Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Emperor's Newest Set of Clothes

It has been said -- and I snottily add "not unreasonably so" -- that an intellectual is defined as a person educated well above his or her intelligence.

Within that body of persons, many (well, several) have taken it to dissect the "dandy" in order to come up with...well, I am not entirely sure with what. It takes all my willpower to read these treatises and not slump into a life-threatening narcoleptic episode.

Setting aside the obvious question of why anybody would want to perform said dissection nor what there is to be gained by it, it's interesting and, if you're of a mind like mine, amusing to traipse trippingly through the treatises, noting and gathering terms which certainly have been overlaid upon reality by academia.
One such treatise recently brought to my considerable attention was this one. To be perfectly honest, I don't view these sorts of theses maliciously. I view them in a similar light to a four year old's explanation of whence babies come: unwittingly amusing and with the barest resemblance to reality.

In reading these, the circuit-breaker in my brain is the word "semiotics" or derivations thereof. If I see the word crop up in a serious tone, I know I am in for an interlude of jollity and mirth even if it will take some effort to consider the usually ponderously impenetrable prose. In fact, the sooner the word "semiotics" makes its grand entrance, the more delight I am likely to derive from the author's output. If it appears, brazenly, in the title...why, I may need powerful orthodontic machinery to excise my smile.

The work in question by the improbably christened Olga Vainshte.in, is among these sorts of published items. There are many, within the broad spectrum of civilizedly arrayed men, who look upon these sorts of things with some degree of seriousness. They will scour the text and look for flaws -- real and imagined -- and seek to prove or disprove some point or other. This is, clearly, equivalent to being present at a real-life version of the Emperor's New Clothes and discussing whether that line below the small of the back is, in fact, a vent.

At the core, is an unfortunate attempt to dismantle an ostensible archetype and see what makes it tick, almost implicitly to see if it's reproducible. Much like gathering up X amount of water, carbon, iron, calcium and trying to construct a human therewith. The synergy of all the constituent parts is so great, that merely examining them dooms the whole enterprise to failure.
Let's then, look carefully at one such enterprise.

It starts, as often these things do, with a mostly nebulous quote by a long-dead Gallic expert on the matter. Almost always it's Baudelaire, since opium-addled syphilis is generally seen by all experts on the subj. as being precisely the sort of thing to lend one's writing veracity, gayety, je ne sais quoi and "snap." After all, when one sees a beloved segment of anatomy remain behind upon exiting an opium den, it cannot but propel one to write things such as:

"Dandyism resembles the setting sun: like the dying luminary, it is magnificent, devoid of warmth, and full of melancholy."
Ironically enough, this not only applies to dandyism, but also to what remained of Baudelaire's prepuce at the time.

At any rate, Vains.htein gets off the mark in very impressive form:

"[Dandyism] can be manifested in a person’s overall appearance, and in the ability to furnish a home, and in deliberate camp manoeuvres, and in the art of the complete makeover, although for the majority the most stable criterion traditionally remains the way one dresses. This was the dominant approach in the twentieth century, which made clothing the principal source of semiotic information. It is probably better to begin not by extrapolating from individuals, but by taking a close look at the ranks of the pretenders."
You will note that she uses "semiotic" right at the start (this quote is from the 2nd paragraph), promising us an interesting ride, beckoning us to ponder the drape and hand of the emperor's new apparel. No half-measures here. Of course, she threatened to get the point right and we all collectively held our breath, exhaling in relief when "semiotic" rode to the rescue and slew the dragon, or what may have been either a dragon or an extremely intemperate lizard.
With such a start, a gallop's pace cannot be too far behind. And, at such a pace, getting thrown off the saddle and into culverts, ravines and/or ditches for our delight cannot lag far behind.
"For a long time in England Quentin Crisp (1908-1999) was considered the number one dandy. Aesthete, writer, and journalist, he was incredibly popular, and there is a wax figure of him at Madame Tussaud’s."
Note, gentle reader, the descriptors of the late Mr. Crisp do not include the previously stated "the most stable criterion traditionally remains the way one dresses." Which is yet another of the unfortunate instances of conflating aesthetes with dandies. After all, one sees tomes upon tomes, article after article on such personages as the Prince of Wales/Edward VIII/Duke o' Windsor, Fred Astaire, Cary Grant or Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. precisely because "the most stable criterion traditionally remains the way one dresses." This is also why one is not likely to run across tomes such as Quentin Crisp Style, the marketability of violet hair being far more limited than is supposed by those whose life aspirations include the words "semiotics," "tenure" and "sherry." The number of sentient humans -- Dame Edna impersonators aside -- who could benefit from such an ouvre are as close to zero as time spent working it out via assymptotical mathematics will allow.
Unfortunately, whenever you read such an opening salvo you know the rollercoaster is about to propel you. Vainshte.in, having enjoyed the stretching of the definition, finds the experience both exhilirating and addictive, like a sorority pledge would a bottle butterscotch schnapps. This leads to a fusillade (or binge, if you prefer your pettiness judgmental) of distorted statements based on the originally mangled definition. Catch hold of this breathless gem:

"Based on the very approximate criterion [!] of cool, dandies of recent decades would include people of such disparate styles as the photographer Cecil Beaton, the dramatist Noel Coward, the writer Tom Wolfe, the musician Eric Clapton, Prince Charles, the singer Ann Lennox, David Bowie… the list goes on and on."

Contrast the above with this:
"Based on the very approximate criterion of steering wheels, sports cars of recent decades would include automobiles of such disparate styles as the German VW, the Serbo-Croatian Yugo, the Italian Lancia, the American Mustang, Ferrari, the Swedish Volvo, Porsche… the list goes on and on."
This, of course, is the siren song leading us down the path that, at its inevitable end, stops at the cliff's edge of "dandy means just what you say it means." Many poor deluded bastards, enchanted by the sing-song message keep skipping and hopping as the road falls away and wind up in the briny deep, bobbing up wearing Dress Campbell suitings and vermilion footwear, possibly a lady's vintage purse for a hat.
She continues:
"Contemporary dandies, if they are seriously to claim the title, need above all to recognize that genuine dandyism is a lifestyle. The dandy is a master at completely shaping his own life. Appreciation of this shape, however, requires a mature society; for otherwise its aesthetic potential will not be interpreted adequately."
It is here the academically popular fallacy begins to twinkle in the moonlight. I cannot imagine any dandy, nor anyone save the basest pretender to such a label, wanting to "seriously claim the title." Put another way, a real dandy is someone who is who he is, not someone who woke up one morning and decided to start an exciting career in the burgeoning field of danditry. Say what you will about dandies, the truest and best examples of the breed are refreshingly unconcerned with ticking categories in some scorecard.
Further illustration that Vainshte.in is off and running in an uncertain direction over difficult terrain is the endearingly haute naive claim that "Appreciation of [the shape a dandy has given his life], however, requires a mature society; for otherwise its aesthetic potential will not be interpreted adequately."
This of course, is the dirty little secret of the members of the Guild. All of them, to a man, pretend to flit from tailor to cobbler. They act as if the most important task is to find a new crepe wool for a suit, or a better last for the footwear. In fact, they are all quivering inwardly, worried this society might not be mature enough. Petrified the aesthetic potential of their lives will not be interpreted adequately, if at all. You can just imagine the market in self-help literature for dandies, actual and potential. How To Have The Aesthetic Potential of Your Self-Shaped Life Intepreted Adequately And Influence People by Quentin Crisp, Jr. smells of NYT bestsellerness and is accompanied by the sounds of shekels and ducats raining down gratefully from relieved dandies.
That Robbins guy (not Harold, the other one) could don a pocket square and slightly less flourescent dental veneers and hold seminars and sell audiobooks that prove helpful and lucrative on the topic of Awakening The Purple Coiffed Master Aesthetic Life Shaper Within!
In the interest of frisson, to tease and tantalize, we are treated to this:
"In the nineteenth century dandyism originally implied a kind of leisure; the dandy, after all, embodies idle elegance. Most dandies, therefore, were aristocrats and wealthy gentlemen or representatives of the artistic professions. As it evolved in the nineteenth century, the dandy’s lifestyle demanded constant training in the art of spending free time. The dandy’s code of behaviour was difficult but absolutely mandatory, prescribing cold politeness and outbursts of irony, imperturbability – nil admirari: be surprised at nothing, – the art of frustrating expectations and instantly creating an impression, measured épatage, leisureliness as a style of strolling, dancing, and dressing."
Perilously skirting a correct impression and flirting dangerously with reality, Vainshte.in, pirouettes gracefully around the main criteria scholars are convinced True Dandies must satisfy always and everywhere: Slinging around words and phrases in French. A little Latin is nice, but as the canon is curiously absent of Romans discussing witty aesthetes saying clever things from under a mop of heliotrope tresses, Latin only serves to denote a half-decent education. French is the thing, which proves convenient for overanalytical Gauls, who needn't take time out from inhaling opium vapors with the remainder of their nostril, seeing as how they have been speaking the language with noted fluidity.
Peppering one's floridly vague observations with naso-labially guttural phrases is practically the equivalent of one's Social Security number in dandy circles. Say something in Italian or, Beau forbid, German -- schadenfreude excepted -- and you might as well steep some vile part of your physiognomy in the Duchess' finger bowl between the fish and the sorbet courses.
Of course, there must be more to the whole dandy thing than possibly, maybe, perhaps dressing well and being witty and having amethyst locks which you toss as you, er, toss off a "preux chevalier."
Continues Vainshte.in:
"The ideology of the dandyist make-over is based on a very essential principle of nineteenth-century dandyism, namely complete chameleonism. The chameleonic dandy transforms his life into a self-fashioning workshop, designing not only his outer appearance and roles, but also his scenarios, situations, and material surroundings. The dandy’s chameleonic transformations are implemented through the principle of artificiality that is so characteristic of European decadence."
We're talking, basically, of a self-imposed and ceaselessly operating Zelig effect. How this squares with the previously stated quality of "idle elegance" will take far more porphyrious heads than mine to ascertain. It's not so much the artificiality -- and this is the point where the True Believers drag out Wilde and one of his glib remarks as some sort of irrefutable, scientific, academic-journal, peer-reviewed proof -- but the sheer unrewarded effort of it all that staggers the mind. To behave as if one were a certain sort of man, when one isn't and isn't likely of becoming, is patently absurd. It's like wearing uncomfortable and disliked undergarments when nobody is around.
Unless this is the dandiacal equivalent of mortifying the flesh (as undandy a concept as can be imagined) the whole argument collapses like a syphilitic Gaul overdosing on opium.
In order to save Blogspot some bandwidth, I'll skip to the end of the piece:
"So where are these modern-day dandies?, the weary reader is entitled to ask here toward the end. As we can see, in reality it is not so simple to find genuine dandies. Yet in virtual space, where there are far more opportunities for constructing an image of one’s own, the task is feasible. Partisans of both the theory and the practice of dandyism can easily find kindred spirits on the net, for there are quite a few sites which endlessly refine definitions, analyze canonical texts, and discuss the latest novelties of style."
Translation: "Lots of people can fake being a dandy on the Internet, much like lots of people can fake being a beautiful 22 year old nymphomaniac. You can find lots of people on the Internet who dressed like Adam Ant when they were, like you, confused loners in suburbia back in the mid 1980s. When you find them, you can all have a splendid time molding the definition of 'dandy' to cover wearing 20 year old Mani by Armani suits, spats, celluloid dickeys and pomegranate ascots. Then they all talk about how crimson brocade gambler's vests and a belt of field mice is what Beau Brummel would have worn had he been prescient enough. You mention detachable-collar envy. The End."
What I find most telling is that for all the perambulations, dissection, research, entreaties and effort, a scholarly exercise into the nature and causes of the dandy invariably (and I mean invariably) manages to miss the point in such a spectacular way as to be breathtaking. It is akin to gazing levelly at a giraffe and labeling it a middle-aged Filipino lesbian with rheumatism.
Most, if not all, of the men that we hold to be dandies would have just blinked dumbly had you read this to them and expected it to resonate within their bosom.
Much like they would politely decline to don the Emperor's New Clothes.
-J.

3 Comments:

Blogger M2 said...

A report with many perceptive insights. A tour de force, if you will, of acute observation mixed with valuable commentary. A non-stop thrill-ride into the heart of the academic beast in which hilarity ensues.

1:10 PM  
Blogger Joke said...

While we're logrolling, I must commend you on your insight, you cheeky bastid.

-J.

P.S. Besides, you know that you loved knowing what "prepuce" means.

9:55 PM  
Blogger hfdxhgh said...

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5:34 AM  

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