This is one thing I think we miss.

We miss, meaning we as a society long for it, we wish we still had it around. Or, at least, we think that we do. Or, at least, some os us think that we do.

Not that your ancestors and mine are all that likely to have been courtly, or refined. Most of our ancestors were not like that. Most of us Westerners’ ancestors — those of us of European extraction, I mean — were drinking liquor all day long because the water was poisonous. They were dying at age thirty of pneumonia, or at age 16 in childbirth. Plenty of our European ancestors didn’t think telling a dirty joke in front of a little child was different from telling a dirty joke in front of a drinking buddy. Little kids dressed like little adults. People didn’t bathe anywhere near as often as we deem sensible.

But you know what? The people who had decorum, they had it in spades. If you listen to Renaissance music, if you flip through a few pages of Shaxpere, if you look at a few Dutch Renaissance paintings, you see something at work that’s infinitely more refined and detailed than anything produced in our own century, this 21st century still young and wet in its ears. Very little since 1950 rivals it, in my opinion.

I am not sure exactly why it is we’ve lost this thing, this whatever-it-is that the finest of our ancestors had back in Europe. Sometimes I think there is a kind of delicacy that exists in some young people here in Korea that reflects it. Men speak to women — and men and women sometimes speak to members of the same sex — with such fine and flowery words sometimes that it surprises me. Young men stop and look upon mirrors to assure themselves of their presentability before tromping off to class. For some people here there exist things not said in the presence of women, and there is a sort of pretty naivete about music among young adults here that I don’t see in North America. Sure, sometimes when someone declares his or her favorite musical genre to be “ballad”, I cringe; but when I listen to Renaissance dances, they seem rather balladesque.

Of course, Korea is not any more of an oasis of refinement than Canada. Here, people hork up pleghm in public, and slurp their noodles in ways that make Westerners cringe, even after they grow used to it. And the refinement I sense among some young people is not something I imagine to widespread. For every young man I see pausing momentarily in the mirror, imagining someone else looking upon his face, I see five or six of them lined up in front of the mirror, smoking, spitting on the bathroom floor, lustily gazing at their own cigarette-smoking as if practicing their coolness or something. Koreans are not so much more decorous than Westerners after all… but I get the vague sense that it’s not something that was ever that widespread here, either.

In fact, it’s probably something that has never been widespread anywhere, at any time. Whenever people talk about reincarnation, they seem always to be very popular historical figures — always a Napoleon or a Harriet Tubman, never a nameless washer-woman by some river in rural Germany or a child who died of starvation in plague-ridden Qayrawan. We like to think ourselves the descendants of princes and kings, of queens and princesses, but the truth is that most of our ancestors were dirty, poor, hungry, and long-suffering.

Why therefore the fascination with decorousness? I sometimes think there are three kinds of people: those who are descended from royalty, and who feel it somehow relevant to themselves; those who are descended from peasants and who feel it irrelevant; and third, those who are descended from peasants but who feel anxious about it, comfortable neither among royals nor among peasants.

Of course, the notions of line of descent are ridiculous; but the categories seem to hold. There are those born to decorousness, and may idle in it; those who are born to indecorousness, and happily wallow in it; and those born to feel anxious about their own indecorousness. It seems to me it is from this last group that the poets, the artists, many philosophers and the finer composers come.

All of this leads back to the question of what decorousness is, to which I can only respond with an observation: some people seem to feel entitlement one way or another — either because of the stock they come from, meaning the class in which they were raised — while other people cannot help but relate to both the class in which they were raised, and likewise the class(es) in which they were not, with a certain degree of anxiety. It might be insulting to suggest this is because they have some special insight into the way the world works; that they have an idea about it that others do not bother to develop because of their relative comfort in their status and position, whatever it may be.

And I know that I am categorizing people. This is the cardinal sin in some conceptions of Western culture. People react sometimes when one does this as if one were attempting to erase the whole of a person’s uniqueness by the act of categorization; and doubtless certain kinds of categorization historically have led to oppression, to the negation of liberties and to evil of various kinds.

But it does not follow that all forms of human categorization are necessarily evil, any more than it follows that all plants are poisonous just because certain ones are. As soon as I begin applying the categories to specific people, my statements will be open to disagreement, to quashing, but until that point, it is not inherently objectionable to categorize people. It is especially far from objectionable to categorize people into demographics based on behaviour — or if it is, then I certainly am not alone and one would be mad to criticize me alone for it. Behaviour is an overt, visible, and concrete basis upon which to form categories, and it seems to me that human behaviour, varied as it is, often can be fit into a few basic categories: the behaviour of those who feel entitled to any action as members of the elite; the behaviour of those who feel justified in any action by virtue of their exclusion from elites; and those who feel anxious, who feel that certain actions are necessary, and that certain actions are deeply wrong.

And yes, I am suggesting that the moral impulse in modern human beings is something heavily mediated by class, heavily mediated by one’s own relationship with one’s own class and one’s sense of its relationships with other classes. Strange to say it, but it seems to me to be true: the majority of members of the upper classes seem to think they are above any moral codes, and in fact live lives so fantastically dislocated from the effects of their choices that, rather than it being bizarre, it is an understandable fallacy. Then there are those who are defiantly proud of being members of the lower and sometimes even the middle class seem to think themselves beyond the criticism of anyone, and seem to feel their class is an excuse for their behaviours (though they would not put it in so many words): they hold up their own ignorance as a banner, they cloak it scriptural quotes, but the message is unmistakable that they will neither heed nor tolerate criticism or judgment from anyone on Earth. What you are left with in between are the moral beings — millions, to be sure, but certainly not the whole of the world population, and perhaps even just a small margin. These are the people who can conceive of an act itself — not the category of act, not the act as defined by such-and-such screiptural term, but the specific act itself — as either right or wrong, apart from its benefits or demerits to oneself.

So it is that the rich by and large are not so very moral; nor are the starving and desperate. Who could expect them to be? In either case, they are distracted from thinking about the thing-in-itself, and in both, we are little surprised by the result. But it leaves very little for us in the middle to deal with.

What’s strange, it strikes me an hour after my original post, is the weird connexion between decorum and morals. It’s not as if people who are extra deocorous are necessarily any more moral, and often they aren’t. But, on the other hand, the person who is decorous in private, even only slightly so, does tend to be a slightly more careful person, one who is more sensitive to things and at least willing to think about them.

The paradox, I guess, is that some extremely decorous people seem to live as if without any moral restrictions whatsoever. Some of the most decorous people in the world are quite immoral as a matter of course. And some of the most indecorous are some of the most moral and forthright. So as for why decorum is linked to morality as it seems to be in the back of my own mind, and in the minds of others, all I can say for that is, well, it’s strange, and it gives me the urge to point and handwave at some kind of Foucauldian description of the world, but I haven’t thought enough yet to come up with any explanation of my own that does the whole complex mess justice.

One thought on “Decorum

  1. I’ve missed your writing, Gord. Brilliant, as always. Love the way you broke things down here. I expect I fall into the third such grouping. Your words shall remain with me for some time, as they have served to leave me quite pensive. I think your students very lucky, indeed.

    Level 1?

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