Silent Running, Or The Dark Side Of Sprezzatura

It is likely that without knowing it, many of the people who read this will likely be devotees of the fine Renaissance art of sprezzatura.  In his well-known work The Book of The Courtier, Baldassare Castiglione stated that the ideal courtier needed to have an air of studied nonchalance and indifference as a way of putting out the fires of envy and jealousy that exist in a political world of competition for favor and office.  Even if few realms offer the sort of aristocratic or royal systems of patronage and autocratic political cultures that foster the fawning behaviors of courtiers in contemporary society—and I consider that a very good thing—our fondness for practicing and appreciating sprezzatura has not in any way lessened in present-day society.  Indeed, some languages have enshrined this sort of modest façade as a fundamental aspect of their communication, such that it is immensely difficult to get at the honest difficulties faced by people in the face of their rigid self-discipline and refusal to draw undue attention to themselves.

In their 1985 hit “Silent Running,” the band Mike & The Mechanics painted a dark picture of political defeat that forced people to hide their feelings, giving the pointed advice:  “Swear allegiance to the flag, whatever flag they tell you.  Never hint at what you truly feel.”  At times, showing humanity to others in the face of a cruel and unjust society requires immense capacity for deceiving others.  It is commonly argued, for example, that Rahab was entirely justified in deceiving the king of Jericho by an impressive show of sprezzatura, feigning nonchalance and ignorance about the whereabouts of the spies she had hidden.  In the same way, it is often considered to be acceptable to lie to wicked regimes like the Nazis about having hidden the objects of their wrath.  Even if we grant this, we must concede that the most obvious problem with sprezzatura is that it involves deception, a feigning of the difficulties of one’s behavior and a nonchalance that exists on the surface level but not in the reality.  It is, essentially, an exercise in pretense.

It would be unjust of me to criticize pretense without being open and honest about the fact that I have spent my entire life cultivating precisely this sort of sprezzatura for myself.  Nor am I alone in this—the way one says, “you’re welcome” in Spanish is “de nada,” implying a dishonest statement that it was nothing, minimizing what was done, even if it may have been very impressive and very difficult.  One thinks, for example of the minimizing of the hours of hard work of meal preparation by a housewife, in the knowledge that the person thanking really does not want to emulate the task themselves, nor does that person genuinely appreciate the efforts made, in the eyes of the person doing the minimizing.  Why do people, myself included it must be admitted, engage in this sort of pretense?  For one, the need to project nonchalance and strength is so important, and the belief in the hostility of the world and the lack of interest and genuine concern for well-being in what is really going on so intense, that to minimize is an aspect of self-protection and self-defense.  After all, if others do not know how much something really hurt or really bothered or offended or upset us, then we do not have to show ourselves as being thin-skinned and particularly sensitive where such things are viewed particularly negative, even if it is hardly oversensitive to be bothered and upset by certain words or actions.

Why is it that Castiglione advocated this deceptive quality for courtiers in the first place?  For one, he was writing to an audience engaged in the competitive service of monarchs where the place of a favorite would often result in a great deal of hostility from one’s rivals and competitors, who could be expected to respond with sabotage, efforts to destroy one’s reputation, and other behaviors.  Sprezzatura was a way of seeking to minimize the effects of this hostility.  It is the same reason why rappers, for example, and hipsters engage in the same process.  These people as well show intense self-discipline in the face of belief in the hostility of the world.  By pretending not to care about how negatively others view them, or how difficult life has been, the hope is that others will not be threatened by them.  It is the attitude of the stiff upper lip, of keeping calm and carrying on, of starting from the bottom but ending up on top.  Mastery of one’s world depends on first mastering one’s own response, to make every external display of interior reality immensely restrained and understated, to the point where no one can read what is going on inside from one’s appearance on the outside.  We build a fortress around our hearts and find ourselves isolated and imprisoned inside [1].

The darkness of sprezzatura can best be demonstrated, perhaps, by its appearance in one of the most chilling stories of the Bible, when Absalom told his sister Tamar to bury her desolation under an appearance of surface calm, as if the outrage of rape and incest was not something to be incensed and visibly distressed by.  Absalom held his rage and his desire for vengeance hidden for years until an opportune time, when he struck with vicious brutality.  Nor is this problem an isolated one.  Our inability to see inside the hearts of other people, which would be a terrifying ability, since its presence would make our own hearts open to widespread knowledge and scrutiny, leads to all kinds of difficulties when the interior and exterior realities do not agree.  Sprezzatura, when practiced widely, leads us not only to mistrust our own limited insights into understanding what is going on with other people, but it leads us to mistrust the appearance of calm because of our awareness that underneath that restraint is often intense unpleasantness.  By misdirection and minimization, we destroy the trust upon which any sort of relationships and intimacy are built.  Thus the perfect courtier destroys the security of any state, because if virtue has to be hidden behind a disguise, one is openly confessing that one’s society is not a virtuous one, and is not worthy of our support and our confidence, nor are those who hold power worthy of our trust if they cannot be candid and open in their own actions.  And without trust, no realm or institution is worth preserving at all.

[1] This is an immensely common problem:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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