If there’s a theme that runs through what I admire about Gordon Ramsay’s restaurants, Alexander McQueen’s fashion, Howard Barker’s plays, Marilyn Nonken’s music, it is something that might be subsumed under the term “radical elegance,” and if I ever write another book I imagine that would be its title.
It is important, in this class-based society, to note that my use of the word elegance does not assume socioeconomic aristocratic elitism, though elitism itself does have something to do with it; ultimately it has nothing to do with money, for elegance cannot be bought; a beast in an expensive tuxedo or eating an expensive meal is still a beast. Elegance is a grace born of ascetic discipline, expressed through art, the body, and behavior — it is a means of making the world a more aesthetically significant place, through self-presentation, a regard of the dignity of others, and action and movement. Elegance regards noise and violent, undisciplined, unexpected motion as an incursion on the integrity of the individual self. The expression of wit and insight within an elegant context is a validation and recognition of imagination among a coterie — it assumes not a democratic levelling familiarity among equals, but an acceptance that listeners are able to translate wit, observation, and insight into something significant for themselves. Like aesthetic experience, it raises us from commonality into something beautiful, attractive, and unique.
In addition to the word radical I would want to further limit the definition of “elegance” with the adjective critical. Because self-regard is such a central ingredient of elegance, it assumes not only self-assertion but also self-effacement. It is as much about attention and listening as it is about speaking; it is about consideration of one’s own appearance and ideas as much as that of others.
Elegance is a category of eudaemonics — how to live, which I wrote about in “Eudaemonics in an age of decline” — and therefore bears its own kind of metaphysics; it also, paradoxically, affects what happens in the privacy of bedrooms and well as the public arena of ballrooms. Elegance carries with it a sensual, and therefore erotic, charge in the oscillation of its restraint and surprising freedom. It is an extension of what I wrote about in Word Made Flesh; and this radical, critical elegance may also explain the mystery of the waltz. If I ever get around to writing it, it may be quite a book.