If you think psychiatrists are a difficult lot, try dating one. No, skip that. That’s a story for another time, and she was a psychotherapist anyway, with a clientele that included the stars and the executives at the major motion picture studio on the other side of the hill. So she wasn’t the real thing. But the endless talk about self-esteem issues and unresolved conflicts from childhood and embedded dysfunctional cognitive narratives was exhausting – and that was just about herself, before she moved on to you or anyone else. And it didn’t help that she was so very British – oddly witty and loquacious. In the end it was best to assume a concerned and thoughtful look and ask prompting questions, taking the last few words said and turning them back into a question – so you thought that was the wrong thing to do? That wasn’t very hard once you got the hang of it, and you could sort of tune out and think about the Dodgers or something, generously disengaged while she worked out whatever it was.
But damn, that’s just what therapists do. Needless to say, that relationship didn’t work out. Socrates may have said the unexamined life is not worth living, but sometimes you just need to give it a rest.
But there are cool psychiatrists, like Theodore Dalrymple. Actually that’s the pen name of Anthony (A.M.) Daniels – the famous British writer and retired prison doctor and psychiatrist. His philosophical position is “compassionate conservative” – he’s perpetually grumpy with liberal and utopian thinking. But you have to love his pseudonym, as he says he “chose a name that sounded suitably dyspeptic, that of a gouty old man looking out of the window of his London club, port in hand, lamenting the degenerating state of the world.”
Cool – that’s Samuel Johnson as depicted by James Boswell. And Dalrymple is an atheist, but he has criticized anti-theism because to “regret religion is to regret Western civilization.” In short, he doesn’t like nonsense. And that’s why, if you pick up a copy of the latest issue of In Character: A Journal of Everyday Virtues you find him discussing two topics at the heart of a lot of the nonsense about modern life. It’s Self-Esteem versus Self-Respect – and the nonsense abounds:
With the coyness of someone revealing a bizarre sexual taste, my patients would often say to me, “Doctor, I think I’m suffering from low self-esteem.” This, they believed, was at the root of their problem, whatever it was, for there is hardly any undesirable behavior or experience that has not been attributed, in the press and on the air, in books and in private conversations, to low self-esteem, from eating too much to mass murder.
And of course Hollywood runs on low self-esteem. It drives the great performances, or at least the award-winning performances. “You like me, you really like me!” Those were Sally Field’s words in her acceptance speech in 1985 when she won her Oscar. And although it was the second time she had won, it was obvious that this woman was driven by deep insecurities. But for one brief shining moment her low self-esteem was assuaged. Why else do people get into the business? It’s all about validating yourself – validating your shaky sense of self-worth. People comfortable in their own skin don’t become entertainers, craving applause, and then awards and fame – the stupid things you have to do for those aren’t worth it. Why bother?
But then there’s what happens with too much validation – your sense of self-worth metastasizes into a sense of entitlement, with its inevitable oily sheen of arrogance. Think Mel Gibson or Tom Cruise. It’s best to pull a James Dean – die early, before you become an asshole.
But Dalrymple is dismayed by all the talk of self-esteem in our culture, and how we all wish we had more of it. He calls it the verbal expression of self-absorption without self-examination:
The former is a pleasurable vice, the latter a painful discipline. An accomplished psychobabbler can talk for hours about himself without revealing anything.
Welcome to Hollywood. Back in the day, with the aforementioned therapist to the stars, that describes the wrap parties at Musso and Frank and the private Oscar parties.
But Dalrymple sets things straight:
Insofar as self-esteem has a meaning, it is the appreciation of one’s own worth and importance. That it is a concept of some cultural resonance is demonstrated by the fact that an Internet search I conducted brought up 14,500,000 sites, only slightly fewer than the U.S. Constitution and four times as many as “fortitude.”
When people speak of their low self-esteem, they imply two things: first, that it is a physiological fact, rather like low hemoglobin, and second, that they have a right to more of it. What they seek, if you like, is a transfusion of self-esteem, given (curiously enough) by others; and once they have it, the quality of their lives will improve as the night succeeds the day. For the record, I never had a patient who complained of having too much self-esteem, and who therefore asked for a reduction. Self-esteem, it appears, is like money or health: you can’t have too much of it.
So the idea here is that those who are concerned with the levels of their own self-esteem believe that it is something to which they have a right. They should be a movie star, or rock star or whatever. That’s how it’s supposed to be, and they know it. Dalrymple puts it this way:
If they don’t have self-esteem in sufficient quantity to bring about a perfectly happy life, their fundamental rights are being violated. They feel aggrieved and let down by others rather than by themselves; they ascribe their lack of rightful self-esteem to the carping, and unjustified, criticism of parents, teachers, spouses, and colleagues.
Gee, it’s like he lives here. But of course the problem is universal, which he argues is working out the proper and verifiable appreciation of one’s own importance and of one’s own worth in the sorry world – and neither importance nor worth are qualities to be found in nature. Dalrymple argues that you need an appraising mind, as “it is the appraising mind that confers them upon their object.”
So one’s importance is always a puzzle:
There is no doubt a sense – that of the American Declaration of Independence, the supposedly self-evident truth that all men are created equal – in which everyone is important simply by virtue of drawing breath; but of course this kind of importance is not sufficient for the self-esteemist, who derives no comfort from it whatsoever. What he needs is to be more important than someone else in order to have his self-esteem. Nor is it sufficient that he should be more important than somebody else only in his own eyes, because we are all more important in our own eyes than anybody else.
Hence the self-esteemist demands the recognition of others – “respect,” in the lexicon of the slum hoodlum – in order to prop up his self-esteem. Unfortunately for him, the world of others still usually insists upon some kind of achievement before according recognition: achievement in a broad sense, but achievement nonetheless. But the self-esteemist wants to skip this arduous requirement; the result is that he is an angry and bitter soul.
Perhaps you know such people. If not, well, come visit.
And then there’s the whole issue of one’s sense of worth:
Clearly, a sense of worth is something that one would normally expect to be earned rather than conferred ex officio, as it were, similar to the right to a fair trial, but the self-esteemist wants to skip the stage of earning. He is like the man who resents the fact that he has not inherited enough to prevent the necessity of having to make a living for himself.
In other words, the self-esteemist wants something for nothing, and, because in his heart he knows that what he wants is impossible, he is wretched and ascribes all the many failures of his life to it. Self-esteem is therefore first cousin to resentment.
But the curious thing is that this is all a game, of sorts, and the aggrieved know it’s all bullshit, or at list that’s his experience:
When patients pretended to confide in me that they were suffering from low self-esteem, I used to reply that at least, then, they had got one thing right: they had valued themselves at their true worth. (Of course, I used care when addressing the patients: those with higher education were less able to bear the exposure of their deception by means of irony, because their education had equipped them with stronger and more sophisticated powers of rationalization.)
Far from becoming angry, most patients – previously wretched – would begin to laugh, like those caught out in an obvious but relatively innocent attempt at a practical joke. Indeed, they were relieved: they no longer had to pretend anything, either to themselves or to others. We could then talk about the manifest deficiencies of their lives without resort to a vocabulary that acted as a smoke screen.
Dalrymple then argues that the problem with low self-esteem is not self-dislike – that’s not the problem at all. The problem is self-absorption. There’s a lot of that going around these days. Or maybe the problem is actually high self-esteem:
One has only to go into a prison, or at least a prison of the kind in which I used to work, to see the most revoltingly high self-esteem among a group of people (the young thugs) who had brought nothing but misery to those around them, largely because they conceived of themselves as so important that they could do no wrong. For them, their whim was law, which was precisely as it should be considering who they were in their own estimate. It need hardly be said that this degree of self-esteem is certainly not confined to young thugs. Most of us probably suffer from it episodically, as any waiter in any restaurant would be able to tell us.
And he should visit Hollywood, where every other person is a scientologist, sure about everything and contemptuous of those who just don’t get it. If you’re really lucky you get a scolding from Tom Cruise about your obvious inadequacies. So self-esteem is just a subset of self-importance, which “is seldom an attractive quality.” The idea is that that person is best who never thinks of his own importance – even to think about it “is to be lost to morality.”
But Dalrymple is fine with self-respect:
Where self-esteem is entirely egotistical, requiring that the world should pay court to oneself whatever oneself happens to be like or do, and demands nothing of the person who wants it, self-respect is a social virtue, a discipline, that requires an awareness of and sensitivity to the feelings of others. It requires an ability and willingness to put oneself in someone else’s place; it requires dignity and fortitude, and not always taking the line of least resistance.
And he tells a little story to explain that:
For many years I believed that how a man dressed was unimportant; it was the man within that counted, not the man without. My belief excused me for being myself rather scruffily dressed, which was very easy and convenient for me in terms of effort required. But I now think that I was mistaken, for it does not follow from the fact that outward appearance is not all-important that it is of no importance at all.
The small matter of cleaning one’s shoes, for example, is not one of vanity alone, though of course it can be carried on to the point of vanity and even obsession and fetish. It is, rather, a discipline and a small sign that one is prepared to go to some trouble for the good opinion and satisfaction of others. It is a recognition that one lives in a social world. That is why total informality of dress is a sign of advancing egotism.
So quit whining and shine your shoes, damn it:
Self-respect requires fortitude, one of the cardinal virtues; self-esteem encourages emotional incontinence that, while not actually itself a cardinal sin, is certainly a vice, and a very unattractive one. Self-respect and self-esteem are as different as depth and shallowness.
Of course that’s easy for him to say, but we live in a world where style matters – looking good – which may be the shallowest thing of all. Paris Hilton used to tell us all what’s hot and what’s not – someone else tells us that now but it’s hard to keep up with such things. But people want to know what’s hot and what’s not, and not be a dork. People want to be glamorous, or at least pay homage to glamour. What could be shallower than that?
But there’s a counterargument to that. And it comes from the libertarian thinker Virginia Postrel. Her books The Future and Its Enemies: The Growing Conflict over Creativity, Enterprise, and Progress and The Substance of Style: How the Rise of Aesthetic Value Is Remaking Commerce, Culture, and Consciousness (Aligning herself against “pleasure-hating” modernists like Walter Gropius and Adolf Loos, Postrel adopts the position that fashion has meaning.) And at present she edits a group blog at DeepGlamour.net.
And in the Weekly Standard she offers A Power to Persuade – on the deeper meaning of glamour.
But she’s serious, and this is a review of Glamour: A History by Stephen Gundle (she thinks he’s full of crap) and Glamour in Six Dimensions: Modernism and the Radiance of Form by Judith Brown (she’s okay with Brown). But it’s really a forum for Postrel to respond to all those who say she should be writing “more serious nonfiction” and not about glamour, which is a trivial subject, unworthy of consideration.
To which I have two words of response: Barack Obama. In an era of tell-all memoirs, ubiquitous paparazzi, and reality-show exhibitionism, glamour may seem absent from Hollywood. But Obama demonstrates that its magic still exists. What a glamorous candidate he was – less a person than a persona, an idealized, self-contained figure onto whom audiences projected their own dreams, a Garbo-like “impassive receptacle of passionate hopes and impossible expectations,” in the words of Time’s Joe Klein. The campaign’s iconography employed classically glamorous themes, with its stylized portraits of the candidate gazing into the distance and its logo of a road stretching toward the horizon. Now, of course, Obama is experiencing glamour’s downside: the disillusionment that sets in when imagination meets reality. Hence James Lileks’s recent quip about another contemporary object of glamour, “The Apple tablet is the Barack Obama of technology. It’s whatever you want it to be, until you actually get it.”
But he’s glamorous nonetheless, as, really, glamour is much more than style:
It is a potent tool of persuasion, a form of nonverbal rhetoric that heightens and focuses desire, particularly the longing for transformation (an ideal self) and escape (in a new setting). Glamour is all about hope and change. It lifts us out of everyday experience and makes our desires seem attainable. Depending on the audience, that feeling may provide momentary pleasure or life-altering inspiration.
The pleasure and inspiration may be real, but glamour always contains an illusion. The word originally meant a literal magic spell, which made the viewer see something that wasn’t there. In its modern, metaphorical form, glamour usually begins with a stylized image – visual or mental – of a person, an object, an event, or a setting. The image is not entirely false, but it is misleading. Its allure depends on obscuring or ignoring some details while heightening others. We see the dance but not the rehearsals, the stiletto heels but not the blisters, the skyline but not the dirty streets, the sports car but not the gas pump. To sustain the illusion, glamour requires an element of mystery. It is not transparent or opaque but translucent, inviting just enough familiarity to engage the imagination and trigger the viewer’s own fantasies.
And she argues that it’s more than a marketing thing:
It can also promote moon shots and “green jobs,” urban renewal schemes and military action. (The “glamour of battle” long preceded the glamour of Hollywood.) Californians once found freeways glamorous; today they thrill to promises of high-speed rail. “Terror is glamour,” said Salman Rushdie in a 2006 interview, identifying the inspiration of jihadi terrorists. New Soviet Man was a glamorous concept. So is the American Dream.
Glamour, in short, is serious stuff. It can alter life plans, even change history. And as a broad psychological phenomenon, it holds intrinsic interest.
That’s why she studies it. And she says when the Marxist critic John Berger reduced it to “the state of being envied” he had it all wrong:
In his desiccated assessment, glamour was a manifestation of capitalism’s vicious game of winner-take-all, reflecting a society that has “moved towards democracy,” by which he meant absolute egalitarianism, “and then stopped halfway,” giving rise to widespread social envy.
Stephen Gundle argues the whole culture of glamour is a sign of an open society. It upends hierarchy and privilege. But that’s only half right:
As an imaginative process, glamour implies a kind of equality between object and audience. Admirers project themselves into the lives of glamorous people. They imagine inhabiting glamorous places. They identify with glamorous public figures: politicians, athletes, movie stars. A glamorous object – person, place, or thing – is a kind of alter ego, a magic mirror in which we can see our desires realized. Gundle, a professor of film and television studies at the University of Warwick, thus distinguishes glamour, which he identifies with the bourgeoisie, from the magnificence associated with aristocratic courts. Glamour, he argues, was not a quality found at Louis XIV’s Versailles. “Unlike glamour which was about image,” he writes, “magnificence involved the massive accumulation of treasures and luxuries as a right.”
But she says that’s wrong:
Like the fashion magazines that promise “instant glamour” and deliver only photos of crystal hair ornaments and silver lamé tops, Gundle sees glamour as a “visual effect.” Glamour, he writes, “is best seen as an alluring image that is closely related to consumption … an enticing and seductive vision that is designed to draw the eye of an audience.” Its purpose is “to dazzle and seduce.” But dazzling and seducing are two different things.
Take that distinction between glamour and magnificence. Gundle’s point about Versailles is well taken. An absolute monarch cannot be glamorous because no subject would dare to identify with him. But the mere fact that Napoleon, the subject of one of Gundle’s chapters, was not an aristocrat does not make his court “the first in history that can accurately be described as glamorous.” Like the self-consciously magnificent Medici, Napoleon may not have ruled by inherited right, but he employed visual spectacle less to seduce and persuade than to overwhelm and intimidate. Magnificence, not glamour, is a signal of power. Magnificence, like spectacle, produces awe; glamour, by contrast, stokes desire. If Napoleon possessed glamour, it was the ancient martial form shared by figures like David, Alexander, and Alcibiades, a product of triumphs theoretically possible for any man of military talent. It did not arise from the emperor’s glittering court. A real consideration of modern political glamour would pay less attention to stylish salon hostesses and more to portraiture, posters, and propaganda – the tools of persuasion.
So Gundle is too blinded by flash and cash, and too obsessed with luxury and class privilege – he can’t “distinguish glamour from celebrity glitz.” And he says Paris Hilton is “indisputably glamorous.” Postrel says no one believes that:
She lacks glamour’s essential mystery, an element Gundle, who pays little attention to the nature of glamour’s illusions, almost completely ignores.
It seems that Judith Brown gets it right – it’s all about mystery, distance, and “impenetrability.”
Brown sees glamour as a debased, 20th-century form, or “magical remainder” of the 18th-century sublime, with its aesthetic of the “delightful terror” of the overwhelming and infinite. Like that more transcendent quality, she suggests, glamour “moves one out of the material world of demands, responsibilities, and attention to productivity, and into another, more ethereally bound, fleeting, beautiful, and deadly.” And like the fearfulness of the sublime, glamour produces a pleasure born of negative emotions, in this case “the pleasure associated with not having.” Glamour is all about “impossible desire.”
And Postrel agrees with Brown that glamour is not evil, or at least undesirable, because it is illusory:
Ours is a culture of full disclosure, which extols frankness, transparency, and self-revelation, all of which destroy the mystery required for glamour.
Enter Barack Obama. Or F. Scott Fitzgerald:
When Anthony Patch, one of Fitzgerald’s failed heroes, learns that “desire cheats you,” he refers to a phenomenon we now recognize as the power of glamour: “It’s like a sunbeam skipping here and there about a room. It stops and gilds some inconsequential object, and we poor fools try to grasp it – but when we do the sunbeam moves on to something else, and you’ve got the inconsequential part, but the glitter that made you want it is gone.” We may demand the sparkling surface, like a cellophane coating, yet what we are able to grasp will be of little consequence. Glamour wields the power to capture its viewers’ attention as if by a spell that fascinates and arrests. … Transfixed, one gazes at a world of possibility that is foreclosed, inaccessible, yet endlessly alluring.
Glamour, of course, can gild not only inconsequential objects but deeply consequential ones, including political leaders, policies, and ideas. …
Glamour not only makes things look better than they really are. It also tends to edit out human complexity – including, in the political realm, the complexity of disagreements, of clashing values, of diverse wants, of technological, economic, and moral tradeoffs.
So you’d better take glamour seriously.
On the other hand, if you listen to Theodore Dalrymple, you’d better not take yourself too seriously. Forget glamour. It isn’t yours by right – nothing is. Shine your shoes and try to look presentable.
Damn, life is hard to navigate.