Archive for the 'Literature' Category

People Standing Around Talking About How Busy They Are

Everyone is in a hurry these days. And everyone talks about how everyone is in a hurry. I was re-reading Bruce Boyer’s True Style tonight to relax. He made me think about the connection between sprezzatura and manners. He writes:

It’s an important lesson we seem to have forgotten, this idea that civility rests on the little lie, the sin of omission, the harmless compliment, the overlooked slight, the tiny fabrication, the artful ability to conceal effort and inappropriate passions. These little niceties – manners, they used to be called – are the grease on the wheels of social friction. […] Sprezzatura is a matter of reaching for perfection, while cultivating the impression of never having given it a thought. It’s the sense of ease, the air of never having prepared, that wins the day. The man who’s all color coordinated is the one, we feel, who blatantly tries too hard. His clothing sends a clear message: he’s insecure.

Concealing art and effort have their own national manifestations, I’m told. Like Boyer says, there’s the Italian sprezzatura, there’s American cool, and then there’s a distinct British rumpled nonchalance. You can see the latter in upper-class people or people who like to pose as upper-class people: they never have to try very hard. If they do it right, you won’t know the difference. In fact, you may think their work and life are  just a well-rehearsed stage show they just happen to effortlessly star in.

If you approach complaining about being busy as a question of manners (as opposed to a question of style), people might take offence. Is it rude say you are stressed out and overworked? I don’t think so, especially if it is a call for help or, as is more often the case, empty small talk. However, I think the small talk in this case may drown out actual calls for help. In this sense, it would be rude to talk casually about stress, because you may be making light of someone’s real distress.

What, then, should be done? Talking explicitly about how people use talk about being busy is crossing the line in both cases, so a smartass meta-analysis is not the way to go in casual conversation. Perhaps the thing to say is: “I won’t keep you, since you are so busy.” Or: “Let’s talk some other time when we both have the time.” Both of these options seem fine to me. What you shouldn’t do, I think, is start comparing notes about how busy both of you are. If you do that, at the end you will be two extremely busy people wasting time talking about how busy you are. And that’s just silly.

Book Review: Men and Manners: Essays, Advice and Considerations by David Coggins

men and mannersI came across David Coggins when I happened to see his new book called called Men and Style: Essays, Interviews and Considerations. A quick search pointed me to a few of his articles in various journals, magazines and websites. I wanted to take a little break from menswear books, and a book about manners by someone who looked like a traditionalist seemed interesting. The other thing that drew me to the book was Coggins’s prose style. He favours short and straightforward sentences and brief texts that include anecdotes and interviews. In other words, it’s light and pleasant reading. I bought the ebook, which I now regret, because the physical book looks very nice. Perhaps I will get a physical copy of his book on style a bit later.

Men and Manners is divided into eight sections, only one of which concerns dressing up. It has advice on very basic things from how to behave during public occasions to suggestions for more intimate situations. Advice on how to tip, for example, is useful for those of us who live in countries where we don’t really tip. How to attend and leave parties I found useful, because sometimes slightly less formal public occasions can be difficult to negotiate. Reminders to keep plans are welcomed by anyone who finds it annoying when people cancel plans at the last minute. The English teacher in me was glad to see a chapter on punctuation. And it’s always good to hear someone saying that looking at your phone in company is distracting. Coggins’s tone is not too normative on this last point, and he appeals to friendship instead:

When we’re together, let’s make it count. Bring your good material, open that good bottle of wine you’ve been saving, ask questions and, since you’ve gone through all that, for goodness’ sake, man, pay attention!

Despite what I said earlier, the bits about dress were the ones that I was drawn to when I started reading. Coggins has a take on formality that somewhat echoes what Bruce Boyer has said before. It involves the strange idea that dressing in a more casual manner makes you more authentic. Coggins writes:

There’s been a proliferation of the unwelcome view that if you dress in a sloppy way then you are somehow more authentic. This exists the closer you get to Silicon Valley and is meant to convey that you have more important matters to think about than dressing well. All it implies, in fact, is that you are authentically sloppy. Does not having good table manners make you more authentic? Does not bathing make you most authentic of all? Of course not.

This authenticity could be formulated in another way. It’s actually very calculated. People dress down to identify with a certain class of people and to indicate their preferred peer group. Casual clothing is thus a kind of uniform, perhaps even more so than formal dress. People who dress casually like to say that they don’t really think about clothes, but they usually do. Sometimes they think about them more than people who wear suits. Suits are easy and require little thought once you have them and know how to wear them. Finding the right band T-shirt for the right occasion is much harder and overdressing or underdressing becomes quite complicated when the line between the two is blurry.

Because Coggins is a professional writer who wears many hats, he likes to think about dress and manners in terms of editing. By way of an analogy, he maintains that the signs of a well-edited mind show in our outward appearance and actions. Like I said, the book is light reading, but it did teach me a lot about writing. Reading the book, I was horrified by my previous reviews on this blog, and a few other texts as well. Convoluted sentences, like clothing and accessories, can seem garish and peacocky. After reading Men and Manners, I will try harder to edit myself in the hope that in trying harder, my writing on the blog will look more like an effortless exercise in casual (but not too casual) thought.

Menswear Books: True Style by G. Bruce Boyer


true style

G. Bruce Boyer is probably the best writer on menswear writing today. He is my personal style icon and also that of Simon Crompton of Permanent Style. He dresses with apparent ease and tries to teach others how to succeed in looking like they dressed themselves effortlessly in a kind of crumpled elegance that nevertheless projects a certain type of care one takes in living one’s life. The effect of course demands great care: one’s wardrobe must be sufficient and each item of clothing requires thought.

I’ve written about Bruce Boyer before and instead of going through the book like a traditional review, I would rather like to discuss three points he makes in True Style that have opened my eyes to a few things. He repeats these points in other writings as well, but everything is condensed nicely in True Style in insightful and relaxed prose.

First, Boyer has ideas about dressing up and dressing down. There is a whole cultural history attached to all this, but we can use a James Dean or a Marlon Brando as a shorthand. “The male rebel proletariat”, as Boyer calls this figure, became the norm after they appeared on the scene. The T-shirt and jeans combo is great, but what it is is essentially a way of dressing down. Instead of looking up trying to emulate the upper classes, dressing in this particular uniform means you are attaching yourself to a certain ideological position in US history that finds its representative examples in the lower classes. I have nothing against this and really don’t think of style in terms of value, but I have noticed family and friends get irritated when I relate Boyer’s point to them. Not too long ago, a few of my friends were enthusiastic about denim named after an infamous prison. That takes dressing down all the way to prison. Again, nothing wrong with that, but I resisted the urge to discuss Boyer with them. After noticing that people do dress up or down according to ways they observe and value others in terms of social stratification, it’s hard not to notice the choices people around you make.

Second, being comfortable in your clothes is of course important, but looking like you’ve been accustomed to wearing them may be even more important. Boyer writes about the English country house aesthetic, the way they are always a bit dishevelled and disorderly. In terms of clothing, there are associations with old money and sprezzatura, but it really comes down to having clothes you love and wear all the time. They may take some time getting used to. A suit, for example, is clothing you do have to learn to wear. If you are uncomfortable in your suit, you may not look very good. Clothes should look worn and familiar, because they are your clothes and you live in them. If they are a bit scruffy, good! If there is a nick in your shoes that cannot be quite polished away, even better! (This does not apply to evening dress, but that’s another matter.)

Third, there are days when I feel I need to wear a suit and I think Boyer has managed to explain why. The sense of occasion is lost when casualization takes over. I speak in front of people for a living, and it is not always the best idea to show up for work in jeans and a T-shirt. This is not because there is something inherently inappropriate in jeans and T-shirts, but because I do need to have a sense of formality when I do what I do. It helps me take my work seriously. Again, there is nothing wrong with casual clothing, but there are situations where I need a bit more support. Clothing is part of the professional arsenal of a man, Boyer says, and it should be used as a tool to get things done. We can talk of the aesthetics of clothing all we want, but there is also a utilitarian side to all this. Sometimes you just need a grey flannel suit to finish a job.

There is of course more to say about all this, but it’s easier to simply direct everyone into the capable hands of Bruce Boyer himself. His writing is thoughtful and elegant. He introduces his readers to brief snippets of cultural history that contextualize our choices of clothing. He teaches readers how to “be themselves on purpose”. I don’t think I’ve read anything poorly written or thought out by him. It’s all good stuff, but True Style will give you a book-length text of Boyer’s best. Go read it!

Making Sense of Trump with Emerson

emersonI had to give a lecture today about American Romanticism, Transcendentalism, Emerson, Thoreau and the like. This lecture is usually pretty easy and I normally enjoy it very much. Today, however, much of what I love in Emerson and even Thoreau seemed different. The can-do attitude  that, following the British Romantics, embraced the everyman and shunned the establishment, elitism and tradition had gone a bit stale. The anti-intellectualism, however intellectually stimulating in all sorts of interesting ways, seemed slightly offensive. The Yankee version of German Idealism was still fine, and it was wonderful, as always, to explore the possible implications of the universal mind we see animated into communities in Emerson’s amazing prose. His language never grows old even if some of the things he wrote seemed off today.

Transcendentalism served a need at the time. In the lecture, I illustrated this with Fitz Hugh Ludlow’s lament in The Hasheesh Eater (1857) about the narrow-mindedness of empirical science:

The Transcendentalists are, indeed, climbers over, as their name signifies, yet not over sound reasoning nor the definite principles of truth, but over that ring-fence of knowledge brought in through mere physical passages, with which a tyrannous oligarchy of reasoners would circumscribe all our wanderings in search of facts and laws.

In this passage, Ludlow was voicing the view that the world was more than a materialist perspective can assume. We do not have to revert to mysticism to see this in Transcendentalist thought. Emerson’s passionate calls for a new American culture pointed out that we are all connected by language and language, in turn, is connected to the world and spirit. In “Nature” (1836), he wrote that words are not merely linguistic codes. They send us back to nature. Nature, in turn, is not merely a pile of material. It is also spiritual. To put all this in more modern language, there is a relationship between the world, language and the human mind that is forever in motion. It is not a simple subject-object relationship. If it were, nothing would ever change. We would forever be subjects staring at objects.

What we see changes us, that changes how we see the world, which in turn changes the world as it is seen by us, and so on. The best part is that this mechanism can be reverse-engineered. We can imagine a new world, a new culture, one that is ours and ours alone, and make it happen. There is virtually nothing holding us back. No tradition or status quo can resist an idea once it becomes powerful enough. The human world, in a very real sense, is made of language. This does not mean there are magic words we can say to make the world into whatever we please. However, together we can shape it and change it – if we only have the language with which we can imagine it together. The possibilities are endless.

The language Emerson talked about was the language of the common man. It is frighteningly powerful, because it unites us all into a collection of minds that are virtually one single organism. In “History” (1841), Emerson wrote:

There is one mind common to all individual men. Every man is an inlet to the same and to all of the same. He that is once admitted to the right of reason is made a freeman of the whole estate. What Plato has thought, he may think; what a saint has felt, he may feel; what at any time has be-fallen any man, he can understand. Who hath access to this universal mind is a party to all that is or can be done, for this is the only and sovereign agent.

Go read Plato and you will understand him the same way Plato’s first students understood him. Think of a friend in distress and you will know his distress. We share our existence with others in a way that is almost embarrassingly intimate. Do not let anyone tell you otherwise, an Emersonian orator might want to add. You know what it is like to be the Other. It is a trippy idea and quite convincing dressed in Emerson’s beautiful rhetoric.

However, “History” ends with a passage that has caused me sleepless nights. Emerson said:

Broader and deeper we must write our annals, — from an ethical reformation, from an influx of the ever new, ever sanative conscience, — if we would trulier express our central and wide-related nature, instead of this old chronology of selfishness and pride to which we have too long lent our eyes. Already that day exists for us, shines in on us at unawares, but the path of science and of letters is not the way into nature. The idiot, the Indian, the child, and unschooled farmer’s boy, stand nearer to the light by which nature is to be read, than the dissector or the antiquary.

What he said is subversive, revolutionary and frightening. The old order has to fall and be replaced with something less and more than science and letters. With a preacher’s fervor, Emerson handed over the role of our conduit to nature to the idiot and the unschooled. I cannot reason away his anti-intellectualism here, nor do I think one should.

Is it a wonder we have seen Trump’s clumsy rhetoric win over the voters? Changes had to be made, we were told. The old status quo had to fall. The language of the common man was the vehicle which made it possible to reignite the spark in the hearts of those who still believed in the Great Experiment Emerson sketched out in his speeches and essays. As far as I can see, those who stood behind Trump did the right thing by their own traditions when the flag was flown. I do not like the way things turned out at all myself, but I can see why they turned out the way they did. The clown politician, the idiot, was the one who, in the minds of many, spoke the truth, and they followed.

In the end, it all comes down to faith, as always. But the elections have also shown the world the power of a tradition that started out as a way of destroying old traditions in favor of the new. It will turn on itself again soon enough. In the meantime, I think everyone should brush up on their rhetoric and study the tradition to end all traditions very carefully. The next turn of the wheel should not come as a surprise even if it is impossible to predict what exactly will happen when it happens.

The 12+12 Books of Christmas #24


I am not a religious person, but I was raised Lutheran. One might say I am not a religious person because I was raised Lutheran, but that would be mean. Living in a Lutheran country, it is surprisingly difficult to find a copy of the vulgate Bible. For a philologist, the vulgate Bible is a treasure trove of language, whatever you think of its religious contents. You can of course read it online, but of all the books in the world the Bible is the most depressing to read as an ebook. I do not read Hebrew and don’t plan to learn it anytime soon, but I have been casually studying Greek for a while now and own a New Testament in the original Greek which has an interlinear translation into English. I shall peruse it on Christmas Day when we get home from visiting relatives. After all, it is one of the greatest stories ever told.

Thus ends the 12+12 Books of Christmas challenge. My better half has performed admirably well and it looks like neither of us will have to concede our little bet. At stake was a bottle of Napue, the best gin in the world, manufactured by the Kyrö Distillery Company. It’s a shame the resolution of the bet ended in a ginless result, but perhaps we can figure out another bet in the near future. Perhaps we should also raise the stakes to two bottles of Napue? If you’ve read these posts, thanks for the clicks and the likes. It’s nice to see others have enjoyed our scribblings as well.

Merry Christmas!

The 12+12 Books of Christmas #23


Science in Augustan England was a contradictory and confusing enterprise. The 1600s and especially the 1690s in England have long been a favorite period of historians. So much was going on and so much of what would become the modern world was being formed. Mistakes were plentiful, which is great for historians, because they can pick out something like Newton’s weird mysticism and do the historian’s version of pointing and laughing. Sometimes this is incredibly instructive and helpful to anyone who wants to learn something about the Augustans.

Some time in 1600s, Dr. John Woordward acquired a shield, a French buckler, that was roughly one hundred years old. The shield depicted a scene from ancient lore and Dr. Woodward was able to convince himself that he his shield was actually forged in Roman times. In his mind, and the minds of many others, this was a priceless antique, not a souvenir put together by some French guy a few years back. He was of course completely wrong about his beloved shield and he was mocked by satirists like Pope and the Scriblerians.

Why did Dr. Woodward believe something that was obviously false? In Dr. Woodward’s Shield, Joseph Levine tries to explain the farcical affair that included dubious historical materials:

Why then did Woodward accept the story and defend it with so much erudition? The answer lies in the peculiar authority that the classical historians exercised over Renaissance Europe and later centuries. The humanists were agreed that the classical authors furnished the standards of style and form. […] There was thus an overwhelming disposition to believe.

On the other hand, there was something else brewing in Dr. Woodward’s time:

In Dr. Woodward’s day the debate was reopened by the Dutchman Jacob Perizonius, and it gathered increasing strength in the eighteenth cetury. It was fed, no doubt, by an increase in general skepticism, by the appearance of “historical pyrrhonism” that was beginning to cast doubt on the reliability of all historical sources. The French Jesuit Hardouin announced paradoxically that the classical authors were the invention of medieval monks, since they were found only in medieval manuscripts.

Hardouin’s views were not popular at the time, but they show how far the other way the pendulum could swing. From a total belief in “the virtuoso’s dream” to utter skepticism about all antiquity.

The shield is the centerpiece of Levine’s wonderfully written book, but it’s not its main attraction. The book is about thought at a time when modern science was coming into existence. The rules of evidence and argument were still largely unwritten. There were more than enough of extravagant theories and views flying around. Levine shows his readers a cabinet of curiosities made of theories, ideas and thoughts. It is perhaps one of my favorite books, because it makes a topic many view as quite boring — seventeenth and eighteenth century intellectual history — incredibly vivid and exciting. It has a lot of pointing and laughing, but it is science pointing and laughing at itself. As disrespectful as that is, isn’t it finally what science is all about: recognizing your mistakes and being able to correct them with good humor.

The 12+12 Books of Christmas #22


The first book by Wittgenstein I remember reading was a Finnish translation of Remarks on Colour. His thinking was utterly fascinating even though I didn’t understand what he was trying to say. The book is not  that difficult to follow, but it was difficult for me to understand why this odd Austrian dude was going on about colors. I did not know about the old debates about primary and secondary qualitites, the whole eighteenth-century scientific business about colours, or much else. I was into heavy metal, guitars, novels and short stories. Wandering to the philosophy section of our town library had unexpected consequences.

I did whatever amounted to googling him at the time and discovered that his most famous work was the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Our town library was small, but very good. It had heavy metal records, guitar lessons, a decent amount of fiction and a philosophy section. I picked up the Tractatus and was disappointed. It was completely different from the book about colors and incomprehensible. It took some time to understand the importance of the work and even though I now understand why Wittgenstein wrote it, I still cannot follow it. Most of what I understand comes from secondary sources. A friend whom I respect highly said he admired Wittgenstein’s style in the Tractatus. I still don’t know what he means.

The third work of Wittgenstein’s I picked up was On Certainty which I chose because it was shorter than the rather menacing thick volume next to it. It was a bit easier, almost like something in between the Tractatus and Remarks on Colour. It was a difficult book and I still read it occasionally — I’m not quite sure what to make of it.

The thick book next to it, Philosophical Investigations, remained on the shelf for a long time until I happened to pick it up due to boredom or whatever. It is the easiest of his books to understand and to follow. There really is nothing difficult about it. Philosophers have to write papers and debate things, so they make up all kinds of things to say about it. When approaching the kind of reasoning Wittgenstein wants to show you in the Investigations, there is no point in overcomplicating matters. It is a pleasure to read and a pleasure to think through. If someone gives you an abstract explanation about what Wittgenstein is trying to accomplish with his magnum opus, that is fine. Philosophers say all kinds of things about Wittgenstein. The Investigations to me is a self-contained piece of writing that nevertheless branches out into the world outside it. It teaches you to think the way Wittgenstein wants you to think. You can learn to do what he does by going through his thought experiments like you would go through an exercise book while learning a language: the point of going through the exercises is to go through the exercises.

If you have not read the Investigations, I suggest you get a copy and make it your coffee table book. Pick it up when you’re bored or have nothing else to do. Don’t think you’re reading the greatest work by one of the greatest philosophers who ever lived. You cannot relax into Wittgenstein’s prose if you are too tense. Even if Wittgenstein himself had a violent temper, his book is a patient teacher. Spend as much time with each page as you like. Or you can devour the book in one sitting, and then do it all over again. It really doesn’t matter what you do as long as you do it.