On Being Bourgeois

In an abscess of the late afternoon in 1963, Glee-Club practice reached a restless passage. I must have said something provoking, although I can't think what. Jack Kennard, standing right in front of me, turned around and said, in his firm, grown-up voice, "You are a bourgeois buffoon." Glaring, but pleased with himself, he about-faced, and the appellation stuck. Within the week, and for the rest of my career at Blair Academy, I was known, even to the occasional teacher, as 'Bougie.' This could be pronounced in many ways, but the standard pronunciation replaced the 'oo' of the French bougie (which has nothing to do with 'bourgeois,' of course, referring rather to candles and sparkplugs) with the 'oo' of 'foot,' and stressed the first syllable.

Perhaps it had something to do with my vest. I'd have been the first to call it a 'waistcoat' if I'd known what 'vest' means in England, a confession that will perhaps convey the justice of Jack's mot. I was wearing, as I recall, a Stewart-plaid vest. I'm sure I must have made some annoying remark, as I say, but it was probably the vest that prompted the epithet. Jack turned, you see, because I'd said something - not to him! I would never have addressed Jack Kennard, an acidulously cool senior, unbidden! -  and he wanted to swat me down. Seeing the vest made it easy. He didn't have to fashion a riposte to whatever it was that I'd said. He could blast me to smithereens - or at any rate leave his mark forever - by zeroing in on misguided foppishness. It's the vest, anyway, that I remember. Waistcoat. Because Jack's remark made me blush red as that plaid. 

I was the first to admit that it fit, or at any rate the last to deny it. And I never have denied it. For a very long time,  I've lived in close intimacy with these terms of opprobrium. Another sort of fellow would have gone out of his way to show the world that he was no bourgeois buffoon, and I can't say that this didn't occur to me. But I knew I'd never pull it off. On the contrary: the effort would only build up the case for the 'buffoon' part. I really was bourgeois, hopelessly so, and there was no point pretending otherwise. I didn't want to be otherwise. But I didn't like being a buffoon.

And I still don't. I haven't entirely lost the knack for the faux pas, for the clever line delivered with terrible timing. But age has slowed down my reflexes to a speed that my prudence can usually keep up with, and most of my blunders go unspoken. If I'm taken for a fool these days, I'm mercifully unaware of it. What has changed is my thinking about the other half of the nickname.

Thirty years ago, 'bourgeois' was a dirty word. (It has never, I think, been altogether complimentary. The rosy glow surrounding terms like bon bourgeois and cuisine bourgeoise is fairly recent, and these phrases are in any case not current among Anglophones.) Here and there, it might even be death to be a bourgeois, but even in capitalist, postwar America you could not expect anyone to be grateful to be so called. 'Middle-class' was bad enough. Everyone in America was in the middle-class (it seemed), but everyone was in denial about it. 'Bourgeois' signified a stuffy, small-minded preoccupation with dollars and sense, and a fondness for simple tunes and pretty pictures. Bourgeois taste was the worst kind of bad taste. Among thinking people, the bourgeois was regarded as inauthentic and falsely sentimental.

Indeed, the bourgeoisie has never had many admirers. 

Thinking about what it might mean to be bourgeois today, at the start of the twenty-first century, I've come to see that the bourgeoisie has undergone a metamorphosis since its emergence as political force a little over two centuries ago. As one aspect of this transformation, the bourgeoisie have taken to higher education. Perhaps they have taken higher education over. Bourgeois children are expected to go to college, to the best college that they can get into and afford, and this has been so for fifty years or longer - much longer among the wealthier bourgeois. The point of 'a college education' has always been, in bourgeois terms, to widen one's horizons, whatever that might mean and no matter how shambolic the curriculum. The whole point seems to be to reconstruct the student's mind along lines prescribed by the clichés of bourgeois-bashing. Where the old bourgeoisie was held to be narrow-minded, the new will entertain almost any idea, and schooling has taught it the virtues of acquired tastes. Where the experience of the old bourgeoisies was limited to matters of local economy, the new may spend a semester abroad, and a postgraduate season in the Peace Corps. They believe in devoting vacations to travel. They have become, arguably, the least provincial of groups. However really valuable this broadening may really be, it has changed the look of the bourgeoisie in a fundamental way. 

I remember learning that mammals got their start during the twilight of the dinosaurs; rodents, mostly, they flourished in the underbrush. The picture of rats scurrying beneath the terrible lizards comes to mind whenever I contemplate the origins of the bourgeoisie. Just as rats are not part of anyone's picture of the late Cretaceous, so the bourgeoisie of a thousand years ago wasn't supposed to exist. At the beginning of the eleventh century, historian George Duby tells us, clerics in what was then the frontier between France and the Empire worked out an interpretation of the  social order that was emerging from the Dark Ages, a social order forged during very bleak times. Society consisted of three groups: those who fought, those who worked, and those who prayed. In other words: aristocrats, peasants, and priests. This dream of the 'three orders' or 'three estates,' hardening over the centuries, would confuse European political thinking until the French Revolution erupted in 1789.  There was no room in this scheme for money or for commerce. At the beginning of the eleventh century, there didn't need to be. But even as the European economy grew, depending more on trade and manufacture, and as the first capitalist fortunes appeared in Italy, political thinkers hung onto the notion of the three estates as though it were the Eleventh Commandment. And to their dislike of business they added a dislike of the towns in which businessmen lived. 'Bourgeois' didn't just denote the more prosperous inhabitants of a town, but connoted their commercial bustle as well.  For an interesting look at how the people at the top would have liked to order the world around them, read the 'Quest de Saint Graal,' a version of the Grail legend whose protagonists roam a landscape wholly lacking any kind of town life. In the real world, kings came to prefer cash to barter, and the aristocracy was pressed in the first European fixed-income squeeze. Lords and their knights naturally hated the merchants and money-lenders to whom they owed money that they didn't have, and found solace in a theory of society that denied legitimacy to businessmen. 

It is a commonplace that the French Revolution was initiated not by the peasants of France, nor even by the sansculottes of Paris, but by the French bourgeoisie, but a closer look reveals interesting ironies. First, the aristocrats most firmly determined to preserve 'ancient' privileges were themselves recently ennobled members of the bourgeoisie whose fathers and grandfathers had bought their titles and their tax exemptions and intended to keep them. Second, no sooner did the Revolution sweep away the aristocracy than a new class adopted many of its attitudes. This new group was made up of the poets and painters and other creative people who surged forth as Romantics. Like the aristocrats of old, the Romantics had expensive tastes - for drama, travel, and conviviality - and not much in the way of money to pay for them. It was understandable that they would resent the people with plenty of money but no taste - the bourgeoisie. 

But as affluence has spread more evenly through Western society, being 'bourgeois' has become less an economic than an affective marker. I don't mean to kidnap the term, but I do find a real  difference between bourgeois 'status' - a label imposed by others - and bourgeois character. Many kinds of affluent Westerners - entrepreneurs, scholars, highly-paid athletes, and entertainers - join with the intellectual class in disavowing bourgeois status. Whether or not the disavowal is valid, it's clear that, although financially comfortable, they don't want to be thought of as bourgeois. What could this mean? If it's possible to be 'middle-class' without being 'bourgeois, then it's the case either that nobody is bourgeois or that being bourgeois implies attributes that don't bear directly on wealth. Wealth remains important, for it's unpleasant to be bourgeois without any money. (One of Victorian fiction's greatest themes is the misery of trying to hold onto bourgeois status - respectability - without an adequate income.) But wealth is not enough. To listen to the wouldn't-be bourgeois, It's almost as though they believed that Marx was right. Never having thought such a thing for a moment, I began to wonder what an appraisal of the bourgeois character would look like if it could be conducted with neither hostility nor resentment. 

Then I saw that, harboring no animus against either the bourgeoisie or the idea of the bourgeois, I was just the man to take up the question.  What follows is an idiosyncratic assessment, weighted, in the confusion following September 11, by a conviction that no American political party addresses bourgeois concerns. In a solidly middle-class nation, today's bourgeoisie constitutes a relatively small group. 

Being bourgeois begins in town. At its most basic, 'bourgeois'  means 'town dweller.' Remoteness is not bourgeois, but neither is the familiarity of village life, where everybody knows everyone else's business. So even though most middle-class Americans live in suburbs, I would argue that being bourgeois means living in some sort of multiple-dwelling structure. It doesn't have to be as dense as the one I live in - nearly 700 households on less than an acre of land - but it ought to house a few pairs of mutual strangers, whose lives rarely intersect in the common areas. 

It's the ambient busyness that assures bourgeois privacy, not the otherwise quite important locks and safeties. Being bourgeois means knowing in your heart that, however curious other people might be, they probably have better things to do than to take the trouble to spy on you, or even to remember much about you beyond your name and your manner of small talk. Casual acquaintance is less common, I think, among the bourgeoisie than among other groups. Neighbors, however cordial, are unlikely to be friends, for the same reason that birds do not relieve themselves in their nests. To become friendly with a neighbor is to include him in your household. Appealing as such expansiveness might be in prospect, it's difficult to reverse. Now, the critic might find this cynical. After all, who would ever make any friends, or fall in love, if primarily worried about the awkwardness of breaking off? But the rule at hand pertains only to the small group of people who comprise one's immediate neighbors. Make friends and fall in love elsewhere, that is all. With neighbors, it's bourgeois to be helpful and friendly, but not intimate. 

As I say, bourgeois friendships extend the scope of the bourgeois household. An aristocrat's home may be his castle, and even a workingman's, but bourgeois people do not regard their homes as fortresses. They're much more like comfortable hotels. The bourgeois home is not a refuge from civil life but a contribution to it,  a private place, perhaps, but not a secret one. It offers presentable comfort. Welcoming friends into one's home is the bourgeoisie's defining domestic activity. 

The occasion might not arise every day, but the bourgeois household is usually prepared for visitors. The best way to understand this principle is to turn it around. The everyday habits of bourgeois life - the clothes one wears at home, the meals one eats alone - are generally consistent, in an easygoing way, with the conventions of casual entertaining. If a friend were to drop in unexpectedly (however unlikely among the bourgeoisie), I would be ready in that I wouldn't have to worry about what I'm wearing, because, except at bedtime, I wear street clothes as a matter of course. Nor do I have to worry that the house might be a mess, because the house is not ordinarily a mess. There is no strain in this. As a bourgeois, I have internalized a host of conventional expectations. 

In America, at least, the bourgeois home is designed to be seen by visiting strangers  - the friends, so to speak, of the friends of the family. This is not to say that one knows exactly what to expect in a given bourgeois home. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the ideal floor plan of the bourgeois home is very much under revision, with living rooms and dining rooms giving way to the all-purpose family rooms that, fifty years ago, were to be found only in the basements of suburban homes. But shifts in taste - particularly in the taste for formality, which I shall come back to later in this discussion - should not be mistaken for an abandonment of decorum. The 'Great Rooms' with open kitchens that the French associate with California reflect not a  supposed decline in standards but the transformation, by means of convenient appliances, of cooking into a recreation. Cooking is no longer the dirty, laborious business that it was a century ago, and there is no need for today's cook to be banished to a remote part of the house. On the contrary, cooking now appears on the bourgeois menu of social activities. While it is true that  the bourgeoisie is not of one mind about the the television's usurpation of the place of the hearth  -many families eat together in rooms without televisions - variations in style do not obscure the fact that, in any bourgeois home, serious conversation, whether or not strangers are present, requires the silencing of distractions. Similarly, the bourgeois home is orderly throughout, not just in those rooms to which strangers have access. 

Why, the critic wonders, should a man care what strangers think of his home? What's the point of having a home, if you can't close its door to all the world and live as you please? The bourgeois is at a loss to answer this question, because he does not please to live in a way that should be hidden. Quite aside from the habits inculcated by a proper upbringing, the bourgeois is too social a being to devote his home to the surreptitious. He is unlikely to be incommoded by the demands of presentability. 

Where privacy is important - in matters, say, of personal hygiene - no one shuts the door more firmly than the bourgeois. But what bourgeois life requires for the most part is not privacy but discretion. Discretion is the art of inflecting the desire to engage the world with the prudence of doing so on manageable terms, and it manifests itself as comfort. Consider indiscretion, which may be very exciting but is usually merely uncomfortable: awkward, embarrassing, tedious, and so on. Just as physical comfort is a great deal more than the absence of physical pain, so discretion need not pass unnoticed: the bourgeois finds comfort in the awareness of being spared difficulty. Discretion domesticates the strange and the unexpected that we fear encountering in strange territory. 

A moment's reflection will show that notwithstanding its occasionally brilliant formality, diplomacy is a bourgeois art. It is an art of service that begins with the desire to set others at rest. The bourgeois conviction that nothing can be accomplished without calm and security doubtless has its roots in commerce, that insistent foe of all violence; and what is diplomacy if not the negotiation of the most important transactions? The same search for peace and good will among men, if without the grandeur of marbled embassies, motivates the bourgeois at home. Comfort is the least that he can provide.

Comfort and discretion, then, are two of the cardinal bourgeois virtues. The third, drive, must be considered together with them. There is nothing bourgeois about naked ambition. The man who pursues a clearly-defined goal to the exclusion of everything else has failed as a bourgeois; and if the artist is rarely altogether bourgeois, it's because he's as single-minded about his art as the crassest banker is about interest rates. So, too, with the aristocrat who thinks of nothing but his honor. Bourgeois drive is complex as well as complicated; at the moment, its most manifest exponents are educated women who seek to 'have it all' - marriage, children, and a career. Ideally, each of these good things enriches the others. In practice, of course, there are many obstacles to this enriching, but I expect that as bourgeois women add enterprise to their other objectives, so their husbands will put some effort into household management. 

This last development, which many readers may find a bit too optimistic, will be helped by what I'll call the neutralization of the household. In the middle of the nineteenth century, the household was widely seen as a feminine bulwark of virtue in which men could find refuge from the grim rapaciousness of commercial or industrial life. But the feminine household was a recent invention, a provisional answer, colored by a sense of emergency, to the upheaval of the social and technological revolutions that transformed rural Europe into urban Europe. Housewives who played no role in their husbands' economic lives had been quite rare below the very highest income levels. When the turbulence of the modernizing transformation subsided, the Victorian division of labor between working fathers and housekeeping mothers took on an increasingly artificial look, especially as it became possible for single people to maintain their own households. (The housekeeper of CE 2002 must make a real effort to grasp this easily taken-for-granted development.) 

The rich and complicated engagement with the world that distinguishes bourgeois life contains, as do all desiderata, the seeds if not the roots of its own failure. As a man in and of the world, the bourgeois has very serious existential problems with the kind of detachment that facilitates the flexible adaptation to adversity. Suicide, on the one hand, constitutes an immoral rupture of all of the relationships that constitute the bourgeois' world, furthermore raising unmanageable questions about the purpose of life. Nevertheless, the bourgeois may fall, for perfectly sane reasons - such as the loss of livelihood, or the installation of a regime hostile to the bourgeoisie - into an unbearable loss of comfort. While other people adapt and get by, the bourgeois is stuck in a world of disappointing and insupportable commitments. When the chips are down, it is the bourgeois' great adversary, the ascetic, who has the advantage.  

Such is the great drawback of bourgeois life: no other sort of person is less independent or self-reliant. Drawing on the world around him for his meanings, the bourgeois is, like a cold-blooded animal, really imperiled by adversity. Only the strength of habit will enable the bourgeois to hold out for a change of fortune, which in all likelihood will be helped along by the generosity and ingenuity of his friends. Such is the great resource of bourgeois life. (August 2002) 

Permalink  Portico

Copyright (c) 2005 Pourover Press

Write to me