In Snobbery Joseph Epstein has written as good a book as it’s possible to write without quite understanding your subject. It is full of things I needed to know; for instance, that Wolcott Gibbs once described Lucius Beebe as “menacingly well-groomed.” (Gibbs, who is undeservedly forgotten, wrote a devastating parody of early Time-style, when the sentences all ran back to front. The only thing you need to know about Beebe is that when he went in for minor surgery an acquaintance remarked that she hoped the doctors “had the sense to open Lucius at room temperature.” (“Sense,” where “taste” is meant, is a brilliantly snobbish touch in its own right. (I’m running low on parentheses here.)))
As I was saying. We need more than funny stories and smart remarks. We need a taxonomy, and this Epstein fails to provide. The trouble begins, as usual, with definitions:
…I take the snob to be someone out to impress his betters or depress those he takes to be his inferiors, and sometimes both; someone with an exaggerated respect for social position, wealth, and all the accouterments of status; someone who accepts what he reckons to be the world’s valuation on people and things, and acts — sometimes cruelly, sometimes ridiculously — on that reckoning; someone, finally, whose pride and accomplishment never come from within but always await the approving judgment of others. People not content with their place in the world, not reconciled with themselves, are especially susceptible to snobbery. The problem here is that at one time or another, and in varying degrees, this may well include us all.
Epstein buries the two essential features of snobbery here beneath a mass of irrelevance. First, the snob exaggerates, as Epstein says. Sometimes he exaggerates the importance of whatever form his snobbery takes; always he exaggerates the importance of himself. Sometimes he develops a preposterous vocabulary to buck himself up; oenophiles, for instance. Always he develops a thick rulebook of what ought or ought not to be said or done, Talmudic in its complexity and every bit as arbitrary.
Second, snobbery is social. Snob is as snob does; he needs a victim, or a co-conspirator. To think oneself superior is not enough; we all have such flashes. Action is character, wrote Fitzgerald, who knew quite a bit about snobbery, and snobbish action makes the snob.
Everything else in the passage is wrong. Betters and inferiors have nothing to do with snobbery. The snob is perfectly happy to impress those he regards as his equals — in fact he usually regards his betters as his equals — and the notion, which Epstein expands later on, that there are distinct classes of upward- and downward-looking snobs is absurd. I’ve never met a snob who wasn’t both and I doubt he has either. German has an evocative word for it, Radler, or cyclist, after his posture of bent back above and kicking legs below. You need both to ride the bike.
It is a poor snob indeed whose judgment dovetails with “the world’s valuation.” The snob appeals, with an airy wave of the hand, not to society but to Society — to whatever circle he aspires to join or fancies himself a member of, to everyone who is anyone, to tout le monde, as Tom Wolfe used to put it, meaning just the opposite. The aim is to please your betters (or equals) and discomfit your inferiors, and for this the common judgment will hardly do. Finally Epstein throws up his hands, all but saying that everyone is a snob at least sometimes, in which case no one is a snob, and why are you writing this book, exactly?
Errors in theory, errors in practice:
I recall…the meeting of two distinguished intellectual figures — one a scholar of high international reputation, the other a Nobel novelist — who were joined by an administrative vice president at the university where both men then taught. After ten or fifteen minutes, the vice president departed, and the scholar said to the novelist, “Ah me, I see that X is suffering from delusions of equality.”
Is this a tale of snobbery or merely a devastatingly witty remark? I think the latter. First, because the remark wasn’t made in front of the person at whom it was aimed. And second, because (as I happen to know) that person is himself a considerable snob, a double snob actually, one who sucks up to his betters and looks down on those he takes to be beneath him.
Of course this is a tale of snobbery. Epstein’s reasons for thinking otherwise dissolve in the light, which often happens to people who misdefine their terms. You can’t snob on people behind their backs? Or snob on other snobs? Or be witty and snobbish at the same time? Epstein acquits the scholar because he dislikes the victim, and admires the remark. The story has everything: the toadying implication that you and I are of a piece and he is not; the victim, and the attempted co-conspirator; and, especially, the exaggerated self-regard. You know what the novelist (Saul Bellow, I’m guessing) was thinking? Bellow was thinking: And where the fuck do you get off? Great novelists, of whom Bellow is one despite his Nobel Prize, are, approximately, to scholars, even scholars of high international repute, as scholars are to vice-presidents of administration.
We cannot make shift with a mere great novelist and distinguished scholar either; we must have a “Nobel novelist” and a scholar of “high international reputation,” which is snobbish by Epstein’s lights, if merely pathetic by mine. Noam Chomsky is a scholar of high international reputation, and Dario Fo won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Proust, whom Epstein correctly regards as the world’s foremost authority on the topic, comes close when he says that snobbery is “admiration of something in other people unconnected with their personality.” Saying that someone is morally vicious, or stupid, or lazy, or incompetent at his job, may be nasty but is never snobbish, because these matters are integral, unlike his taste in beer or the cut of his suits. The snob is consumed by inconsequence.
Snobbery is to exaggerate one’s own importance at someone else’s expense. The snob syllogism — you are my inferior in such-and-such a matter, therefore you are my inferior — seems to be missing a premise somewhere. Note that one can be a snob about matters other than taste. Ancestral snobbery is a well-known example. Racism is another, although it no longer seems so, since it has gone out of fashion, to be replaced by an equally snobbish “respect for all cultures.” Nothing is quite so declassé as yesterday’s snobbery.
Food snobs, wine snobs, clothing snobs, school snobs, ancestor snobs, all crowd the lowest rung of the snob ladder. “Snob,” in ordinary use, invariably refers to this crude type, which I will call the snob of matter. Such snobs rarely stick to their last; they combine concerns, which produces, somehow, an effect less of union than of intersection. It never crosses the mind of the snob of matter that other, better people simply do not give a damn about the microscopic aspects of life that engross him. He can always be trumped with a well-played inverse card. Stephen Potter, whose Upmanship books (missing from Epstein’s lengthy bibiliography) are, in the guise of how-tos, among the most acute books on snobbery ever written, advises a counter-gambit against the wine snob:
I shall always remember Odoreida thrusting aside sixteen founding members of the Wine and Food Society with a ‘Well, let’s have a real drink,’ and throwing together a mixture which left them breathless. ‘Pop-skull, they called it in Nevada,’ he said, and poured two parts of vodka into one of sherry and three of rum, adding a slice cut from the disk of a sunflower.
Here we ascend to snobbery of manner, which is where all the action is, in its best-known form, inverse snobbery. Among bloggers Scott Chaffin, The Fat Guy, has mastered this tactic. By the time you’ve absorbed his assurances that he’s jes a bumpkin who dunno nuthin about nuthin he’s already removed the shiv from your back and wiped the blade. The Two Blowhards, Michael in particular, have raised inverse snobbery to high art. They constantly bemoan their “lousy Ivy League” education, the glorious fruits of which can be picked daily on their site — the most glorious, perhaps, being the liberty to sneer at an Ivy League education. Michael happily poor-mouths it in post after post, with references to his “addled” and “fuzzy” mind and failed career in journalism. But should any reader be so naive as to take these demurrals seriously and question his authority, out will come the whip hand. Scott, Michael, and Odoreida all tread in that perilous no-man’s-land between defense, which is never snobbish, and offense, which is.
Snobberies of manner can become dizzying. The most primitive is the political snob, secure that his advanced views show him to be a step up in human evolution. (Tim Hulsey demonstrates this to be literally true.) There is the self-knowledge snob, who knows only that he does not know, and that’s more than you can say. The philosophical ancestor of the self-knowledge snob is, of course, Socrates; Plato reports his conversations but the number of Athenians who punched him in the mouth has, alas, gone unrecorded. The self-knowledge snob often hangs about with his first cousin, the self-hatred snob, whose literary antecedents include Swift and Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, who employs his own perceived worthlessness to scourge the rest of the race. Fortunately you never see that kind of thing around here, no sirree.
Thus the disease. Epstein despairs of a cure:
You will have to take my word for it when I claim that I never act on what is my downward-looking snobbery, and that in everyday actions I am not a snobbish person. It is only in my thoughts that my snobbishness lives so active a life. Yet why can’t I leave it alone, let it go, continue to make my little distinctions, social observations, but do so without feeling just a touch of corrupting snobbery when going about it?
Many adjectives spring to mind to describe this passage, “searching” not among them. What happened to “acting on that reckoning” anyway? It’s all very New Testament for a writer who makes such a point of being Jewish, and it had a familiar ring. Then I remembered: Jimmy Carter! Committing adultery in his heart as a nation snickered.
W.H. Auden, who thought himself a Christian, claims one warm June evening in 1933 to have been sitting with three colleagues — fellow teachers at a boys’ school, two women and a man — and for the first time his life he “knew exactly — because thanks to the power, I was doing it — what it means to love one’s neighbor as oneself… [I] recalled with shame the many occasions on which I had been spiteful, snobbish, selfish, but the immediate joy was greater than the shame, for I knew that, so long as I was possessed with the spirit, it would be literally impossible for me deliberately to injure another human being.” The heightened feeling, he says, continued for roughly two hours, and lasted, in diminishing force, for two more days.
After which I guess he got the all-clear to resume stealing candy from children.
What Auden apparently had undergone is the experience, or vision, of agape, or Christian love feast, in which one feels a purity of love for all human beings, without invidious distinctions of any kind, the powerfully certain feeling that one’s fellows are worthy of the same respect, sympathy, and consideration as one pays oneself. Wholehearted love with the power of pure objectivity behind it, how glorious it must have been to undergo — and as Auden was too honest not to add, all but impossible to maintain.
Give Auden some credit: he kept warm for his mystic vision, unlike Tolstoy, who insisted on walking Christ-like, heart full of love for the Russian peasantry, into a raging blizzard to his death. But we need nothing so drastic. Instead of loving the peasants more, we might try loving ourselves a little less. Or at least a little more realistically.
(Update: Scott Chaffin comments.)