Easy and Elegant Life

The Search for Everyday Elegance and the Art of Living Well.

Les Réponses d’Escalier


Even the dog is sneezing today.

I had an interesting conversation over the weekend with a very well-tailored (trad) man who made my mumblings about things elegant sound incoherent.

He posed the question, why and when did it become fashionable to be anti-intellectual? To be ashamed of being from a certain North-Eastern tradition of (liberal?) thought? When did some of us become “traitors to their class?”

I felt as if I were living a Whit Stillman movie. This fellow was definitely of the UHB variety. The sort who gets paid to think about things and then turn those thoughts into money.

My argument, if it could be called that, was far from coherent as my thoughts are, more often than not, highly disordered.

Well that and I was severely distracted but the cut and cloth of his suit. Exact in cut. Luxurious in chalk striped grey flannel. Just the slightest break over the highly polished oxblood brogues.

I’ve since figured out what I wanted to say. (The French call this l’esprit d’escalier**… the thoughts you have on the way down the staircase well after the fact.) I think it’s sort of a reverse snobbery. We all want to be one of the cool kids at school. No one wants to be the egghead. Funny thing is, the older one gets the more one appreciates intelligence. Intelligence is the bedrock upon which is built wit, for example.

Now, I make it a business to take lightly those things that most take very seriously and seriously the lightest of subjects. But put me in a room with the very educated and I will happily mix the drinks and steep in the heady conversation washing over me, like art.

But the thing that really stuck with me after all the champagne was his statement about settling. “Who wants just O.K.?” he asked. “Have either the best or the worst. Keep the best and walk away from the worst.” Or words to that effect. He then espoused the opinion that building a rich fantasy of one’s life is the best hedge against the mediocre.

And that statement put me in mind of something Gerald Murphy once told Fitzgerald: “…for me only the invented part of life is satisfying, the unrealistic part. …The invented part, for me, is what has meaning.” *

Just a few thoughts from Petrie House (Slogan: Breeding the Very Nastiest Winter Viruses for You and Your Family.) Be sure to cultivate your legend this Christmas. It is a season for believing, after all.

*Amanda Vaill, “Everybody Was So Young” pg. 226

** thanks Aesthete, for the correction.

16 thoughts on “Les Réponses d’Escalier

  1. A couple of weeks ago, some friends and I were having a similar conversation regarding the “anti-intellectual”. We were more along the lines of, “at what point in time did we start worshipping stupidity?” We couldn’t quite put a finger on the exact date, but came to the conclusion it was just before the turn of the century, around 10 years after the death of customer service, which we put at 1990.

  2. Great minds think alike. I was at a party last weekend when we were discussing the modern irony of the celebrity; there is truly little worth celebrating in those garnering the greatest celebrity. For every one Stephen Hawking there are a dozen Paris Hilton’s. I suppose it’s a good sign that people are still asking these sorts of questions.

    Feel better, I have two embodiments of the cold and flu commercials convalescing around my house as well.

  3. It’s all around. i was recently told in feedback after an interview for a job I was not offered that my application had been too perfect and I had come across as too intelligent. Their loss! Maybe I am just turning into my father but I am less and less inclined to suffer fools gladly…

  4. Merci bien, Aesthete. As the years go, so does my command of the language. Which must, at this point, fall somewhere into the primary school category. Mrs. E. would have been appalled had she read this. The squires of Brickland, were amusing, though. And I’m glad I didn’t attempt the French there to add to the proof of my general ignorance.

  5. Ah, you are speaking my language! Huzzah for Intelligence. And Hooray for his charming brother, Wit. The second does not exist without the first.

    Feel better. The same dreadful wind blew through my house last week, leaving me with a voice not unlike Lauren Bacall. Could be worse, I suppose.

  6. Might I suggest “In Defense of Elitism” by William A. Henry III? I think the jacket blurbs describe it quite well, “Bracing…eloquent testimony that what killed liberalism in this country is a deeply misguided egalitarianism.” A fascinating, well written book, I think it addresses this topic head on.

  7. The question of Anti-Intellectualism in America has a long history – see “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life” by Richard Hofstadter, copyright 1962, and unless your Trad acquaintance can read/speak/write passable Greek and Latin, he, too, is an embodiment of the declining standards of intellectualism in the U.S. – any graduate of a university embodying the “North-Eastern tradition of (liberal?) thought” 100 years ago would have had at least a passable knowledge of these “dead” languages. Your intellectual acquaintance needs to go back and read Tocqueville and see descriptions of American anti-intellectualism dating to the circa. 1830s.

    Arguably, it is the “North-Eastern tradition of (liberal?) thought” which has been at the forefront of diminishing intellectualism (at least in any serious context, e.g., I would argue that preparing a dissertation on the socio-economic plight of the transgendered in post-Mao China is not a serious intellectual work). Does anyone seriously doubt that a humanities major from an Ivy League school was better educated (i.e., a larger corpus of knowledge about his world and its history) and a more disciplined and rational thinker than a recent graduate? I’m assuming when you refer to “North-Eastern tradition of (liberal?) thought,” you mean the politically narrow meaning of liberal, i.e., politically left thought because the North East certainly has no monopolistic claim on liberal in the liberal arts context and it’s most noted colleges/universities have been at the forefront of abandoning the concepts of a real liberal arts education and a grounding in the paideia for well over 40 years.

  8. Erick, thank you for your well-thought out comment. It was a joy to read (as are all of my comments. I am very lucky.) I didn’t think to ask about what he meant by “liberal.” From the context, I took it to mean a certain “broad-mindedness” or “progressiveness.” A tradition of active questioning rather than an acceptance of the established views of the day. But I may have been reading into things.

    I’ll head out to look into Mr. Hofstadter’s work. Thanks. I enjoy scratching my brain from time to time.

  9. A great post, thank you.
    I used to make a living as an academic and I studied a number of cultural trends, such as the anti-intellectualism you refer to. Much of the trend, I believe, is motivated by a desire to democratize everyday life. Many of us want – with good reason – a fair and equitable society. Unfortunately, in our desire to be democratic we seem to have thrown out the good with the bad.

  10. Hello Keith and welcome. Thanks for the comment. I said as much to the gentleman, but he didn’t seem to be buying my argument. It seemed clear enough to me… but did I mention that there was an open champagne bar? Happy New Year.

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