Perhaps one of the more obvious traits about a few recent non-events in the critical community is that they display what might best be called un-gentlemanliness–that is, they cross the border from discreet, even-handed discourse into unnecessary namecalling and rudeness. To argue, from no ground, that an opinion about contemporary criticism is the product of some kind of personal failing, that a long-dead person was a “moral idiot”–these would be frankly unbecoming of those who would consider themselves, for want of a better word, gentlemen.
This is a matter of our contemporary culture, which through Facebook and other communication seems to value self-assertion (one can’t call it self-expression) rather than a healthy self-doubt or restraint, which are among the hallmarks of the gentleman. In his book How to Be a Gentleman, John Bridges lists the “10 Eternal Truths of the Gentlemanly Life,” and they’re worth noting:
1. A gentleman says “please” and “thank you,” readily and often.
2. A gentleman does not disparage the beliefs of others—whether they relate to matters of faith, politics, or sports teams.
3. A gentleman always carries a handkerchief, and is ready to lend it, especially to a weeping lady, should the need arise.
4. A gentleman never allows a door to slam in the face of another person—male or female, young or old, absolute stranger or long time best friend.
5. A gentleman does not make jokes about race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation; neither does he find such jokes amusing.
6. A gentleman knows how to stand in line and how to wait his turn.
7. A gentleman is always ready to offer a hearty handshake.
8. A gentleman keeps his leather shoes polished and his fingernails clean.
9. A gentleman admits when he is wrong.
10. A gentleman does not pick a fight.
Although these may seem facile and superficial, easily assailable, each one reflects a certain internal attitude towards life and community that is then expressed externally through manners and personal relationships. Respect, kindness, encouragement, and gratitude, when such are due, which is nearly always; an open-mindedness and willingness to concede points when necessary (Bridges says one “should not disparage,” not one “should not argue with”); a due consideration to the feelings of others; an awareness of one’s surroundings; the admirable traits of patience and generosity–I would hope that these are laudable qualities in any culture or situation, not mere snobbery or elitism. Indeed, the opposite qualities would seem to express that snobbery and elitism more readily.
It has been my privilege to meet personally several artists whose work I first encountered and admired from a distance. What has struck me most often is how gentlemanly, in all the respects I mentioned above, that the most admirable artists have been in my presence. However they may have conducted themselves in private, in public–or in meeting strangers like myself–they have been unswervingly considerate, amiable, and open-minded, even when their work, like William Gaddis’s, has been most scathingly critical and acidic.
I have also had the opposite experience. Meeting critics and artists whose work I’ve admired, then discovering them to be personally arrogant, dismissive, and discourteous, was something of a rude awakening in the exact sense of that term. Oddly, perhaps, when I return to their work after these personal interactions, I’ve found it to be more flawed, more uneven than before–testimony, perhaps, to the presence of the artist, or the person, in the art. (This, by the way, is quite different from my attitudes to the work of those more gentlemanly writers I describe above. I hold the work of these writers in the same high estimation that I originally did, of course, but no higher.)
The same appears to be true of writers long dead. In her memoir of Samuel Beckett, Anne Atik allows us access to Beckett’s more personable, everyday self, and the single most obvious quality of the man that emerges from this fine remembrance is the man’s gentlemanliness (a quality, sad to say, not shared by many of those who claim to admire Beckett’s work; these shall remain nameless). The same considerate and compassionate attitudes that Beckett demonstrated to both friends and strangers, I think, are mirrored in the consideration and compassion that Beckett shows for the characters in his novels and plays–indeed, for his attitude towards the world itself and its inhabitants of all backgrounds.
I may offer two final caveats to this praise of gentlemen. First, there are those for whom gentlemanliness is only skin-deep: indeed a performance, masking an arrogance and selfishness that lies just beneath the skin. But this is not a failing of the idea of gentlemanliness itself. It has been my experience that gentlemanliness can also be (and most often is) the product of a deeply-held compassionate and self-effacing perspective on the world.
Second, not all gentlemen are gentlemen all the time. Being human, they are subject to passions and missteps that may be expressed in rudeness, in contemptuousness, in poor manners generally. But these passions and missteps only serve to remind them of their own personal weaknesses. And though they acknowledge these weaknesses, they do not allow these weaknesses to dictate their behavior. Though the gentleman will forgive these failings in others, he will find it much harder to do so in himself. In short, he tries harder next time.
Given the word gentleman itself, it is worth noting that we should place emphasis on the “gentle” and not on the “man.” But I fear that in artistic and critical communities today, as everywhere else, the emphasis is being placed on quite the wrong syllable. As for me, well, I’m trying harder.