February 02, 2010

Class Act

On my way home today I observed a street scene that might have come straight from the pages of Henry Mayhew. A somewhat dishevelled man wearing an eye patch was engaging in toothless japes with a hunched, walking-stick wielding man wearing rudimentary ear muffs. I expected to see a mudlark and a crossing sweeper at any minute, as our omnibus swerved to avoid the itinerant costermongers. But then I remembered that everyone in America is middle class. And then I thought of England, where society is supposed not to exist. Silly me.

In the introduction to Arthur Marwick’s The Sixties, the author reluctantly confessed that his education, the fact of his professorial status, had made him upper-middle class. Marwick assumed that the democratization of social opportunity had nevertheless left the old social framework intact, but following contours of intellect rather than wealth. His was a class system based on merit, but a class system nonetheless. His reality no doubt gave him good reason to think this, for he was among the first generation of modern levellers, and assumed a place that assuredly looked, felt, and smelled very much like the upper-middle class of yore. Yet the idea was becoming unpalatable. Those scholars who followed him might have expected to be ridiculed, if not stoned, for asserting their implicit social superiority, however reluctantly. In fact, they actively cast off the mantle and quickly swapped white for blue collars. Marks of distinction disappeared among the distinctly Marxian. Elitist aspirations, including those founded on intellect, became an outmoded embarrassment. Now we find it appropriate only to be ordinary – such an unpalatable collective – or else ‘public opinion’, like a Leviathan Bounderby, will point a chubby finger and accuse us of wanting to be fed turtle soup and venison with a gold spoon. Hard Times indeed. Intellectuals should know their place: a dark, underpaid corner of unimportance, diminutively apologizing for not being of the ‘real world’.

Actually, the haute cuisine and lustrous utensils sound rather appealing, taken metaphorically. The truth is that we still sort ourselves out, even though social deference is dead, and humility is an endangered species. As I sat watching the Victorian apparition today I knew that for all the world I was not of that scene, and to a like degree those characters were not of my intellectual commute. This does not signify any sense of entitlement on my part, nor any social chagrin on theirs; merely that worlds apart are not wont to meet. Were not these distinct orbits more inclined to overlap in days before our undoubtedly noble motives led us to deny that difference exists?

I pose the question sincerely: how does one be a gentleman in an age that looks poorly on distinction?


  1. Discretely, presumably.

    I see two forms of egalitarianism at play - one is top-down, the due of self-flagellating intellectuals, the other bottoms-up, a combination of envy and ignorance. The breaking point of the one seems to be what Lenin called vanguard elites: the people who raise consciousnesses and awareness - they must think themselves indispensable, necessary, superior to the masses. The breaking point of the other, however, is the need to survive: contrary to recent idealists, an eye for an eye need not make the whole world blind - so long as we get our kind of peace, we will be fine and in full possession of our most important sense, but we'd have to rely on those people who can render us safe and offer things worth seeing.

    For example, Patton said: Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser. Public opinion need not always be a leveler, therefore. But Patton implies there is a purpose - there is always one in war. As to those who lack the purpose, Orwell once said: the quickest way of ending a war is to lose it. I don't have relevant quotes for peace, but I am assured half our problems can be solved... Now, gentlemen, unlike generals, are also creatures of peace, but what is the purpose of a gentleman?

    I don't really like the fact that the privileged class neither knows how nor dares to justify its privileges - they are un-American, no? - but who could now show that they deserve by their virtues admiration? That there is another way than envy... For such people to be loved by us, they must in turn love something worthwhile, no?

  2. My mind is going too many directions presently to really focus appropriately on this particular post, but I would just like to say that the mere fact that you created a blog of this name and subject makes me want to marry you. Yep. That's true.

  3. My dear, I'm most flattered, but I'm afraid I'm already spoken for. I hope the disappointment won't be too great, and that you'll come back to visit often.

  4. Hear, hear Kravien, excellent comment!

    Intellect is oft found unbecoming by the masses because it applied so brashly. The subtle exercise of etiquette (and other distinct characteristics) distinguishes a gentleman - and equally so, a lady - without drawing scrutiny by all. Only the worthy recognize such action. As for me, I will not be confined to, "a dark, underpaid corner of unimportance." My intellect will be demonstrated only to those who choose to revel in it.


  5. And we shall so revel! And we shall also refuse to apologize.


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