The gentleman figure has been co-opted by profit-seeking entities (clothing companies, magazines, even blogs like this one) and divorced from his essential telos, that is, to act as a moral and mannered human being (as opposed, necessarily, to an immoral and ill-mannered one), regardless of status, creed, code, or color.
Applying the adjective “common” to the loaded concept of gentility, or the genteel person, then, democratizes the concept and has endless real-world implications. For example, the gentleman of history would feel obligated to patronize his local tailor in order to distribute his wealth and keep the bloke in business. The common gentleman, however, feels no such obligation towards any type of patronage, may not have any wealth to speak of and may prefer the natural-shouldered Brooks Brothers suits of 1980s that he finds at his local Salvation Army —- indeed, he may not wear a suit at all.
There are innumerable ways to be a good man, perhaps; I can only hope to put forth my understanding of one of them on these computer screen pages.
Let’s get out of bed in the morning and (in addition to whatever else we do: pray, reach for a cigarette, get back into bed) begin with a thought experiment.
If this is too difficult amidst the thick fog of early morning delirium, a simple visualization will do.
Imagine, good sir, that you are ten years into a life sentence. You’ve had the misfortune of finding yourself in solitary confinement. You spend 23+ hours a day alone. You have a window, which is about six inches wide and it comprises the extent of your experience of the outside world. Imagine the interior life of this man.
Flash back to your groggy-eyed morning self.
How would you look upon this opportunity if you had been granted one day of leave outside of the prison (supervised, of course, by friends in blue)? Assuming that you wouldn’t head out into the world to rape and murder, but, rather, you’d go about your business in the traditional fashion with an informed mindset. What would that look like?
Ultimately, assuming this shift in perspective doesn’t change the “what” of one’s day, but rather the “how.” CBG encourages you to examine the marrow of that experience and internalize it. Perhaps, substitute it for the marrow of your own brittle bones.
Gore Vidal died this week.
In America (and perhaps everywhere) we sing the praises of dead people we are told are important, whether we personally have any conception of the deceased’s significance, or not…or whether we liked them or not.
With this in mind, rather than refer to Wikipedia, or the author’s obituary in the New York Times, I’d like to delve into the particular significance of Mr. Vidal and his work to me, personally.
Vidal was a member of the American ruling class, travelling in the same social circles as President Kennedy. I believe he even ran for office himself, but that his mainstream marketability as a politician was compromised by his politics….and the fact that he wrote about homosexuality in a relatively nonchalant way in The City and The Pillar…which I never read.
I heard an interview with Vidal on NPR’s Fresh Air in which the author referred to the fact that few great writers come from the upper class and that great writing (and really, writing in general) is a middle class phenomenon. With respect to writing in America, Mr. Vidal is entirely correct and the point is an interesting one.
He also discussed the fundamental incompatibility between writing and politics, identifying the fact that a writer must always tell the truth and that a politician is compelled to “not give the game away.” While this is both a truism and an elevated perspective on writing, it’s an interesting distinction from a man who was uniquely positioned in both arenas.
Vidal also stands, for me, as the classical liberal scion in contrast to the Burkean conservativism of William F. Buckley, whom he debated very publically over a period of years. I generally sided more with the latter than the former, but more importantly, I appreciate spirited, public debate from intellectuals outside of the ivory tower.
I have heard his memoir is worth read.
Perhaps, I’ll give it a look.
If you haven’t had the time to check TMZ today, let me fill you in on the earth shattering occurrences of mind-boggling significance you missed.
“Janet Jackson Did Not Slap or Abuse Paris Jackson”
“Kerri Walsh: I’m Playing With Pinkeye”
“Cuba Gooding Jr….No More Arrest Warrant, Says Rep”
Not only are the aforementioned headlines significant, it’s difficult to imagine what life was like before finding out about these instances of minutia in the lives of athletes and celebrities.
Our celebrity and athlete crazed culture is not only fundamentally misguided but also dangerously inferior to a culture which concerns itself with duty, virtue and achievements of social significance.
Gossip has been around forever, to be sure. We can imagine cavemen sitting by the fire speaking ill of a fellow Neanderthal who was having a problem beneath his loincloth.
Whether in the Renaissance, Elizabethan times or the Victorian era, it seems the more rigid the social structure, the more prevalent the gossip was. One thinks of the almost necessarily duplicitous nature of court life and the chattering of maidens.
To gossip, really, is to edge perilously close to the waters of envy and malice. At the very least, it’s an entirely idle pastime. Gossiping breeds a culture of venomous double talk and unwarranted fascination with the private affairs of others.
This has, as I said, probably always been the case. I am not sure when the first gossip rag went to press, but I believe I am safe in assuming that it was well before Parsons and Hopper penned competing columns in the 1930’s.
The problem, really, is both that CNN has become People Magazine and that the culture of the tabloid and spectacular conjecture which exploded at a grocery store check out near you in the 80’s and 90’s took a quantum leap forward (backward) at dawn of Web 1.0, and again with the democratic/egalitarian thrust of Web 2.0.
We are a culture obsessed with the immediate and the surface in a way which has no historical parallel. With the real time imperative of “news” and information and constant impulse to check our phones or hit the refresh button, we hardly have the patience to sit through the five o’clock news, let alone open the paper to see what the hell’s going on and what it means.
It is altogether easier to devour the details of the latest breakup or sex scandal than to actually think about the implications of, say, arming Syrian rebels.
This is problematic.
When issues of virtue and values are presented on our screens, it is usually in the negative. For example, it’s newsworthy when a segment of the population complains that it’s not morally acceptable for a culture to permit abortion or extend marriage rights to homosexuals. It’s considered newsworthy as well when the oppositional viewpoints are presented, but only as a function of reaction to the previous.
Fine. Well enough.
It should be equally newsworthy (and obvious) that we’re less diligent and conscientious at work when we’re checking our smartphones and social media pages.
We should be more concerned with human interest stories of real significance. For example: the thousands of children caring for their dying parents and the devotion therein.
Or, the courage of the millions in the United States alone suffering through the horror regimen of cancer treatment.
Or, the great work being done by great nonprofits.
The flipside of scandal, that is, the gross breach of social covenants, is the adherence to those covenants. The adherence is the thing, not the breach. What is noteworthy is not one celebrity beating his wife, but rather the 99% of men who would never dream of doing such a thing.
We ought to get our heads around that. If nearly a million people a day were engaged in the thoughtful digestion of the world’s current events from a reputable source (rather than the irrelevant nonsense of TMZ), I’d feel much better about our society.
I want to be wrong about this.
Please, free me from my nostalgia for an imagined past. Stop my cane-waving hysterics. Show me that we are not a culture, which appeals almost exclusively to the lowest common denominator and is infatuated with ambulance chasing and spectacle in a revolting and totally unprecedented way.