic things to them if they delivered it personally. Knappe, who had briefly met Hitler once before the war, was moved to pity and horror by what he saw. The great dictator’s hair had turned white, and his teeth were falling out; he shook with an uncontrollable palsy, and could hardly use his hands. He was a man visibly falling to pieces. As Knappe said, he had been the symbol of Germany; and now he was the symbol of what Germany had become – a thing reduced to ruin by its own uncontrolled rage against the world. Knappe (so he says) thought of shooting Hitler and ending the nation’s agony, but somehow he could not bring himself to do it. It was not merely that he feared punishment, though the SS guards would certainly have caught him and executed him. Hitler’s humanity, though poisoned and ravaged, was still there, and still capable of eliciting a response. Knappe felt sorry for him.

That faculty of pity, however, was one thing Hitler had expunged from himself. For decades he had disciplined himself, in the name of the ‘Higher Morality’ of Nazism, to deny every moral or humanitarian impulse; to make himself hard and lethal, like a knife. The plastic thing at the picnic table is a contemptible knife, because it is soft and flexible, and easy to break. People are not contemptible because they are flexible, or even (necessarily) because they are soft; we do not expect them to be made of stainless steel. But Hitler judged people as if they were knives. One weapon after another broke in his fanatic grip; and the last one to break was himself. When it did, he showed no more pity for himself than for any of his other victims.

A few days after Knappe’s visit, Hitler dehumanized himself in the only way the thing can really be done. He shot himself in the brain, and for good measure, bit down on a vial of prussic acid as he pulled the trigger. From that moment he was no longer functionally human, even in a partial and damaged sense. He did retain a merely formal resemblance to a human being, like a figure at Madame Tussauds. Even that was lost a few hours later, when his SS bodyguards poured petrol over him and reduced him to bone and ashes. It was only on that day that he truly began to be no good.


  1. You can’t destroy a man’s soul by killing his body. I’ve always had a problem with what happens when God’s judgment collides with His mercy after death. I’m just glad it’s not my problem to make those decisions. He made Hitler, and he made me. And St. Theresa and Genghis Khan. Boggles the mind.

    • The world has many legitimate grievances against Hitler, but knowing what Hitler did to himself, Hitler also has some legitimate grievances against Hitler. If I believe that God is going to settle and recompense all these grievances fairly — then I’m very comfortable with saying it is quite beyond our understanding at the moment.

      I’ve found that George Macdonald’s *Unspoken Sermons* also teach some good principles for understanding (or not-understanding) such dilemmas.

  2. You, and I, and all humans, have the capacity for great good and great evil.

  3. antares says

    Excellent essay.

    Was the saintly German pastor Dietrich Bohnhoeffer?

  4. Stephen K says

    Well said.

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