Saturday, August 6, 2011

Living Well in the Slow Lane

One of my recurring preoccupations is the need to slow down and savor the fullness of the present moment. I admire what Eckhart Tolle has to say in The Power of Now and other books.

The speed of our culture, of course, makes all the more valuable those moments of solitude and silence where where ordinary time seems to stand still. This is the topic of a few of my recent articles.

Related to this idea--believe it or not--is a seemingly materialistic concern with living a life that is made into a work of art. I admire those friends of ours whose style of dressing, cooking, reading, and other entertainment marks them as discerning individuals who take the time to pay attention to every detail of their lives, from the decoration of their homes to the clothes they wear.

Often, simplicity is best. I recall a 2006 movie about Beau Brummel, hardly a model of spiritual living, yet a man whose pursuit of elegance made him more than a footnote in the history of modern culture.

As portrayed by James Purefoy, Brummel was far from the Oscar Wilde type of effeminized dandy; in fact, he revolted against the perfumed, powdered, colorful extravagance of the late 18th century fop, preferring instead understated, fitted clothes, dark suits with trousers, and a cravat--precursors of the modern man's suit with tie.

Unlike many is his time, Brummel was fastidious about his cleanliness, bathing every day (a novelty at the time), shaving every day, and spending much of his inherited fortune on clothes and the perfect maintenance of his outfits. It reportedly took him five hours to dress, and his friends, called (by Lord Byron) the Dandy Club, would come to watch him get dressed. (The dandy always needs an audience.)

Alas, his expenditures and gambling debts forced him to leave England in 1816 and live out his days in France in penury and madness. But before this sad end, B.B. devoted himself to one cause: taking pride in all that he did, including his conversation. He altered the concept of the gentleman, which became a paramount issue in the 19th century, as the emphasis shifted from inherited wealth to men who tried to revive some of the old chivalric ideals of honor with social accomplishments, the result of their own efforts.

Although Beau Brummel became one of the first men to be famous for being famous, accomplishing little more (some said) than being a witty clothes-horse, he helped advance the idea of a gentleman as one who takes great pains to do whatever he does well, with panache, and with that air of feigned indifference the Italians (following Castiglione) call sprezzatura. This cultivated nonchalance is the product of education, reading, imagination, good company, money, and attention to detail; and it is, I suggest, a hallmark of being civilized.

What bearing the dandy (in the true sense embodied in the life of Brummel) has on our culture with its great informality seems to be minimal; yet I like to think that the old idea (again from Castiglione) of making one's life into a work of art is still possible. It has something to do with paying attention to the everyday, making the ordinary things around us (food, clothes, furniture) into reminders of beauty and of the importance of caring passionately about getting the details right.

There is a reminder here, I think, of living fully in the present and enjoying what life offers, of valuing simplicity and the natural; so I can see the spiritual dimension of the slow movement in Italy and elsewhere, which has to do with caring enough to live well.

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