Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Tragedies of Manners

with one comment

So–where to start.

Lymaree says I should meet more contemporary artists.  But I wasn’t thinking about contemporary artists.  I was thinking about the historical record, and how many great painters, poets and composers have been distinctly Bohemian–think of Paris in the twenties, San Francisco in the Fifties, the New England Transcendentalists, the circles of Byron, Shelley,  Blake, Coleridge and even George Eliot.

It’s really remarkable how consistantly the Bohemian theme arises when you look at high art movements across time, and how many of the people who seem on the surface to be conventional are not (for instance,  Somerset Maugham).  And, like I said, the stereotype goes back at least to classical Athens and persists today.

But I also don’t think that it’s a matter of politics, one way or the other.   You couldn’t figure out my politics from the writers I admire, mostly because I admire writers as writers, not for what it is they’re saying, assuming they’re saying anything.

And quite a few people whose ideas I agree with  I know are really terrible writers. 

Some of the writers I admire as writers are opaque as to their political or philosophical convictions–think Jane Austen, and J.D. Salinger–others are not opaque but objectionable, like both Louis Frederick Celine and Jose Saramago.  Norman Mailer is a stunning writer and a complete idiot in virtually every other way.  The same is true–although somewhat less true–of the Hemingway of the early short stories. 

I’m closer–politically–to Ayn Rand than to any of these people, and I know she’s God awful as a writer.  In fact, cringingly awful. 

The closest I can come to a writer whom I admire as a writer and whose ideas I mostly agree with–and then I only agree with about two thirds of them–is the essayist who goes under the pen name Theodore Dalrymple.  He writes such clean and elegant prose it’s astonishing, and he’s better at the sheer writing than anybody else I can think of who’s working today. 

But I’d admire that writing even if Dalrymple were producing Communist tracts.   Which is why I admire George Steiner as a writer–at least of nonfiction–even though his ideas drive me up the wall at least half the time.

But I think it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that the Romantic critique of civilization was a coherent one, and that when Bohemia first recognzed itself as a separate and conscious movement, it had a logical rationale for what it was doing that was not entirely wrong.

Rousseau declared that human beings were naturally good and that society corrupted them.  He was wrong, but he was responding to something real.

Manners are what human beings devise to express morals in their everyday lives.  Manners stand in for a set of assumptions about the nature of being human–and therefore about what one human being owes to another in recognition of their shared humanity–and allow men and women to go about their daily business without having to always judge and figure what themoral thing to do would be in each separate encounter.

There’s nothing wrong with this, nor is there anything wrong with the fact that the particular customs devised as the stand-in are largely arbitrary.  If your society thinks that human beings are little less than angels and should be respected accordingly, it might demand that you tip your hat when you pass a fellow human , or that you bow deeply, or that you get down on your knees and kiss his shows.  The particular custom doesn’t really matter much, as long as everybody understands that it’s meant to express your respect.

The problem with manners is the problem with all things human.  They become detached from their original purpose over time, and begin to be nothing more than rote habits observed for their own sake.

Once manners get to this point, they can become stultifying instead of liberating.  For one thing, once they’ve been detached from their original purpose, they tend to attach themselves to a whole slew of really bad ideas, and always the same bad ideas:  to hierarchies of prejudice, to the human tendency to label some human beings humans and others less so, to the whole messy competitiveness that shows its most annoying ace in high school clique cultures. 

Bohemianism as it first self-consciously understood itself was a protest against empty formalism that really was empty formalism, but its approach to that protest was to attack the principles that had originally provided a foundation for that formalism.  

I think there is always danger of such formalism, and of the ossification it threatens.  I even spent part of the morning looking at this


which showed up as a link on Arts and Letters Daily this morning.  These days, it isn’t priests and ministers who police our manners, and through them our morality, it’s psyhiatrists nd psychologists.  We now talk in medical terminology about until very recently we considered problems in philosophy.

By the way–shopaholics, Ritalin, and “post traumatic embitterment disorder” are all good reasons to resist scientism. 

But it seems to me that I am living in a strange period.  Aomost all the old systems of manners that I remember from my growing up have disappeared, as have many of the moral  principles that once provided their foundation. 

What should have happened was some kind of cyclic resurgence and regeneration of morals–that is, after all, h ow we got the Victorians after the depredations of both the Renaissance and he Reformation.  And yes, I know they both had good parts, too.

For some reason, though, we seem to have skipped the resurgence and regeneration part and gone directly to the dessicated formalism, and like all formalisms, what we’ve got lacks coherence or even logic.

Why is a psychologist who takes his patient’s desire to reject homosexual practice for heterosexual guilty of malpractice, while one who takes his patient’s desire to reject his physical maleness just doing the right thing?  Logically, either both these psychologists should be guilty of malpractice or neither should be. 

But formalistic systems of manners are never self-aware enough to ask questions like this, and they tend to treat such questions hurled by dissenters as proof that the dissenters are deeply morally flawed. 

Or, in our case, crazy.

Written by janeh

July 25th, 2009 at 8:16 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response to 'Tragedies of Manners'

Subscribe to comments with RSS or TrackBack to 'Tragedies of Manners'.

  1. I think we just changed ossified systems. The breakdown and the new system are still on the agenda, and one hears ominous noises now and then. Of course I tend to see Bohemianism as an equally formal system with a different set of rules. Yes, it may have been intended as something else, but that happens.

    And I think we switched criteria somewhere. Yesterday’s great writers were people of keen analytical insight who saw to the heart of the human condition. And how keen that insight is depends a lot on what one thinks the human condition is.
    Today’s great writers seem to be great stylists, which is by no means the same thing. I will happily concede that one may be a great stylist and in all other respects a blithering idiot.

    Music for style above all else, writing for story and ideas. Painting and sculpture somewhere in between.

    Or the Philistine motto (all together now): “A tune you can whistle, a story with a plot, and a picture that looks like the little brass plaque.”


    25 Jul 09 at 2:27 pm

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Bad Behavior has blocked 350 access attempts in the last 7 days.