Against Vulgarity, After Lionel Trilling

In his seminal essay on Mansfield Park, literary critic Lionel Trilling said the following: “It is beyond human ingenuity to define what we mean by vulgarity, but in Jane Austen’s novels vulgarity has these elements : smallness of mind, insufficiency of awareness, assertive self-esteem, the wish to devalue, especially to devalue the human worth of other people.” It is my modest task today to explore these four elements of vulgarity and to explain why it is that we ought to be against such qualities, not least in ourselves. When we think of vulgarity, it is the natural instinct of people, especially people who fancy themselves to be people of taste and education, to think of the vulgar as being a term fit for the common herd of humanity. There are some ironies in this. To us, Latin is a language that signifies a high degree of elite status and the ability to communicate in a language that brings us in contact with the wisdom of the classical Roman and post-Roman European intellectual world. Yet the Vulgate, that famous term for the Latin Bible of the Middle Ages, was itself a translation from the original biblical languages in the common tongue of the ordinary Roman of the West. What is to us a signifier of elite status was originally a sign of vulgarity, because its knowledge separates us from the common herd of our own time but made one representative of the common herd during the period of late antiquity.

The first quality of vulgarity that Lionel Trilling identifies is that of smallness of mind. He identifies this smallness in the mind of the Price family in Portsmouth in Mansfield Park by their disinclination in getting to know their daughter after an absence of years. We typically abuse the lack of knowledge that ordinary people have, by calling them provincial or calling them locals, implying that their knowledge and thinking is narrow-minded and that they are incurious about the outside world. Yet incuriosity about aspects of the world is characteristic of human beings in general–not least in our own time, where the desire to have safe spaces where we are not challenged by hostile beliefs and opinions is widespread. All of the ways in which we can expand our thinking–reading, travel, familiarity with art and literature, conversation, and the like–are behaviors that can merely confirm our existing prejudices while giving us the illusion that we are broad-thinking in our ways. Broadness of mind requires us to be confronted with what is strange and unfamiliar to us, and to recognize that our own habits and patterns are just as alien to other people as their ways are to us. We must see in others beings like ourselves, for all of the superficial differences, and see that there is in us that which is alien to the outside world and not something we can blithely assume is the natural and proper state of mankind.

This naturally leads into the second quality of vulgarity, and that is insufficiency of awareness. There is much we can be unaware of. Our smallness of mind, our tendency to focus on ourselves and think ourselves to be the measure of all things leads naturally into a lack of awareness. This lack of awareness is most obviously about the outside world but also a lack of awareness about ourselves. If we do not know how we behave towards others and cannot place ourselves in the position of other people who have to deal with us, we can have a lot of comforting illusions about ourselves and our character. I once knew a particularly disagreeable man, who delighted in throwing his weight and authority around and in not caring at all about others, being impatient and frequently angry in his dealings with others, who did not think that he had ever raised his voice at all. Such a lack of awareness can only be accounted to by a total incuriosity about others and a total lack of understanding of how one’s behavior is taken by others. The only cure to such a lack of awareness is to submit oneself to the painful cultivation of knowledge about how it is that others see us. It can be terrifying and deeply humiliating to see how it is that what we see as friendly gestures and a total absence of evil intentions and wishes in our conduct can be viewed by other people, those whom we wish to be on good terms with, as being the very heights of the most wicked evil, such that we are viewed as being completely without righteousness in our ways of thinking and behaving.

This lack of awareness is typically combined with an assertive self-esteem. Our present evil age celebrates assertive self-esteem as being a virtue. It is intolerable for us to accept any sort of negative judgment upon ourselves when we see ourselves as being blameless and spotless souls completely in the right. The evil report that other people might have of us is simply libel, slander, or malicious gossip of some kind by bitter and envious souls who merely wish to bring us down. The criticisms that otheres make of us is simply projection, self-serving hypocrisy that only exposes the wickedness of their hearts and not any darkness in our own. Anyone who has the effrontery or the daring to speak negatively to us will be torn apart in some fashion, be it by cutting verbal insults, deliberate social slighting, or by physical violence including beatings and perhaps even death. We will consider ourselves justified in any violence that we undertake against those who dare to question our integrity or goodness, and will not see justice in any critique that is made against us.

This in turn naturally leads us to devalue. We devalue the worth of those who think and believe and behave differently from ourselves. We devalue the worth of anything said that is antithetical to our own views or hostile to our interests. Ultimately, we devalue other people as being unworthy of having the right to speak freely their obvious misinformation or malinformation, or even having the right to live freely, or even to live at all. We first conceive of others as being unworthy to have the right to public office or a public life at all, and shun their company and deny them of the opportunity to be seen and heard and honored. We then conceive them of being unworthy of freedom, worthy only to be subject to house arrest or the gulag. Finally, we conceive them of being unworthy to exist at all and only worthy to be fertilizer for our gardens. We do not realize that our monstrous treatment of others does not mean that others are in fact the worthless eaters that we think them to be, but rather that we are monsters because we treat others monstrously. The abuser of mankind is wicked because of the abuse that he or she commits, and if we abuse and mistreat others, we are wicked not because of our identity but because of our behavior. We who sought to purge the herd of humanity of that which was evil and sordid only show ourselves to be the most evil and sordid and vulgar people of all. And all the while we will lack the broadness of mind or the painful self-awareness to appreciate the cruel irony of it all, much less to repent of it in humility and disgust in the darkness that is revealed in ourselves.

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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