Saturday, September 23, 2006

To Be a Gentleman

I find Emerson's essay Manners to be rather disturbing. Perhaps I missed something somewhere and someone more enlightened than I can set me straight. But it seems to me that Emerson begins the essay by talking about the horrors of the "Feejee islanders getting their dinner off human bones," the Tiboos who live in caves, the Bronoos who don't have proper names, and other uncivilized "savages" to whom he compares civilized Man who visits these horrible regions to acquire dates, gold and ivory, and who, as "the purchaser and consumer can hardly be ranked in one race with these cannibals and man-stealers." He goes on to say how much better is civilization, how much more evolved and striving toward beauty. I am a bit shocked. I would have expected Emerson to find something redeeming in the lives of these others since they live honestly and simply and closer to nature. Even Montaigne, a couple hundred years earlier was sympathetic, often declaring it but an accident of birth that he was a French gentleman and not a cannibal. On the contrary, Emerson believes the gentleman to be the pinnacle, thus far, of human evolution. And while he insists that one does not have to be rich to be a gentleman, he implies that a gentleman's natural virtues, manners, and intellect will lead him to high society. Emerson's idea of a gentleman is not a monied man of leisure. A true gentleman is a man of spirit. He has more talent than most men and is possessed of "virtue, wit, beauty, wealth and power," or "personal force." A gentleman is a man of truth, "lord of his own actions," good-natured and benevolent. Emerson's gentleman

gives the law where he is; he will outpray saints in chapel, outgeneral veterans in the field, and outshine all courtesy in the hall. He is good company for pirates and good with academicians; so that it is useless to fortify yourself against him; he has the private entrance to all minds, and I could as easily exclude myself as him.
This passage brought to mind the scene in Pride and Prejudice where Miss Bingley regals the drawingroom with a description of an "accomplished lady." Elizabeth's reply is that she wonders that Miss Bingley can claim the acquaintance of so many accomplished ladies since her definition is so exacting. I wondered how Emerson could claim there were any gentlemen in the world who matched his requirements, especially since he keeps piling it on for several more pages. And indeed, eventually he admits that maybe "once or twice in a lifetime" we might meet a true gentleman. In my opinion once would be a surprise and twice would be quite a miracle. Emerson spends a good amount of time in this essay talking about Fashion. I am not able to give what he means a precise definition, but it seems that Fashion is inspired by the great, the gentlemen, and it is the attempt of us lesser humans to imitate the greatness of the one who inspired the Fashion. Fashion is also an "attempt to organize beauty of behavior." Emerson admits that to many Fashion is "only a ballroom code." However, "so long as it is the highest circle in the imagination of the best heads on the planet, there is something necessary and excellent in it." This is just all too strange for me.The idea of Fashion belonging to the imagination of the "best heads on the planet" is worrisome. I turn back to the beginning of the essay and the "savages" Emerson finds so appalling. I see their failure as lack of imagination in Emerson's eyes. I am inclined to turn it around and cite Emerson for his own failure of imagination in recognizing any kind of similarity of society or intelligence in the peoples he denigrates. Yes, I could make an excuse for him and say he was a man of his times, but I think it reveals not only a lack of imagination, but a lack of human sympathy and generosity of spirit. Emerson might be a man of ideas, but I find he lacks the heart which would have made those ideas complete and satisfying. Next week's Emerson: Gifts