Glamour and the First Step to Wisdom

In the beginning, there were the nonreflective peoples. In this week’s Umlaut piece, I quote Oakeshott discussing this crowd:

The current situations of a normal life are met, not by consciously applying to ourselves a rule of behaviour, nor by conduct recognized as the expression of a moral ideal, but by acting in accordance with a certain habit of behaviour. The moral life in this form does not spring from the consciousness of possible alternative ways of behaving and a choice, determined by an opinion, a rule or an ideal, from among these alternatives; conduct is as nearly as possible without reflection. And consequently, most of the current situations of life do not appear as occasions calling for judgment, or as problems requiring solutions; there is no weighing up of alternatives or reflection on consequences, no uncertainty, no battle of scruples. There is, on the occasion, nothing more than the unreflective following of a tradition of conduct in which we have been brought up.

For these people, the ways of their community seem as much a part of nature as the fact that apples fall from trees and predators eat prey. But then over time various communities have come to see these norms as mere convention, something more malleable than gravity or animal instinct. And, for many, something more artificial, a sham.

The Cynics in ancient Greece were given their name (“dog-like”) because they imitated animals in order to get closer to nature. Diogenes famously threw away his cup when he observed an animal drinking from a puddle. From their peculiar vantage point they denounced convention as a system made up of one part arbitrary rules and one part hypocrisy.

From the Cynics I would like to return to Sam, who believes something like cynicism is necessary for growing up:

Adam calls this “cynical”, but I’m not sure that captures the spirit of the thing. Cynicism is marked by a notable lack of faith. In this case, it’s a lack of faith in the deep nature of humanity. I claim that since human nature is indelibly stamped with the Marky Mark of Hypocrisy, the cynical position is to surrender to hopelessness, to descend into a gemebund lament where fantasies about catching kids running through fields of rye abound. It’s my impression that adult readers rightfully view the young Mr. Caulfield with generous dollops of pity and contempt.

Contrast the immature cries of “hypocrite” with the more placid reflections of Joyce’s Stately, Plump Buck Mulligan, who in the opening lines of Ulysses began his morning shave with a ritual roundly mocking the deep pomp of his patently ludicrous culture. Caulfield pines for sincerity, Mulligan is adult enough to know better.

Being an adult in this scenario means giving up on the aspiration for sincerity, or at least for expecting sincerity from the world.

But my question was precisely whether giving up either the aspiration for or the expectation of sincerity was a self-fulfilling prophecy. And the question was not posed with the intention of demonstrating the mechanism by which politics always arrives at systematic hypocrisy; no, the question was posed because I believe we need to aspire to and expect sincerity, or we will fester in hypocrisy.

On the same day that Sam wrote his post, Virginia Postrel’s response to my father’s take on her book on glamour went up on Cato Unbound. Reading it, it seemed to me that Postrel’s glamour was precisely was Sam seemed to be declaiming here.

Glamour is another sort of magic, a trick in which the audience knowingly suspends disbelief. It’s an illusion “known to be false but felt to be true.” Glamour presents an idealized picture, in which flaws, distractions, costs, and complications are hidden. Courtship and love are never as easy as a Fred and Ginger routine, a beach vacation never as unmarred by delays and difficulties as a travel brochure. Military comradeship is real, but the “glamour of battle” edits out the boredom and blood. Glamour, like legitimacy, survives only behind a “well-wrought veil” that reveals only partial truths.

This brings with it many benefits, but also many serious dangers:

Glamour’s greatest dangers, I’ve argued, lie in forgetting what is left out and demanding that the real world conform to the image. “Without a backstage, the quest for grace threatens to turn tyrannical, subordinating the complexities and flux of life to a unitary and artificial ideal,” I write in The Power of Glamour.

This is what I think: there’s a messy reality in which sacred sincerity and profane kayfabe are inextricably intertwined; sometimes you get one or the other but often they are hard to disentangle. Sometimes it’s simply that you get a truly sincere person in a situation where it seems preposterous that they would be. Sometimes it’s that someone is playing the part expected of them but in the sincere desire to do some good. But I do think that both sincerity and such part-playing exist in abundance.

I think Sam looks at the Holden Caulfields of the world outside of fiction and believes they are in the grip of a glamour that may be appreciated for its beauty but is ultimately childish. What I would like to suggest is that Cynicism is also a glamour; a glamour that promises a simple, hard, manly Realism, a Realism of grown-ups rather than the naiveté of children.

And I think that part of being an adult is not embracing Cynicism, but instead understanding that there is a natural tension here but not an all-or-nothing scenario where sincerity and play-acting are concerned. As Postrel puts it:

The nihilistic glamorization of revolt is indeed dangerous, and I certainly have no easy answer to it. But as I contemplate the parallels between Gurri’s political nihilists and the perpetually enraged readers of Jezebel it occurs to me that a widespread understanding of glamour might teach us to live more easily with the tension between aspirational ideals and real-world achievement—to recognize and accept what glamour conceals without losing the insights and inspiration it supplies.

Adulthood is lived in self-conscious awareness of that tension, not in seeking to replace the glamour of childhood with a glamour of adulthood.

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