Sunday, June 14, 2009

The ideal of the gentleman

On his lunch break, Patrick Kurp has been reading Shirley Robin Letwin’s philosophical study of The Gentleman in Trollope (1982). “[T]he morality of a gentleman offers a more complete and coherent understanding of a human condition than any other known to me,” Letwin writes in her preface.

The gentleman appeals to Letwin because he represents an ideal of morality that is not easily reduced to rules. It is not an abstract or theoretical ideal. It cannot be written down in black and white. And as Cardinal Newman made clear in On the Scope and Nature of University Education (1852), his morality is nearly indistinguishable from his good manners: “The true gentleman . . . carefully avoids whatever may cause a jar or a jolt in the minds of those with whom he is cast—all clashing of opin­ion, or collision of feeling, all restraint, or suspicion, or gloom, or resentment; his great concern being to make every one at his ease and at home.” The gentlemanly ideal—for Newman, never inflicting pain—is not the product of a self-consistent ethical system at all. It is a literary construction, and as such represents one of the great triumphs of English literature.

If the OED is to be believed, the word gentleman had ceased to refer strictly to a man belonging to a family with social position and had come to be extended to his qualities as early as the late fourteenth century. Chaucer is the quoted source, but perhaps the best account is given two-and-a-half centuries later by Walton in The Compleat Angler. On the first day, Piscator sets out to praise angling—first for its antiquity, although it need not claim an ancient origin “to be, like virtue, a reward to itself.” Antiquity to angling is like social position to the gentleman:

I would rather prove myself a gentleman, by being learned and humble, valiant and inoffensive, virtuous and communicable, than by any fond ostentation of riches, or, wanting those virtues myself, boast that these were in my ancestors; and yet I grant, that where a noble and ancient descent and such merit meet in any man, it is a double dignification of that person. . . .To establish his dignity, a gentleman needs only learning, humility, valor, inoffensiveness, virtue, and plenty of conversation. Birth into the ranks of the genteel is a bonus.

By Austen’s day, the term had come so firmly to connote moral behavior that anyone who used it to make a social distinction, like Anne’s father, Sir Walter Elliot in Persuasion, exposes himself as a strutting buffoon:Wentworth? Oh! ay—Mr Wentworth, the curate of Monkford. You misled me by the term gentleman. I thought you were speaking of some man of property: Mr Wentworth was nobody, I remember; quite unconnected; nothing to do with the Strafford family. One wonders how the names of many of our nobility become so common.The feminist objection to the term is little better than Sir Walter’s in confusing social status with moral behavior. Years ago, when I committed the error of publicly defending the English ideal of the gentleman, a feminist who also happened to be a very good writer said in reply:I cannot strive for this ideal. I cannot be a gentleman. Had I lived [in the nineteenth century] I could not have so aspired. A “lady” had or aspired to very different qualities—some of them overlapped, but the ones that didn’t would have overshadowed the ones that did. . . . And yet which of these many qualities [of a gentleman] could not equally be aspired to, or attained, by a woman in reality? The continual repetition of the term gentleman obscures this possibility from even the modern reader; think how it must have rendered invisible the efforts, and even the successes, of women then. The ideal is fine. The identification of it with this particular name, Gentleman, is untrue to its own high universality. That was true then and it’s true now.Shirley Robin Letwin, who has no problem aspiring to the ideal, suffices to refute the feminist objection. The ideal of the gentleman, in Cynthia Ozick’s language, belongs to culture and not biology.

A better critique is that the gentlemanly ideal belongs to a particular culture. To be specific, it is an English ideal to which Americans cannot (and ought not) aspire. Some such critique is advanced by Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Every reader of the novel will recall, with a mixture of laughter and wincing, the feud between the Grangerfords and the Shepherdsons, which provides a “right smart chance of funerals” and has been carried on for so long that no one remembers the original cause. For Huck, though, the feud ends badly. From a perch in a tree, he witnesses the ambush of two Grangerford boys:All of a sudden, bang! bang! bang! goes three or four guns—the men had slipped around through the woods and come in from behind without their horses! The boys jumped for the river—both of them hurt—and as they swum down the current the men run along the bank shooting at them and singing out, “Kill them, kill them!” It made me so sick I most fell out of the tree. I ain’t a-going to tell all that happened—it would make me sick again if I was to do that. I wished I hadn’t ever come ashore that night to see such things. I ain’t ever going to get shut of them—lots of times I dream about them.Twain goes out of his way to emphasize that the pointless violence of the feud is closely associated with the gentlemanly ideal:Col. Grangerford was a gentleman, you see. He was a gentleman all over; and so was his family. He was well born, as the saying is, and that’s worth as much in a man as it is in a horse, so the Widow Douglas said, and nobody ever denied that she was of the first aristocracy in our town; and pap he always said it, too, though he warn’t no more quality than a mudcat himself.But gentlemanliness was not merely a question of birth. It also revealed itself in Col. Grangerford’s toilet (“he was clean shaved every morning” and “every day of his life he put on a clean shirt and a full suit from head to foot made out of linen so white it hurt your eyes to look at it”), his manner (“There warn’t no frivolishness about him, not a bit, and he warn’t ever loud”), his concern for others (“he was sunshine most always—I mean he made it seem like good weather”), and his moral qualities (“He was as kind as he could be”). What starts as gentlemanliness, however, ends in the nightmare that Huck is not “ever going to get shut of.”

The duke and the dauphin pretend to be gentlemen, but they do not travesty the ideal so much as they establish that the ideal, like the Shakespearean soliloquy mangled by the duke, is twisted beyond recognition when it is “torn from [its] high estate” (in the duke’s words) and transferred from England to America. In their most elaborate con, the duke and king impersonate the long lost brothers of the late Peter Wilks, a man of property who had “houses and land” and “three or four thousand in cash hid up som’ers.” The first thing they do, when they get their hands on the estate, is to sell the slaves for cash, breaking up a family by seeking to convert their new assets into quick cash,the two sons up the river to Memphis, and their mother down the river to Orleans. I thought them poor girls [Wilks’s daughters] and them niggers would break their hearts for grief; they cried around each other, and took on so it most made me down sick to see it. The girls said they hadn’t ever dreamed of seeing the family separated or sold away from the town. I can’t ever get it out of my memory, the sight of them poor miserable girls and niggers hanging around each other’s necks and crying. . . .The violence is accomplished without a single shot’s being fired, but the nightmare quality is very nearly the same as with the Grangerfords.

The other true gentleman in the novel, distinguished by his title, is Col. Sherburn. Huck encounters him deep in Arkansas. Sherburn is abused as a swindler and a hound by the town drunk, “the best naturedest old fool in Arkansaw—never hurt nobody, drunk nor sober.” Even so, Sherburn refuses to endure the insult to his honor. A “proud-looking man” and “the best dressed man in that town, too,” Sherburn warns the drunk that he has until one o’clock: “If you open your mouth against me only once after that time,” he says, “you can’t travel so far but I will find you.” The drunk continues his tirade, and Sherburn guns him down (“Bang! goes the first shot, and he staggers back, clawing at the air—bang! goes the second one, and he tumbles backwards on to the ground, heavy and solid, with his arms spread out”). A lynch mob forms and swarms to the shooter’s house. Sherburn steps out to confront the mob with a double-barrel shotgun in his hand. He says:The idea of you lynching anybody! It’s amusing. The idea of you thinking you had pluck enough to lynch a man! Because you’re brave enough to tar and feather poor friendless cast-out women that come along here [i.e. prostitutes], did that make you think you had grit enough to lay your hands on a man? Why, a man’s safe in the hands of ten thousand of your kind—as long as it’s daytime and you’re not behind him.This proud little speech offers something like the reverse of the feminist critique, because what Sherburn is affirming (“Your mistake is,” he tells the mob, “that you didn’t bring a man with you”) is what used to be called virtue. Sherburn is unmasking the word’s origins by translating it from Latin into English.

The idea of virtue derives from the Nicomachean Ethics, but Aristotle’s areté was corrupted when it entered the English language during the Renaissance. Consider, for example, Joseph Hall’s Characters of Vertues and Vices (1608). A truly noble man, Hall says,stands not upon what he borrowed of ancestors, but thinks he must work out his own honour; and if he cannot reach the virtue of them that gave them outward glory by inheritance, he is more abashed of his impotency than transported with a great name. Greatness doth not make him scornful and imperious, but rather like the fixed stars; the higher he is, the less he desires to seem; neither cares he so much for pomp and frothy ostentation as for the solid truth of nobleness. Courtesy and sweet affability can be no more severed from him than life from his soul; not out of a base and servile popularity, and desire of ambitious insinuation; but of a native gentleness of disposition, and true value of himself.Despite Hall’s out-of-date style, you can recognize in this description much that is familiar—even common—in English notions of virtue and how they are associated with gentlemanliness. Thus virtue is not inherited, but attained. A name is its effect, not its source. “Greatness” is not exactly synonymous with virtue, but unsurprisingly accompanies it. It is not an outward show, but an inward disposition. When it shows itself, it is indistinguishable from good manners. But in the end it is a man’s “true value of himself.”

All of these qualities can be glimpsed in Sherburn’s account of manliness. For the English, the virtuous man is the truly noble man, the gentleman. For Twain, though, he is the cold-blooded murderer of a harmless old fool or the patriarch of a family that asks its youngest sons to risk getting shot in a feud. The ideal of the gentleman can never be disentangled from a man’s social position, Twain is saying—drunks, illiterate boys, and ne’er-do-wells need not apply (unless they pretend to be gentlemen for the sake of a flim-flam). The gentleman may represent man at his highest level (the most complete and coherent understanding of a human condition, in Letwin’s phrase), but as Twain wrote elsewhere, man is the lowest animal. It is no accident that the noblest creature in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is the slave Jim, who is not considered fully human even by his friend Huck.

You don’t have to be, like Twain, a misanthrope to see the basic foreignness of the gentlemanly ideal. Even James was constrained to acknowledge that it belonged to the customs of Europe, which were at sixes and sevens with American customs. In Daisy Miller (published six years before Huck), Winterbourne tries to warn Daisy about flirting with Giovanelli: “[W]hen you deal with natives you must go by the custom of the place. Flirting is a purely American custom; it doesn’t exist here.” And when he finally meets Giovanelli, he realizes that the Italian is “not a gentleman,” but “only a clever imitation of one.” Winterbourne, however, is a Europeanized American. Daisy, who has arrived from Schenectady only a few months before, is still tightly bound by American customs. Consequently, she is incapable of “knowing the difference between a spurious gentleman and a real one.” She is incapable, because the knowledge is a cultural knowledge that she lacks.

In the end, I am self-divided over the question of the gentleman. On the one hand, the gentlemanly ideal serves as a welcome reminder that moral conduct is rooted in good manners. Every father knows this: the moral instruction of his children starts with teaching them to be polite. Waiting your turn, taking no more than your share, saying “please” and “thank you”—this is the beginning of wisdom, or at least the recognition of the moral autonomy of other people. On the other hand, the more closely moral conduct is identified with good manners the more easily it becomes confused with a particular code of manners. The English gentleman may, as Newman says, “carefully avoid whatever may cause a jar or a jolt in the minds of those with whom he is cast—all clashing of opin­ion, or collision of feeling,” but the Jewish intellectual seeks those out. Does it follow, then, that the Jewish intellectual cannot be a gentleman, or does it mean rather that conceiving a clash of opinions as unmannerly is to put the gentlemanly ideal beyond the reach of Jewish intellectuals, rendering their argumentative efforts, and even their success at arguing without gloom or resentment, invisible?

The trouble is that, when the Jew is represented in English literature, he is rarely shown to be a gentleman. And since the gentleman is a composite literary sketch of an agreeable man in a particular setting, since the gentlemanly ideal is what passes for good or noble or excellent in a specific culture at a specific time and in a specific place, the danger is that adherence to the local customs (dressed up as virtues) will be the loudest demand, even if it does violence to the unremarked subtleties of moral conduct.


nicole said...

I have nothing intelligent to say, except that this was a wonderful essay and I think will be a helpful thing for me to keep in mind in future reading. As silly as it may sounds, I thought of nothing more when I read the Newman quote than Bertie Wooster--and how it is almost always his impeccably gentlemanly conduct that lands him in the soup, as it were.