Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Where are the Gentlemen?

A recent article on the death of the English gentleman (as an ideal) by Andrew Gimson raised a question for me: what do we mean by a gentleman in the US today? Is the idea obsolete?....... In a sense, yes, since the Victorian idea, based on a romanticized view of the medieval knight, insisted that a true gentleman is strong--both morally and physically--respectful of ladies and the elderly, polished and refined, never lies or uses bad language, is loyal, honest, and honorable. Such a man, John Ruskin wrote, should be "perfectly bred": Does this mean he had to be nobly born?.... Not necessarily. As long as he had a good education--Cardinal Newman's Idea of a University insists the a liberal education produces the true gentleman--and speaks well, dresses and acts well, he can pass as a gentleman. Even Pip in Great Expectations can learn to establish himself as a London man of respectability--the key Victorian virtue.... Much of this began, for the Victorians, with Dr. Thomas Arnold at the Rugby School who, between 1828 and 1841, sought to instill gentlemanly conduct along with other criteria at his famous "public" school. A gentleman did things because he instinctively knew they were the right thing to do. He acted with honor (whatever that meant). . . . Of course, such an idea is as impossible to define as it is to live. One advantage of the traditional gentleman was that it could be defined in a way to include yourself. You could behave like a gentleman without having a coat of arms, as in the original idea of the gentry. It was obvious then, as it was for Chaucer, that well-born men did often not behave in a "gentlemanly" way. . . . Actually, the history of the gentleman is more interesting and complex: the English courtesy books of the Renaissance were influenced by the Book of the Courtier by Castiglione, one of those amazing Italians who could do almost anything with a nonchalance he called "sprezzatura," an effortless ease, whether a man was functioning as a soldier, athlete, poet, lover, musician, or scholar. Castiglione, drawing on the chivalric ideal, created in a sense the modern idea of a gentleman, which dominated European thinking until at least World War II. . . . In recent decades, it seems, even if one learned to speak English with an Oxbridge accent, Englishmen, like men in the rest of the world, seem to value money, power, sexual success and all those other assets of the popular culture that are miles away from the noble Victorian notion of impeccable taste and courtesy in the conduct of life, the product of a classical education. . . . In this country, although English ideas of the gentleman had some sway, it is not easy to find the gentlemanly ideal in the popular culture. Our boys are raised on a diet of media warriors, rock stars, drug-enhanced athletes and pitiful politicians; and they certainly cannot learn much about gentle masculinity from their friends. . . . If you pick up a copy of GQ (once known as Gentleman's Quarterly), you are more likely to find images of tough and cool models with designer stubble, mixed in with a few andogynous models from Milan (or perhaps computer-generated). And the articles in the Advice to Men columns, as with Esquire and other such men's magazines, are about how to attract women, what to do with them in bed, how to make big bucks, how to look cool while intoxicated, how to have perfect abs, etc. . . . As I thought about gentlemen in America, I thought for some reason of the old chivalric South in Gone with the Wind, where Ashley Wilkes is a gentleman and Rhett Butler is definitely not, just as Scarlett is no lady: the artificial notions of the lady, proper and prim, seem as out of date, as those of the gentleman in the true sense. . . . So what is the true sense? I asked several friends. Having once taught a course on Masculinity in Literature, I remember how rigid the unwritten code of modern manhood can be, on the streets, in the classroom, at the workplace. The sociologist who designed and taught the course with me writes that there is always, in the idea of a gentleman, a mix of toughness and aggression along with the gentler aspects of manhood. He reminded me that the masculine ideal promoted in our culture does not havae much to say about ideal man, who, in my way of thinking, is strong in character but gentle in spirit. . . . He is not only polite but caring and helpful; education and status have less to do with the contemporary American gentleman than in the past. I have known more than a few professional men--lawyers, doctors, academics--who were well read and knowledgeable but morally unsound and boorish in behavior. . . . Another friend helped me sort out where young men growing up learn gentlemanly arts in today's society. He wrote: "my mother taught me to be a gentleman." And this means for him respecting one's elders, showing good manners, speaking when spoken to, opening doors for ladies and the elderly, standing up when ladies enter, carrying their heavy packages. It is a series of lessons learned in the home, probably with a little help from the nuns who taught him and from Emily Post. This resembles my own growing up. . . . I suspect that Emily Post, inheriting a tradition of etiquette from earlier times,codified the notion of what a lady is, and this trickled down to include her male counterpart--except taht it is more complicated than this. The fear that men have about all the refinement is found in much literature: think of Tom Sawyer and other pieces by Mark Twain, who wants little to do with educational and religious polishing during his rebellious youth. . . . At Rugby School as in Renaissance Italy, the gentleman has to be an athlete, implying competition and physical prowess, yet he must appear in society to be tamed, less the violent warrior of the playing field (or killing field) than the responsible, confident, reliable, knowledgeable, hardworking, steady and of course handsome partner for any girl (do we still call them ladies?). No wonder gentlemen are so hard to find. . . . As in the past, the ideal is impossible to realize, but the educational effort to refine the wild boy into something resembling the well-mannered gentleman goes on. . . . . I would welcome comments on this topic as I prepare to continue the discussion: schiffhorst@yahoo.com.

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