Friday, February 14, 2014

Pretension and Politics; or, The Way We Pretend Now

The most beautiful words in the English language.

On one glorious day in late May at the end of my junior year of college, I remember stepping out onto a grassy lawn with a friend and quoting with relish a remark I had once hear attributed to Henry James: "Summer afternoon—summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language." This friend gave me an "Are you serious?" look and said, with a note of affably ludic derision, "Spencer, that is the most pretentious thing I think I've ever heard."

This provokes some questions about exactly what we mean when we use the word "pretentious." In one sense, we use the word to describe anything that seems pompous or otherwise highfalutin, in which case (I admit with reluctance) it's possible that taking a sunny afternoon as an occasion to quote Henry James counts.

But in another sense, the word connotes affectation or inauthenticity: that you are pretending to be someone you are not. (Pretend, pretentious < full of pretense.) In this respect, I certainly hope that I wasn't being pretentious. I hope that the James citation emanated from the very core of my innermost, sincerest self.

People still hurl "pretentious" as an insult, and while it's hardly a criminal offense, it's one of the half-dozen or so unpunishable social sins of character whose allegation can still sting nowadays. It implies that you're practicing a kind of lying, and specifically a kind of very silly mercenary lying meant to self-aggrandize. Calling out pretentiousness gives the caller a kind of power: I can see through the shroud and say that the emperor has no clothes—and indeed, isn't really an emperor. This power is a capacity to humiliate—to point out that cravats are ridiculous, and that the man in the gallery wearing one actually knows nothing about Frank Stella. 

Pretension was originally connected not just to pretending, but to social pretending. It meant that you were presenting yourself as part of a social class to which you did not belong by right of birth. Social pretenders had to use cultural cues to stake their claims—the right kind of dress, the right kind of manners—and the better they got, the tighter the line had to be drawn. In the English-speaking world, cultural anxiety over class pretension began in the sixteenth century, rose throughout the eighteenth century well into the nineteenth. Some of our greatest works of literature are steeped in these anxieties: for example, Miss Bingley's snobbery in Pride and Prejudice is an attempt to cover up the fact that her family's money came from trade, not inherited land (since the true aristocrats were landowners). 

Indeed, many literary critics have argued that the novel is in part a creation of underlying cultural anxiety about increased class mobility—a mobility which started with the end of feudalism in the early modern period, accelerated with the rise of the modern finance, and kicked into high gear during the Industrial Revolution. Molière's 1670 play The Bourgeois Gentleman is about this, and it is telling that much of our vocabulary for describing social climbers comes from French: nouveau riche, parvenu, arriviste. Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby and Welles's Citizen Kane are American takes on the same story. 

There's something hideously antidemocratic about social climbing—at least, in a democracy where immense wealth always brings about (perfectly legitimate) fears of corruption—which I think accounts for the place of horror that Americans accord to pretension. Real horror usually concerns something that actually happens, of course; and we have a schism in our national psyche about how we want the wealthy to relate to wealth. On one hand, we still entertain a Monopoly-esque daydream in which the kid who grows up in rags goes on to sit in a Morganesque mansion, looking a bit like Daddy Warbucks in the Annie cartoons; on the other hand, we like to believe in the person who comes through it all unscathed and unchanged, like Warren Buffett, still living in a 1957 stucco house in Omaha. 

But the much more insidious form of pretension in American democracy is actually the rich pretending to be normal, working-class folks, which we strangely take to be a qualification for higher office (the notorious "Would I want to have a beer with this guy?" test.) Warren Buffett, after all, owns the house in Omaha and a multimillion-dollar mansion on the West Coast. The Bush family is very good at projecting normality; Mitt Romney was very bad at it (the image of him ironing his own shirts never quite redeemed, well, everything else). The Kennedys were not extremely good at it; John Edwards was good at it for a while, until it was revealed that we should have been worrying not about fakery of class, but fakery of character. 

And that's a huge problem: we tend to use class allegiance as a proxy test for character and all manner of other unrelated attributes, which never has made any sense and never will. Even those who look skeptically at the narrative of a George Bush or Marco Rubio like buying into the life story of an Elizabeth Warren or Barack Obama, and vice versa. Perhaps it's because in a democracy, we think that only someone from the working class can represent the interests of the working class, when in fact, this need hardly be the case, and often isn't. Pretending to be a middle-class person involves as much charaderie and manipulation of symbols as pretending to be a latter-day aristocrat, and we should be more suspicious of it than we are.

God only knows that if one of our politicians ever cited James in a speech on the campaign trail, she'd be out of the running within a news cycle. But we'd be missing the point. What we need to worry about isn't the people who profess a love of James or Pollock, since that's not going to get you very far anymore in any case—as my friend demonstrated, we're pretty good at calling out the conventionally "high-class" stuff, even when it's meant in earnest. It's the people who affect a falsely folksy philistinism that you have to watch out for. Pretending to like Wagner when you don't is just silly. But only someone with an agenda would pretend to like country music when they don't. 

1 comment:

  1. I like this. And I remember a posh New Yorker friend of mine (opera, cocktails, Russian novels, the whole package) in college once being outraged at being called pretentious. "What am I pretending *to*?!" he fiercely demanded. (Answer came there none.)