Not for the first time, my most faithful reader has pushed me to elaborate: ‘I should like to know what part of charm is flattery, what part deception, what part politic acts, what part generosity and what part pleasure’. Not wishing to disappoint, and thinking the subject worthy, I hereby undertake a more detailed look at charm – what it is, and what it’s worth. Further instalments will follow shortly.
Let us begin with deception, for here we find charm at its utilitarian worst. In the main I would like to distance my usage of charm, the word and the act, from its literal association with the casting of spells. When borne of temperate and decent natures, charm may intoxicate but it will never be the malignant concoction of the sorcerer; it will never cause the hypnotic state of the snake. Unfortunately, precisely this brand of charm has long been a feature of our literary villainy, with Iago as the patron saint. This could make one very wary of charm and the apparently charming, and indeed might make us take seriously those warnings of Anthony Blanche, warnings that might very well have applied to himself.
Where this works in literature and drama is precisely where it fails in life. Dramatic irony always underscores the naïveté of the beguiled victims, with the thinness of the superficial charm clear for the audience to see. This usually causes an unfavourable judgment of the victim, rather than the perpetrator, for being so gullible. It’s no different to the standard emplotment of stories concerning cowboy builders and phony meter readers. The vulnerability of the victim is always the leitmotiv. They are somewhat pathetic, pitiable creatures, who fall into the category of ‘one born every minute’. The despicably charming are scolded for their callousness, but we all assume that the trick would not have worked on us. These men are newsworthy because they are exceptional. On the whole, one cannot be deceptively charming in a sustained way. The pitfalls are too great; people are too wise, or else suspicious; and the web of deceit becomes quickly and horribly complex. Not for nothing is Othello a tragedy.
In sum, charm as deceit is not for us. True charm, insofar as it can be cultivated, is an expression of character. About that, we shall have more to say anon.
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