Sunday, April 22, 2007

The River of Nonchalance


Perhaps it is a symptom of advancing age, but I find I have less and less to say. Or perhaps I am only too aware of the shortcomings of my prose, arguments, facts, and mind. Or perhaps it is just that I am weary of it all - from neoconservative wars to school shootings - and feel I have little to add to the spate of words thrown up against our windshields and spattering our view of the passing terrain.
But may I mention that 'weary' derives from an older English word meaning "to trample over wet ground." Word studies and derivations pack morsels of history. If nothing else, the word reveals that our forebears didn't have cars - not for them any easy rolling over the landscape, bored, dulled, abstract, and indifferent.
Today I just want to make a slight observation, so common and ordinary as to be almost without interest. First let me mention that in a footnote in Volume I of A Study of History (and yes, this week, let me mention that I managed to acquire the entire set plus the Atlas - at a pretty penny, mind you, but such are the advantages of having a job) Arnold J. Toynbee considers the word "proletariat," which he says means "any social element or group which in some way is 'in' but not 'of' any given society... That is, it is used in the sense of the Latin word proletarius from which it is derived. In Roman legal terminology... proletarii were citizens who had no entry against the names in the census except their progeny (proles)... In other words, a 'proletariat' is an element or group in a community which has no 'stake' in that community beyond the fact of its physical existence."
My observation is simply this: in walking through Center City, Philadelphia, as is my daily custom going to and from work, I habitually observe that the overwhelming style of dress for both males and females is blue jeans. Now of course there is a "professional" element of the population that dresses professionally (though not necessarily smartly) and then... and then, well, there is everybody else. And almost without exception this everybody else looks just like "everybody else." They all wear the same thing and dress the same way.
Twice I caught a glance of a young woman dressed in a dress - one 'smart' and one 'hippie' - and almost felt like going up to them to congratulate them on being different.
Not that I dress that well myself. I do wear black jeans in inclement weather - and the blackness of the jeans seems to me slightly less egregiously proletarian than the standard blue. Nevertheless, I am your basic skirt and blouse (or gaucho and blouse) sensible-shoes type of woman, and no one, seeing me walk down the sidewalk, would ever look twice. Nevertheless, I feel keenly the absence of what used to be called style and the presence of what can only be called proletarian conformity in dress and appearance.
In thinking about this preponderance of proletarian style, I seem to see a people that is in the process of being eroded from citizenship to peasantry. Whatever these crowds may be, they do not give the impression of being stakeholders in society, nor do they appear to have given much thought to the 'public' as a state, condition or stage of life that elicits a particular form of response. But of course the 'public' as a particular facet of American life was eroded even before the pernicious cell phone arrived on the scene to finish the job. Our streets are now filled with hoboes of high tech - their ears wired, their mouths jabbering.
Perhaps I am too harsh. As I admit, I am hardly the model of successful wardrobe. But it seems to me that indistinguishability or lack of differentiation is another name for entropy. Human spiritual and moral life, developed through an awakened conscience, the effort to think, and the practice of some art or religion, is the only thing we have to counteract the entropy which is ever-present in human life but which seem to be pressing down upon American society with particular force at this time. And if I am too harsh about dress, it is because I sense that American society is being swept down the river of nonchalance - and so few seem even to be aware that they are drowning.
_______________________________________________
Web activities this week: A good read is Lawrence Auster's "The Political Religion of Modernity," published on his "View from the Right" website. I wrote Mr. Auster encouraging him to read my brother's essay, Urbino, which approaches this topic from a different angle. He wrote back to say that he would "check it out." Link to Urbino in previous post.
I posted a series of comments to a post on the "Suicide of the West" website, raising a few hackles and managing to get called, by different posters, a multiculturalist, a reactionary, insane and deluded. The proletarianization of American life is nowhere more in evidence than here - that is, the "shooting oneself in the foot" syndrome. Instead of addressing the impersonal or 'public' form of the message, such people can only attack the 'personal'-- that is, the messenger. It attests to the decomposition of community -- the result of a decline of training and confidence in argument, reason, and persuasion. These abilities are the 'public' face of the intellectual mind, and they are in a condition analogous to the blue-jeaned mobs that throng our streets. That is, slovenly, self-indulgent, complacent, and smug.

1 comment:

Andrew said...

I'm delighted to see that you're posting again, Caryl. I for one share your dislike for cell phones and the "hoboes of high tech" crowding our streets and schools!