January 11, 2010

My Compliments

In an office cubicle today, somebody I do not know personally, but with whom I had to deal, paid me an effusive compliment on my scarf as I came in from the cold. It is, admittedly, a fetching scarf, which is why I wear it; not overly useful as protection from an Arctic squall, but perfect for Boston’s not too serious winter. It is Scottish wool, and hails from Liberty of London. Set against a grey tweed with small flecks of the same yellow, it bespeaks an ‘I like winter’ attitude. Which I do. There are so many more sartorial options for the gentlemanly winter, and never a fearful deliberation about shorts. Long may the season last.

I was immediately buoyed by the compliment and offered hearty thanks, after which the compliment was repeated, with embellishments. I was genuinely surprised and cheered by this unsolicited fillip, and later it gave me pause. I dress only for my own sense of self-worth, rather than to garner the plaudits of others; but as a dear correspondent of mine has pointed out, one must consider the pleasure afforded oneself by the admiration of others. Moreover, I can only presume that the compliment was an expression of pleasure in the observer. What to make of all this?

Nobody seems to lose in this rare cycle of happiness. There is no symbolic violence. This is no potlatch. Nothing is ventured and plenty gained. If I am to please somebody through no device other than through being me, and if that somebody is to reflect my inherent pleasingness back to me, and to please me through alerting me to it, then I see no reason for complaint. The key is sincerity. I was in half a mind to go and ‘pay it forward’: find some random person and tell them something nice. But disingenuousness tends to cycle the other way and I thought better of it. I did resolve to compliment the next person who pleases me in such an unintended fashion. And then changed my mind.

You see, paying people compliments isn’t as easy as all that. Compliment a woman your age or younger and you might be considered indiscrete. Compliment a man of practically any age under geriatric and you might be considered all kinds of indiscrete. Of course, indiscretions such as these have their place, if played properly; but a slap in the face or an embarrassed blush doesn’t exactly herald an ever ascending cycle of mutual bliss. The moment must be right, spontaneous, and uncontrived. I can’t exactly pinpoint what makes such a moment, but today I had one, and I saw that it was good.


  1. Doctor,

    I have waited for this moment, and held back my remarks on the subject in somewhat anxious expectation. This shall be my first - if in passing - note on taste. The moment you call uncontrived and spontaneous I would give to taste - it offers the criteria the would describe and prescribe what you call the thing's being right. It is of general purport and public in scope. More evidence later. For now, I only want to come thus to my larger subject: people do come together in the beautiful, as it seems to you, with no one the worse for it; (let us discard the jealous and the envious.)

    Is it not to say that you do not take offense -but rather rejoice - in someone's beauty, to pay a compliment? Is this not the particular power of admiration: to look above yourself and be taught rather than be offended? To hold or behold - such is the experience of love.

    Indeed, as the question in the early banter in the Symposium sets things up: do the good go to the good? Do also the bad go to the good? - Much less charming, and with no puns, the first page of the Ethics also affirms that everyone goes to the good.

    Now beauty is not necessarily the good, but it looks like it, at least to us... Obviously, no one should start giving hugs, compliments, and niceties - they destroy our ability to sense the superior, and give us nothing but a fleeting sense of our own superiority in giving. To tell the good from the bad, the noble from the ignoble, the beautiful from the ugly - these are high marks of taste, character, education. It is the democratic obsession with sympathy and empathy, whether deserved or not, whether good or not - that drives people to be completely incapable of making the crucial distinctions that educate our sense of beauty, of eroticism, of behavior. Precisely when it has become unclear - due to our customs, manners, and improprieties - how to transmit the joy one finds naturally in beautiful things - which need hurt no one, but naturally give pleasure to those open to and aware of beauty - we have become so self-reflective and almost incapable of action, so convoluted and at the same time inexperienced...

    One's ability to give compliments depends on one's circumstances, but also on one's acquaintance. If circumstances stand for our inability to control everything, our natural weakness, and that part of nature which would destroy us - itself none the worse for it: then acquaintance must stand for virtue, for the crowning of nature, for our special ability to regard ourselves and nature, as a fulfilment of our inclination to do so. Virtue in conversation: is not this the highest promise of manners? The free gem of happiness in the dreary and necessary erection of justice?

  2. 'To tell the good from the bad, the noble from the ignoble, the beautiful from the ugly - these are high marks of taste, character, education': Amen. If taste is always already there by nature, what is it in some people that switches it on, whereas in others it is left shrouded in darkness? I venture to say that you highlight the cultivation of character and the educative turning towards the good that allow taste to flourish. Whether we say that these things produce taste, or merely unveil it, is a question I know you are wont to pursue. Looking back at my initial posting, in which I detailed some misconceptions, I wonder if the phrasing might have been better as 'taste cannot be cultivated', for I feel that this represents a misconception about which we can find common ground. Leaving that aside, I find myself in agreement with your comments in their general tenor, and thank you for posting them.

  3. I suspected also that on such a reformulation as you now offer, we could live with our different points of focus, so there was really no point in insisting at that point. I suppose that we start from different positions that lead us to look oddly at one another: you may seem to me to be conjuring out of no substance education of the finest make, whereas I may seem to you to be conjuring primary substance out of every human endeavor.

    I can attack your position by noticing that remarkably few people respond to beauty powerfully, even in mass education: most people nowadays seem to feel a social obligation to stare at Renaissance pictures most of them care nothing for and understand nothing of - but at least they make it obvious (and use the audio guide or the plaques to see what to appreciate and why...) And that few of what are called artists have any sense of beauty to begin with, not to mention how few survive the stage of sophistication. - You can, of course, counter by asking why education is even necessary then, with paragons roaming our societies...

    I have to concede that whatever I conceive of as natural must nevertheless be educated, and I am sure you have met your fill of people who could not profit from education to save their lives. The reflection on such situation is, I think, pregnant with consequences. We shall, I expect, have to reach common ground before we really see what the due of nature is and what the due of culture, and it is perhaps best to leave the discussion off for that case where the context fits well with our inclinations. As best I can think, the subject shall be gentlemanliness: if ever virtue and circumstance, culture and nature were asked to come together, that would be it.

    For example, imagine to what extent your questions about who dresses for whom and with what consequences were transformed if manners and etiquette, let alone what I call taste were a rule? Subtlety might take the place of eccentricity, and certainly vanity would be taxed and censored as vulgarity... Not only would compliments start in merit, both in giver and receiver, but they would point to the proper foundation of lasting affection.

    I shan't broach the subject needlessly, but will wait for the proper moment.


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