Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Etiquette for critics

Happy families are all alike, but every generation is prudish in its own way. Since about the mid-’eighties—the term was first used in the New York Times in 1986, quoting a divinity student who used it as if it were readily familiar—my generation has been “politically correct,” which is our own way of being prudish. “Political correctness is a politicised version of good manners,” the philosopher Kenneth Minogue says in an interview, “offering power to the kind of meddlesome people who want to tell others how to behave” (h/t: Maverick Philosopher).

I wonder, though, if the more exact word is not etiquette. By themselves forbidden words are not immoral, after all, since there is no meaning (hence no offense against morality) without context. When my four-year-old son starts talking loudly in public about his “weiner,” I tell him not to use that word. “I have a penis,” he shouts. “You can’t use that word either,” I say—“not in public.” “What is ‘public’?” he asks. And I realize, with a sinking feeling, that I must instruct him in social appropriateness, not words.

Etiquette is the formal code of socially acceptable behavior, including verbal behavior. In an introduction to the second edition of Emily Post’s Etiquette (1922), Richard Duffy explains the word’s origin:

To the French we owe the word etiquette, and it is amusing to discover its origin in the commonplace familiar warning—“Keep off the grass.” It happened in the reign of Louis XIV, when the gardens of Versailles were being laid out, that the master gardener, an old Scotsman, was sorely tried because his newly seeded lawns were being continually trampled upon. To keep trespassers off, he put up warning signs or tickets—etiquettes—on which was indicated the path along which to pass. But the courtiers paid no attention to these directions and so the determined Scot complained to the King in such convincing manner that His Majesty issued an edict commanding everyone at Court to “keep within the etiquettes.” Gradually the term came to cover all the rules for correct demeanor and deportment in court circles. . . .It is equally amusing to think of etiquette as Scottish Presbyterianism laid down as law by the Sun King. In literary criticism, the equivalent term is decorum, but appropriateness in literature is a question of whether a text’s materials (genre, subject, style, characters) are coordinated and in agreement. It is, in short, an intrinsic question.

The older critic who is worried that a text is “really not acceptable” and sets out to Gribbenize it—or, for that matter, the younger critic who dismisses Shakespeare as a WASP, achieving the rare feat of combining historical ignorance with historical error—are doing something other than literary criticism. They are seeking entry into what Emily Post calls the Best Society, which is (in her words) an “association of gentlefolk, of which good form in speech, charm of manner, knowledge of the social amenities, and instinctive consideration for the feelings of others, are the credentials by which society the world over recognizes its chosen members.”

I prefer the fellowship of less gentle folk, who are not particularly afraid of hurting others’ feelings if it means saying things exactly as they must be said.


Interpolations said...

I salute your gerund noun and mourn, like you, the reality it reflects.