Magazine | August 16, 2010, Issue

Status Hiatus

Conservatism should recognize the value of a refuge from social hierarchy

No wonder the Curzons (George Nathaniel, KG, First Marquess Curzon of Kedleston and Viceroy of India, was one of them) placed Thalia, the muse of comedy, on the parapet of Kedleston Hall, their seat in Derbyshire. She bears witness to a truth that has long bedeviled philanthropists, reformers, and the tender-minded in general: Aristocracy always has the last laugh.

A curious fate has decreed that, as society grows ever more democratic, large numbers of people should become ever more aristocratic, in inward fantasy if not (to judge from contemporary manners) in external fact. Proust, we now know, was right when he predicted that society would “become secretly more hierarchical as it became outwardly more democratic.” Under our meritocratic stars, an exalted status is no longer the exclusive property of a sharply demarcated class; power and riches are open to all. This is the miracle of democratic civilization, and the foundation of its ideal of self-made success. But it can also, though more subtly, be a burden.

No sooner did it become theoretically possible for any man to obtain a higher status for himself than it became practically necessary for every man to try to do so. (If only to preserve his self-respect.) This has proved a blessing and a curse; we pay for our freedom to rise — and to fall — in the anxiousness we feel when we contemplate our place in the pecking order. So reflexive has this anxiousness become that we are often unaware that we are pronouncing, in some unacknowledged tribunal of our consciousness, a judgment on our own status or that of others. Calvin Trillin, observing the exegetical finesse people bring to bear on the marriage pages of the Sunday newspaper, concluded that it amounted to a kind of “Sunday morning scholarship.” “I happened to glance at the wedding announcements one Sunday,” he wrote in his 1999 book Family Man,

and realized that I could tell which one of the newly engaged young women whose pictures were shown had come out at a debutante cotillion that could be bought and which at a cotillion that was authentically snotty. The rest of the information needed for making distinctions between the backgrounds of the bride and groom was more or less at hand already — knowledge about the academic standards of various colleges and the animosity between various ethnic groups and the standing of various law firms and investment banks. I discovered that I could interpret wedding announcements in the way literary critics can deconstruct a passage of poetry or that Kremlinologists in the Cold War era could extract some meaning out of who was standing where on the Kremlin’s reviewing stand at the May Day Parade.

So dispassionately does Trillin analyze the status anxieties he describes that you might think him exempt from them, as indifferent to the comparatively trivial vanities he dissects as the antiquarian who studies with philosophical detachment the finer shades of difference between the rival fanaticisms of the Blues and the Greens in the hippodrome of Constantinople. “I happened to glance at the wedding announcements . . .” Ordinarily (we must infer), Trillin would not stoop to so frivolous a recreation, yet by a curious chance he possesses precisely the knowledge necessary to render the frivolous pages intelligible — he is deeply schooled in “the academic standards of various colleges and the animosity between various ethnic groups and the standing of various law firms and investment banks.” Come off it, man — confess yourself as passionately interested in status as (with the exception, perhaps, of a handful of saints and the more respectable crowned heads) the rest of us are.

#page#Proust was probably right when he said that those who most ostentatiously represent themselves as being above the rites and rituals of hierarchy — who affect to be as indifferent to them as to the order of precedence in an ant colony or a beehive — are typically those who are, in fact, most worm-eaten with status anxiety. M. Legrandin, the character in À la recherche du temps perdu who pretends to despise “snobbishness” and the “fashionable life,” is seen scraping acquaintance with the nobilities of the Faubourg Saint-Germain. “Thank you so very much for letting me come and see you,” Legrandin says after he has practically forced himself into the salon of the high-born Mme. de Villeparisis. “It is a pleasure of a quality altogether rare and subtle that you confer on an old solitary . . .” In the same way Trillin, who affects to analyze the status anxieties of the Sunday wedding pages with the cool disinterestedness of a zoologist, waxes warm when his own status is at issue. He arranged his 1993 book Remembering Denny contrapuntally around the contrast between Denny’s descent into failure and his own rise to success; the story of the one man’s capitulation is punctuated by little communiqués from the camp of the other man’s victories. “I was going back to do my first article for The New Yorker,” Trillin writes in the interstices of his narrative of Denny’s decline. “I had spent a year in the South as a reporter for Time. . . . I had published the University of Georgia piece as a three-part series in The New Yorker and as a book.”

The delight Trillin takes in his status as three-part-series man is surely justified, for the pleasure of making it is one of the great happinesses that life, which has so many sorrows and disappointments, can show. The difficulty is that every tremor of satisfaction we feel when we look down (upon those who are lower than we are in a particular hierarchy) is counterbalanced by the pain we feel when we look up (to those who are higher). The farther one climbs, the more vexing the problem becomes. The naïf who is ignorant of the esoteric distinctions Trillin described cannot be hurt by his inability to penetrate into realms of which he is oblivious. But so sensitive is the initiate to the subtlest gradations in the scale that his ineligibility for membership in a particular club — even his failure to be invited to a particular party — will figure to him as a catastrophe, as it did in the case of the fashionable woman who, having not received an invitation to Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball in 1966, threatened suicide.

The same anxiety explains why those who enjoy what is supposed to be an enviable status go to such lengths to preserve their preeminence by keeping down those who might otherwise rise above them. Nowhere are the hierarchies more jealously guarded than in democracies (or in societies that are becoming democratic), precisely because the degrees of rank there do not find as strong a sanction in law and principle as they do in rigidly oligarchic societies. George Santayana, who passed his early years in quasi-feudal Spain, found it “at first very strange” that Americans should have been more attached to hierarchy than Spaniards, and he was startled to find that the background of his highly cultivated Harvard friend Charles Loeser “cut him off, in democratic America, from the ruling society.” (Loeser’s father “kept a ‘dry-goods store.’”)

Unable to rely on the state to enforce their hierarchies, those who have caste advantage in free societies (or societies that are becoming free) must constantly change the social locks in order to make it more difficult for those who lack caste to fashion a satisfactory key. Perhaps the most ingenious of the devices the status “haves” have devised to demoralize the status “have nots” is status inversion. When a weapon in the social arsenal of status fails to hold the line, the elite will not merely discard it, they will ironically invert the old status hierarchy and disdain the thing that was once coveted, thereby disconcerting the aspirants who took so many pains to master it.

#page#No sooner did the well-to-do bourgeoisie in England, at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, find that it could compete with the old territorial aristocracy in matters of dress than the gentlefolk began to discard the powdered wigs and silk stockings that had formerly been comme il faut in the drawing rooms of London and Paris — yet they continued to dress their domestic servants in that style. What had been a badge of grandeur became a mark of lowliness. In the 20th century, the upper classes gradually abandoned morning clothes, but until quite recently kept their valets and butlers in them. “Ready-made clothes,” George Orwell wrote in 1944,

now follow the fashions closely, they are made in many different fittings to suit every kind of figure, and even when they are of very cheap cloth they are superficially not very different from expensive clothes. The result is that it grows harder every year, especially in the case of women, to determine social status at a glance.

The more chic the personage today, the more proletarian his style of casual dress as a rule will be: thus the haute-grunge style of TriBeCa and SoHo, and the Parisian haute-couture that obliges runway models to dress like tramps. The hedge-fund magnate comes coatless to the cocktail party; the blue-collar worker shows up, a little awkwardly, in a necktie.

Food used similarly to be a symbol of status: The paunches of Edward VII and William Howard Taft reveal the comfortable embonpoint of the prosperous gentleman. But foodstuffs have become ever easier to procure, and today it is the multi-millionaire who pays his chef to starve him, while the lower orders are routinely gluttonous. The same process can be observed in the devolution of refinement of language, perhaps the last redoubt of old-fashioned aristocracy. When Nancy Mitford composed Noblesse Oblige in the 1950s, it was possible to distinguish the cultivated habits of speech which separated “U” from “Non-U.” But even as she wrote, the masses were beginning to go to college, and just about anyone could learn to speak the King’s English. As a result, upper-class diction gradually ceased to be a mark of status, and today well-bred Englishmen often affect a pseudo-lower-class dialect known as “Mockney,” much as Ivy League students in America use the word “like” as a discoursive particle, in the way speakers of demotic dialects like California or Valley Girl English do.

For all the anxiousness of their position, the great ones of the earth will probably always have the last laugh. They have staying power. It is true that, unlike Lord Melbourne, who had a soft spot for the Order of the Garter “because there is no damned merit in it,” we in America prefer that our optimates earn their places through the sweat of their brows. But only the most naïve among us suppose it desirable to dismantle the hierarchies altogether and to open up, in the name of equality and brotherhood, the exclusivities they perpetuate. The status ladder is too essential to the continuance of the civilization. Adam Smith believed that man’s faith in the “pleasures of wealth and greatness” is largely a delusion. The attainment of status is not “worth all the toil and anxiety which we are so apt to bestow upon it.” On the contrary, Smith argued, the grandeurs we covet are mostly empty, and produce nothing more than “a few trifling conveniencies to the body.” Yet the very stupidity of our status inclinations, Smith said, is productive of a nearly boundless good:

It is well that nature imposes upon us in this manner. It is this deception which rouses and keeps in continual motion the industry of mankind. It is this which first prompted them to cultivate the ground, to build houses, to found cities and commonwealths, and to invent and improve all the sciences and arts, which ennoble and embellish human life.

#page#The evil to be feared, then, is not status anxiety itself, which is indirectly the cause of many blessings, but the disappearance of resources that — before the advent of democracy and universal freedom — offered a respite from the pressures of status competition. The status uneasiness of men in the Middle Ages was different from our own: If we are made anxious by our freedom to rise (and our freedom to fail), they were made uneasy by the hopelessness of their prospects in a world where social divisions were largely unbreachable. “When Adam delved and Eve span,” John Ball asked at the time of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, “who was then the gentleman?” This was the uneasiness of those who had every day to contemplate the pride and arrogance of their liege lords. Nevertheless, the medieval man was soothed by something we have lost, cultural havens in which status had little place.

The status-free zones of the Middle Ages flourished in the shadow of a church that preached the existence of a God who was “no respecter of persons” and who was indifferent to the worldly status of individuals. These zones offered something more than homilies on humility; under their auspices, a culture grew up quite different from that of the aristocracy. If the château proclaimed the high status of its master, the civic forums that grew up in the towns and villages were conceived in opposition to feudal hierarchy. French towns “rose against the feudal establishment,” Walter Pater wrote in his essay “Notre-Dame d’Amiens,” “and developed severally the local and municipal life of the commune.” The people of Amiens were typical; they

invested their civic pride in a vast cathedral, outrivalling neighbours, as being in effect their parochial church, and promoted there the new, revolutionary, Gothic manner. . . . Nay, those grand and beautiful people’s churches of the thirteenth century, churches pre-eminently of “Our Lady,” concurred also with certain novel humanistic movements of religion itself at that period, above all with the expansion of what is reassuring and popular in the worship of Mary.

No sooner did feudalism disintegrate, however, than the civic culture that grew up in opposition to it began to decay. When it became possible for everyone to compete for higher status, no one remained to perpetuate a culture that was too painfully associated with the lower status all were now free to escape. It is even now remarkable, in countries that have never known a feudal tradition, how little civic culture is to be found in them. The relics of civic artistry that give the humblest villages in France or Italy a high degree of charm find no counterpart in even the most prosperous towns of the United States.

The civic culture that was a by-product of the reaction against aristocratic hierarchy was highly artistic, but in contrast to the feudal arts, which exalted status, the civic arts soothed those who lacked it. Artistic motifs that depicted (in Pater’s words) a “tender and accessible” compassion inspired conduct concerned less with distinguishing “who’s in” from “who’s out” than with nourishing the affections and awakening the sympathetic virtues. A culture that is driven principally by concern for status is unlikely ever to develop a really satisfactory discipline of pastoral care. Status-driven culture may be, indeed often is, generous in its charity; but the largesse always reinforces the status of the donor, and the cultural artifacts of status-driven culture, being stained by pride, tend subtly to betray the motive in which they were begot. Philanthropists today pour millions of dollars into the various civic projects that bear their names, but the power to create a civic culture like that which was fashioned in the shadow of Chartres and the Parthenon — built for the most part by unknown hands in the name of a glory greater than themselves — is beyond us. Nor can status-driven culture bring people together in the way the older civic culture could: Its deepest raison d’être is to keep them apart.

#page#Ever since the days of Voltaire and d’Alembert, it has been the fashion to disparage a culture that had its origins in the benighted times, in the Dark and Middle Ages. Yet the institutions that were created then effected a revolution in the care of those whose status was low and whose anxiety was great. The delicate union of art and myth, philosophy and faith, enabled communities to suppress, if only spasmodically, the restless quest for status, and persuaded them to devote a portion of their cultural energy to the elaboration of an ideal of care almost maternal in its tenderness. Such voluntary associations as the confraternity and the sodality, the guild and the charité, were hospitable in the widest sense. In old French towns the hôtels-dieu — “hostels of God” — offered refuge to the weak and the sick, and to those who were “cast down amidst the sorrows and difficulties of the world.” In Venice, the Scuole Grandi — the “Great Schools” — admitted everyone but noblemen: Not only did they brighten the city’s piazzas by sponsoring civic festivals and processions, they distributed alms, succored paupers, and administered hospitals. The Low Countries had their frater-houses, the English shires their almonries and chantries.

The same soothing, status-free ideal inspired the mendicant orders whose adepts devoted themselves to the service of the community, the various friars (Black, White, Grey, Brown, Austin, Capuchin) who went forth into the marketplace to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and heal the sick. Supported by local communities, the friars, Dom David Knowles has written, “for at least two centuries surpassed all other members of the clergy in spiritual energy, doctrinal knowledge, and pastoral ability.”

Even in the smoky depths of Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, in the coal-hell of the English Midlands, the civic-pastoral system, though it was by then on its deathbed, still functioned. When Morel is too sick to work, the money nevertheless comes in. The family

had seventeen shillings a week from clubs, and every Friday Barker and the other butty put by a portion of the stall’s profits for Morel’s wife. And the neighbors made broths, and gave eggs, and such invalids’ trifles. If they had not helped her so generously in those times, Mrs. Morel would never have pulled through, without incurring debts that would have dragged her down.

Modern reformers whose thought has been molded by the French philosophes have sought to replace what survived of the old civic-pastoral culture with a more rational system of charitable care administered by experts in the service of the state. But the state has proved an unskillful shepherd, and the social-welfare agencies it has established have failed to fill the void that opened up with the disappearance of status-free zones of civic artistry. Nor, in a secular age like our own, can churches be expected to be the principal directors of a broad civic and charitable culture that overlooks worldly prestige. Yet before we shrug our shoulders and confess the impossibility of recreating, under modern conditions, a tradition that was long vital to the health and moral balance of civilization, we would do well to consider the consequences such a confession of impotence obliges us to accept.

Alexis de Tocqueville foresaw this difficulty; he wondered whether the modern democratic man, knowing only the narrow culture of status competition, would not find himself, at last, shut up “in the solitude of his own heart.” The novelists of the 19th century were no less conscious of the costs of egoistic fragmentation in a status-driven world. Where the civic-pastoral safety nets that are a by-product of status-free culture have failed, society, the novelists showed, is continuously exposed to new forms of soul-sickness and unsoothed anxiety. “Do you understand, sir,” Dostoevsky’s Marmeladov asks Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, “do you understand what it means when you have absolutely nowhere to turn?” The tragic characters of 19th-century fiction — Dostoevsky’s Marmeladov and his Snegiryov; the harried fathers in Dickens — have nowhere to turn.

#page#Other writers traced a relation between the decline of civic-pastoral culture and the rise of novel forms of psychopathology. Robert Louis Stevenson published Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1886, two years before the Whitechapel Murders; Arthur Conan Doyle brought out the first of his Sherlock Holmes mysteries in 1887. In many of the Holmes stories as well as in Stevenson’s novella, London itself emerges as the sociopath’s accomplice: The dark metropolis, with its anonymous crowds, its grisly ghettos, its swirling fogs made lurid by gaslight, becomes a metaphor for the civic estrangement, the failure of pastoral care, that have helped to make the evildoer’s career possible. Stevenson’s antihero, who commits murder and other acts of “cruelty, at once so callous and violent,” is the epitome of a type of “vile life” and character that seems scarcely to have existed two or three centuries ago, when the pastoral folds and fences were (to a greater degree than today) in place. There have been murderers throughout history, but the phenomenon of the lone psychopath intent on cruelty as well as bloodshed seems not to have been remarked until the 1860s, with the murders committed by Dumollard in Montluel and Lyons, by Joseph Phillippe in Paris, by Frederick Baker in England, and by Gruyo in Spain. These were followed by the crimes of Vincenzo Verzeni in the Bergamasco region of Lombardy in the 1870s, the Austin Axe Murders in Texas in 1884 and 1885, the Whitechapel Murders attributed to Jack the Ripper in 1888, and the Vacher Murders in France, which began in 1894.

The problem of the sociopath fascinates us because it seems to us the symptom of a larger problem, the most lurid manifestation of a more extensive breakdown. Only on such a supposition can we explain the bizarre and otherwise unaccountable overrepresentation of serial-killer dramas and murder shows on television and in popular culture generally. The shows are, after all, treatments of an exceptionally rare phenomenon, the small number of sick souls who in their estrangement from the community actually become murderous. But they exploit a more profound fear: Constantly interrupted by commercials hawking pharmaceutical remedies for such garden-variety decrepitudes as depression and insomnia, they finger the deeper apprehension that these run-of-the-mill morbidities may degenerate into pathological ones — that under the pressure of modern life the apparently innocuous neighbor or colleague or spouse will snap. Such, at any rate, is the storyline commonly retailed when yet another mass killing takes place. It may be that we dwell on the psychopath because we know, in some catacomb of the heart, that a civilization that is too exclusively concerned with the competition for status cannot provide that tenderness in culture which, if it cannot heal every sick soul, can at least help communities identify the sheep that are likely to stray.

The partisans of the Left seek to mitigate status anxiety by taxing the competition for status and, in effect, punishing success. Insofar as they succeed, they deprive society of the good that status competition produces. The prudent conservative, by contrast, recognizes the value of status-driven culture, and wishes to see it left largely untouched by the state. But he will nevertheless ask himself whether there might be a way, under modern conditions, to revive, at the local level, those zones of status-free culture which were one of the most beautiful features of the civilization of the past. The great ones of the earth will probably always have the last laugh; but there is no reason why, in the meantime, the rest of us may not be merry too.

– Mr. Beran is a contributing editor of City Journal. His most recent book is Forge of Empires 1861–1871: Three Revolutionary Statesmen and the World They Made.

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