Thursday, August 9, 2012

Forty: Contempt

The social world is structured by rules, arbitrary but sharply enforced. I've always known that. That's been the plot of how many hundred novels and films? Pick your own favourites--- mine are Wharton's "House of Mirth" and her short story "Autre Temps". It's not a thing that disappeared somewhere late in the last century. We still live by arbitrary social rules, and time puts all of us on the wrong side of many of them.

I define myself as a bachelor and a Gentleman of a Certain Age, and I have chosen to call myself a roué. The arbitrary social rules and various contemporary ideologies frown on all three of those things. I'm well aware of that, but there are some days when I realise how harsh the rules can be.

I've always been willing to discuss social behaviour and the codes for seduction and flirtation, always willing to learn about the codes of politesse in different social circles. That's like learning languages and histories: two things that have been key parts of my life. What I've been finding, though, is a social scene that's infused more and more with contempt, where the arbitrary social rules are enforced with growing harshness. There's a narrowing field of places and events where it's socially safe to make conversation, let alone to flirt. Playfulness and delight and ritual are being slowly, inexorably erased from social interaction. And I do find it harder and harder to imagine what social life, what flirtations and seductions will look like in a decade or two--- or if we'll be allowed to do those things at all.

This summer I feel a sense of futility, a sense of exclusion, a sense of loss. I do imagine no longer being able to be part of a life outside my rooms and books.

There are arbitrary social rules. Yes, arbitrary, I know. But nonetheless binding, and with serious penalties and enforcers as menacing as the Furies. I find it harder and harder to risk running foul of those rules, and of course that means that I find it harder and harder to be in society.

If I'm going to go out, if I'm going to be part of the social world, then there are defensive skills to learn. The goal in social life must be to be like Caesar's Wife: spoken of neither in praise nor blame. That's a key thing, of course: neither in praise nor blame. The goal in being out in public is to be...invisible. Or at least nondescript. To be a figure who never catches the eye of the enforcers.

All social life, all going out into public, is going out into the eyes of judges and adversaries. Be aware of that. One must remember that at all times.

Are the judges and adversaries all female? Oh, very probably. Not that that's any different from Edith Wharton's day. Though I think the atmosphere is much less forgiving today, the language far more moralising.

The trick is always a kind of invisibility. Never, never play the peacock. The goal is to not be noticed--- to not stand out. The judges and adversaries look for anything standing out, either as good or bad. The trick is to fade into the background, to be part of the background. The eye passes over you but never lingers, not for good or ill. Attract no attention, either good or bad. Just look like you fit in, like you're part of the background. But excite no interest or comment. That really is the key thing. No comment, no judgment. You're just...there. 

I suppose that's what I'll have to aim for. Appear to belong, or at least don't disrupt the background. That's how camouflage works, isn't it? Just be part of the pattern. Seem to belong, but don't attract judgment or comment. Just be invisible. If you're invisible enough, you can still be out in the world. If you learn the skills well enough, I suppose you can even walk past the velvet ropes into the world where the harshest of the judges and adversaries go. You don't get fawned over or asked to the VIP area, but you can be inside, be inside the parties and clubs and restaurants where social life--- "social" in a way Wharton would've understood ---happens. You get to be part of the decor, a face in the background crowd. You're not a name, not an actor with a speaking part--- a mere attendant lord only --- but you get to be there. That's...something. And it's safe. Do nothing, say nothing, be nothing, look like nothing that stands out, that could attract derision or mockery. Anonymity is safety, and its own power. Grey is good enough. Always tell yourself that. Grey is good enough

Being a roué, being a Gentleman of a Certain Age, being someone who talks with Young Companions, who can be part of conversations and flirtations--- those are things that have to be given up. Those are things that catch the eye of judges and adversaries, things that attract the Furies. There are words that are used here in these latter days for the things I am, and they're not words that can ever be taken as anything other than condemnation and derision. If I'm to be out in society at all, then I have to learn to be grey, to be something that never stands out from the background noise. Never do what might attract attention, never say anything, never be anything or want anything that can be judged or attacked.

Contempt has always been part of the social world. It's how arbitrary social rules are enforced. Lily Bart and Anna Karenina found that out. I do think that the reach of contempt has expanded over the last decade or so, and the rules have become harsher and more rigid. I think it's time to learn how to be a ghost, how to be grey. That may be the only way to have any kind of social life any more.  

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