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Magazine: American Scholar, Spring, 1993
Section: Life and Letters...SUCH GOOD TASTE
Whenever I find myself in the West - in such states as New Mexico, Colorado, or California - I feel a distinct if ineffable sense of discomfort, no matter how glorious the day or how splendid the surrounding scenery. Only recently have I understood why this is so: the American West is about life lived outdoors, where, as it turns out, not one of my fantasies takes place - and in none of these fantasies, it ought to be added, am I wearing jeans. All this makes me distinctly an anti-western kind of guy.
The place that makes me least comfortable is that indubitably most beautiful of American cities, San Francisco, where not only have I never come close to losing my heart but, on more than one occasion, I have been in serious danger of blowing my cool. It is the putative good taste of San Franciscans that gets to me; more precisely, it is the tyrannous, relentless, in-your-face insistence on good taste pervading the place that makes me want to end each meal I eat in that city with a resounding belch and a general attack on the importance of spectacular views and sun-dried tomatoes.
It's less the actual good taste of San Franciscans I mind than the pride in good taste everywhere on display in that city. Pride in one's good taste, someone ought to inform the head of San Francisco's Chamber of Commerce, is, prima facie, bad taste. The possession of good taste, like that of sexual prowess and other natural talents, is better demonstrated than discussed. If you've got it, you should feel under an obligation not to talk about it. But then if you truly have it, my guess is, it would never occur to you to talk about it. Not everyone in San Francisco does talk about it, but there is something in the general atmosphere one encounters there that suggests that San Franciscans, above all other Americans, truly know how to live. Since all this talk about good taste and the central part it plays in the good life seems to have spread to Berkeley and Palo Alto, and to the Bay Area generally, I have come to call it - until now only to myself - Bayarrhea, standing for tiresome babble about taste marked by the underlying assumption that one's own taste is superior to everyone else's.
Perhaps the problem here is that this confidence of San Franciscans in their good taste matches my confidence in my own rather better taste. My sense is that most of us do take a certain pride in having good taste. If we can't take pride in it in all realms, we feel we have the sense to know what in life it is important to have good taste about. All of us are a bit vulnerable on this score. La Rochefoucauld, taking his always-safe low view of humankind, wrote: "Our pride is more offended by attacks on our taste than on our opinions." I would take this a small step further. Most of us would rather be caught in an act of serious bad judgment than in one of singular bad taste. How else account for the fact that "He was a man of sound judgment with occasional lapses in taste" sounds, somehow, worse than "He was a man of impeccable taste with occasional lapses in judgment"? Bad judgment, unless it is habitual, seems a mistake of the moment; bad taste, an ingrained condition for which there is no known cure.
Taste is the choosing and discriminating sense. For taste to go into operation, a fairly complex society has to exist, one offering a vast buffet of aesthetic and utilitarian objects as well as social possibilities and points of view. Some even hold that humanity was happier, even morally better, before taste set in and became as important as it has in human transactions. Taste, in this view, desiccates, over-refines, smothers the instincts; it castrates the noble savage, sterilizes Aphrodite. In the novels of E. M. Forster, for example, a strong concern about good taste is a sure sign that one is a dry and dreary person, hopelessly out of touch with all the true wellsprings of life.
Yet there can scarcely be any overestimating the importance taste plays in some lives. I have known people who would have sooner been - and usually were - wrong about the Soviet Union than drive a car they thought vulgar. Politics is only politics, but for people of militant good taste, serving iceberg lettuce at a dinner party is, let us face it, a significant mistake. I hope I will be forgiven when I say that I can't take much more talk about lettuce. (Has the first upper-middle-class child named Arugula been born yet?) I could also live quite happily without ever again hearing the name Ralph Lauren. (When I see someone wearing clothes displaying his odious Polo designer logo or name, I exclaim to myself, as Art Carney used to do on the old "Honeymooners" television show, "Yo ho ho, Ralphy boy.") I could probably get by nicely, too, without seeing another advertisement for eight-thousand-dollar wristwatches. The same goes for Mont Blanc fountain pens, expensive, leaky little buggers that they are. Show me a man with a Rolex watch, a Mont Blanc in the (probably ink-stained) pocket of his Ralph Lauren shirt, and I'll show you a man besotted with, inundated by, led by the nose because of a concern for good taste - or, to speak more plainly, a concern for slavish and expensive conformity.
Another name for such items is objets du gout. Objets du gout include those things costing much more than they are worth, standing for much more than they ought, and bringing more extraneous pleasure than their owners deserve. The world seems very crowded just now with objets du gout - objects really intended to show that one has expensive and lovely taste, as opposed to objects of genuine art or utility, or those truly uniting elegance and utility. We now have in America entire towns that are essentially objets du gout: Mystic, Connecticut; Santa Fe, New Mexico; Aspen, Colorado. Thousands of kids walk the streets heavily mantled with names that are themselves little more than objets du gout: Kendall, Brooke, Scott, Ashley, Tiffany, Britarmy, Page. One of the claims to fame of the philandering husband in Nora Ephron's novel Heartburn is that, as a boy, he went out with the first Jewish girl named Kimberly.
When confronted by such thick-fingered attempts at good taste in too-great profusion, I find I get a bit flippy, that condition of extreme agitation leading on to incipient madness. When the flippiness is upon me, my environment needs to be carefully controlled. At such times you would do well not to take me to a restaurant where the menu offers tuna tar-tar with seaweed, a terrine of goat cheese, beets, and pomegranates, and Armagnac ice cream mildly spiced with just a touch of tarragon, for my inclination, presented with such grub, is to want to slip out to the kitchen and prettily julienne the chef. Upper-middle-class shopping malls have a similarly darkening effect on me. Set me down in certain buildings on north Michigan Avenue in Chicago or on Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles and I find it is all I can do to keep from calling for the tumbril and the People's Razor, as the guillotine was known during the French Revolution; unbeknownst to my fellow consumers, amongst whom I walk, I become a perfect little Mme Defarge, minus the knitting, a virulent Communist long after every Red has pulled out of the Finland Station.
What is it about these little temples of good taste - be they restaurants or tony shops - that get me so worked up? It isn't good old-fashioned class hatred. The social class of the people frequenting such places is roughly my own: college-educated, middle-class, still panting fairly heavily with aspiration. Not so different than they, I am a card-carrying member of American Express, a man of Visa (if not of vision). Even though my own toy box is by now well enough stocked, I have not lost my interest in acquisition. Do I not carry a costly Pelikan fountain pen in the pockets of my too-numerous shirts? Do I not on occasion wear shoes made in a boot-shaped country? Where do I get off criticizing other people on this score? Really, I think to myself, people driving in German cars shouldn't throw phones.
I grew up in a home where the question of taste, good or bad, was never discussed. My mother loved clothes, had a dramatic flair in wearing them and a nice sense of what was right for her. My father wished only to avoid outlandishness, which he did, but otherwise was never bothered by questions of taste. As a boy, I don't remember hearing the word "taste" from either of my parents. The only object of clothing I was ever criticized for wearing was a jacket I was much pleased to own in high school that had the name "KoolVent Awnings" written on the back. The reason I was so pleased to own it was that, in those days in Chicago, this company sponsored a number of locally successful softball and basketball teams, and by wearing it I hoped that I would be taken by strangers for a more talented athlete than I was. My father took an immediate dislike to that jacket, asking me why I wished to go around as a walking advertisement for someone else's business. (The age of designer logos, from Louis Vuitton to Nike, was still far in the future.) Why not wear sandwich boards, he asked, and earn a few bucks while I was at it?
For the rest - furniture, cars, and other appurtenances - our family taste in no way exceeded or otherwise deviated from our social class. We had not advanced to that stage of culture where there was an interest in the antique; in all ways, the new was considered better than the old. An inherent social conservatism combined with a Depression-learned financial caution ruled in our family, so we never owned cars grander than we could afford, or belonged to country clubs, or did anything on a lavish, and hence particularly vulgar, scale. Because neither of my parents went to college, the level of sophistication where questions of taste begin to strike the nervous and, sometimes, comic note was never reached. Ours was not a family that, at dinner, sat around discussing the relative merits of Williams and Amherst; none of its members could have told you where, or even what, Williams and Amherst were. If you had mentioned William and Mary, we would have thought you were referring to the McDermotts, who lived upstairs. Actually, we never called it dinner; we called it supper.
None of this, be it understood, kept me from performing quite efficiently in school as a perfect snob of a kind. Mine was not a cruel snobbery - that is, I took no joy in putting people down or otherwise lording it over anyone. Mine was instead a more limited and entirely upward-looking snobbery. I simply wanted to be in what seemed to me the better circles of kids in the schools I attended. In practice this never proved to be a very serious problem, and I easily enough achieved what I desired. The exercise of taste, along with careful touches of salesmanship, had not a little to do with it.
Taste, in this context, meant never being too different, except perhaps to excel ever so slightly within the recognized pattern of conformity. This operated in the realms both of thought and appearance, and what one was required to conform to was not very difficult to figure out. In high school, good taste implied group taste, which in clothes for boys meant Levi's or the khaki-colored trousers we then called washpants, solid-colored (when possible, cashmere) sweaters worn over white teeshirts; letter sweaters (I had won a letter in tennis) or club jackets (my high school was divided into scores of social-athletic clubs) were also considered good form as were the white Converse gym shoes known as Chuck Taylor All Stars.
Apart from the nerdish lack of style of the boys we used to call "science bores" - a rumpled look demonstrating a total disregard for clothes - one other style of dress was possible during my high school days, and this was a somewhat belated and more casual version of zoot-suitism. Bought on Halsted Street, near Maxwell Street, at a haberdashery called Smokey Joe's, these duds featured such nicely overstated items as electric blue or rust-colored pants with outer stitching on the seams, rayon shirts with high Mr. B. (after the singer Billy Eckstine) collars, and boxcar loafers - thin suede belts and long key chains optional.
I should like to report that my innate good taste steered me entirely clear of such ridiculous clothes, but I remember once buying, not at Smokey Joe's but at a men's shop in the Loop, a then quite radically pink shirt with a collar pin and a slender black knit tie (known at the time, I believe, as a "slim Jim") with two pink stripes running horizontally near its bottom. I am further embarrassed by the recollection of going shopping with my mother, at the age of fifteen, at a store named Baskin's in Evanston for what was then described as "a one-button-roll suit," in powder blue flannel, and my mother being told by the salesman that he thought such a suit distinctly a mistake for her son. The salesman was absolutely correct, of course, which didn't prevent me from hating him. Fortunately, I didn't get the suit.
I say fortunately because that one-button-roll, powder blue suit would have been sufficient to keep me out of the fraternity I was asked to join during my freshman year at the University of Illinois. (A friend, I was told, was blackballed by the fraternity of his choice at Michigan for wearing white sweat socks during rush week.) This fraternity was very clothes conscious; its haberdasher of choice was Brooks Brothers; and deviations, which is to say lapses in taste, were not happily tolerated. Not long after moving in, I remember a particularly twerpy member coming round to check every new pledge's tie rack and feeling distinctly relieved for having had the good sense not to bring my slim Jim along.
The University of Illinois may have been in the Big Ten, but this fraternity's sartorial model was clearly Ivy League. (Or "Ivory League," as I have always thought it, after someone I know reported to me having been caught years ago as a graduate student at Princeton with a young woman in his boardinghouse room. This was against the rules and caused his landlady, an immigrant, to chastise him, saying she was greatly disappointed in him, having till now thought him "a nice boy, clean and cut from the Ivory League.") Ivy League snobbery in these matters was in itself bad enough - it was, after all, an imitation of English snobbery - but to encounter this at a reduced level in the Middle West was more than ridiculous; it was snobbery based on a snobbery itself based on a foreign snobbery, an imitation of an imitation. Pathetic, really.
I dropped out of the fraternity and soon departed the University of Illinois for the University of Chicago, where such snobbery as existed was exclusively of an intellectual kind. But my brief experience as a fraternity man taught me that I did not live comfortably under too strong a tyranny of taste. No doubt this experience has much to do with my edginess when I nowadays come up against little tyrants of taste in everyday life. All this might suggest a clear victory of good sense (mine) over social conformity (other people's). But I rather doubt that it does. I still buy a goodly portion of my clothes at Brooks Brothers (now owned by Marks and Spencer, the English discount kings), and now, nearly forty years later, I suspect I continue to look like a greatly aged boy, clean and cut from the Ivory League. Sadder still to report, some years ago I told a woman I know that I was once in a fraternity, and she responded by saying she thought she could guess which one it was. Damn if she didn't get it exactly right. Some marks, apparently, do not erase.
What makes taste so complex a phenomenon is that it is entwined, sometimes it seems inextricably, with style and fashion and social class and snobbery, and, at certain points, it even touches on morality. People for whom questions of taste loom very large in their own lives are likely to find a strong moral component in taste. I myself do not, except where taste lapses into snobbery of a kind meant to hurt others. But experience teaches - or at least ought to - that a person can have the most exquisite taste and still be a miserable creep, while another person can exist outside the realm of taste and be quite angelic. So many geniuses - Mozart, Beethoven, Balzac, Dostoyevsky, Dickens - were men of enormous bad taste, leading one to believe that genius is itself beyond taste, good or bad. It is the rest of us, those who are without genius, who are left to attend carefully to matters of taste.
Taste is a word that is subject to the most wiggly usage in the minds and mouths of some people and is used with impressive precision by others. To begin with, it is unclear whether we are to some extent born with taste or develop it as we go along in life. John Loring, the chief buyer for Tiffany's and hence one of the leading arbiters of contemporary taste, holds rather Rousseauesque views on the subject. He believes that "bad taste is the perversions of taste which people acquire," which implies that people are born with good taste. "Bad taste," adds Mr. Loring, "is received opinion." The more traditional view is that we acquire taste as we achieve culture, through education and self-cultivation.
Benjamin Jowett, in writing a recommendation for H. W. Fowler, who failed to receive a First at Oxford, noted: "He is quite a gentleman in manner and feeling and has good sense and good taste." By good taste I assume that Jowett didn't mean Fowler wore Calvin Klein underwear and the shoes of Salvatore Ferragamo. I assume he meant it was something that Fowler, through rigorous application, had acquired. Pressed, I should say that, when Jowett praised Fowler's good taste, what he had in mind was his sense of suitability. Good sense and an understanding of what is suitable are certainly the qualities that Fowler would later reveal, to the highest power, in Modern English Usage, a book that is perhaps as much about taste as it is about correctness.
"The essence of taste is suitability," wrote Edith Wharton in "French Ways and Their Meanings." But how does one know what is suitable? We know, the answer is, in our bones. Here we get very near the matter of sensibility, one of the trickiest words in the language, which for me has been best formulated, if not quite defined, by Jacques Barzun, who writes:
Taste implies a judgment of some kind. Sensibility doesn't judge, it receives. Or it fails to. Sensibility equals the number and fineness of your nerve ends. It's the obverse of one's limitations.
Proust's friend, the composer Reynaldo Hahn, in his book On Singers and Singing, defines taste as "a wide-ranging instinct, a sure and rapid perception of even the smallest matters, a particular sensitivity of the spirit which prompts us to reject spontaneously whatever would appear as a blemish in a given context, would alter or weaken a feeling, distort a meaning, accentuate an error, run counter to the purposes of art." That seems to me very good, except that it defines taste as the search for and elimination of flaws - which is to say, it defines it negatively. Hazlitt, in "Thoughts on Taste," went at things the other way round. He held that "genius is the power of producing excellence: taste is the power of perceiving the excellence thus produced in its several sorts and degrees, with all their force, refinement, distinctions, and connections." He felt that "fine taste consists in sympathy, not in antipathy; and the rejection of what is bad is only to be accounted a virtue when it implies a preference and attachment to what is better." Hazlitt believed that our true taste was revealed by our enthusiasms.
That one's taste is best revealed by one's enthusiasms seems very intelligent, too, except that I am not at all sure I can define my taste by my own enthusiasms. I not only have a fairly strong inconsistency, in my view a happy inconsistency, of taste - I am one of those people who can watch a professional football game in the afternoon and then go off to a chamber music concert in the evening - but in so many realms my taste is rather boringly conventional. In recent years, the four works of visual art that really caused the earth to shake under me have all been sculptural: Praxiteles' Hermes with the Infant Dionysus, which I saw at Olympia in Greece; the two very different Davids, Michelangelo's and Donatello's, both in Florence; and, finally and illogically, Sir George Gilbert Scott's Albert Memorial in London, which most people consider the monument to Victorian bad taste, but which blew me away. I prefer Degas and Matisse above all modern painters, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Darius Milhaud and Ravel (regretting that he wrote Bolero) above all modern composers. I tend to prefer the comic over the tragic, the light over the heavy, Montaigne and Pascal over Hegel and Nietzsche, the classical over the romantic, the Apollonian over the Dionysian.
Many of my tastes are generational, which is not very interesting, except that the generation isn't always mine. I seem to have fallen just the other, calmer side of the 1960s, that great divider of Americans, in taste as in much else. This often causes me to share tastes with people much older than I and sometimes to feel distant from people only slightly younger. I was recently with a man nearly thirty years older, who said that he could never consider sex a trivial act. I feel that way, too. I am deaf to all rock music after the Beatles and think that the songs of Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Johnny Mercer, and other song-writers of that generation unlikely ever to be surpassed. I like to wear neckties. I like the very idea of Fred Astaire and of Duke Ellington. I like sophisticated women; and Myrna Loy is my notion of a dish, to use a word that probably gives me away. I am a sucker for what I take to be urbane and elegant. Much of my sense of what constitutes urbanity and elegance derives from the 1920s, a decade I wasn't alive to witness.
Nor does my taste always seem coherent. Take humor. I find Henny Youngman very funny. But I also love Max Beerbohm, who, among other knockout remarks, once, considering Freud, said: "They were a tense and peculiar family, the Oedipuses." W. C. Fields can also do the job for me. I am not above caving in at slapstick: a Buster Keaton walk into a wall, say, or an Oliver Hardy fall through a floor. But then I also think Henry James a very funny man. Men and women, I find, often show strong differences in taste in humor. Most women do not find W. C. Fields all that funny or H. L. Mencken, either; and I have yet to meet a woman who laughs at the comedian Rodney Dangerfield, which I do. Perhaps it is such dumpy men, which most men eventually become, whom women do not find funny. Then again a certain category of humor is about eschewing good taste, deliberately, which women of natural refinement are not easily able to do.
Examples of what I consider bad taste are not difficult to find. Not allowing men in prison to smoke, which until recently was the law in Vermont, struck me as a piece of genuine bad taste, puritan division. Calling too much attention to oneself through one's clothes is another form of bad taste; Ben Hecht once called overdressing the only art we've developed in America. Marrying more than three times feels to me a display of bad judgment lapsing into bad taste owing to a man or woman simply not knowing when to call it quits. No shortage of bad taste in ideas. To continue to call oneself a Marxist in our day, after all the nightmares Marxism has caused in the world, seems to me in extremely poor taste. Some people have broader tastes than others, but to have a taste for everything - and I have met professors who never met ideas they didn't like - appears to me bad taste of a kind that renders one something close to an idiot.
In the article "Taste" in the old Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences - and I have a distinct taste for older over newer reference works - the art historian Meyer Schapiro remarks that "taste is identified with good taste, and good taste with the taste of the upper class." He goes on to claim that "good taste becomes the aesthetics of conduct, the aptitude for manners and politeness, the knowledge of formal practices, the arts and choices most favorable to the enjoyment of the conditions of upper-class life." Even as I copy that out, I sense its irrelevance. While once it was true, it is true no longer. Edith Wharton could acknowledge the philistinism of her parents, but she went on to allow that they were immensely well spoken, had a usefully settled code of conduct, and ate wonderfully well. An upper class of this kind simply no longer exists. We have the very rich, we have people at the summit of with-it-ry, we may even have power elites, but none of these suggest anything like the stability of taste that Edith Wharton and, before her, Henry James found in American life. Quite the reverse. Nowadays the richer, more powerful, more with-it one is, the more chaotic one's taste is likely to be. Such people made the fortunes of such dreadful painters as Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, and Julian Schnabel. Apart from the knowledge that money talks - it makes, I fear, rather a squawking noise - they have no more confidence in their own views on taste than anyone else, maybe even a little less.
My own guess is that many of our clues about what constitutes good taste come from an upper class that no longer exists, if not from one that existed most elegantly in the imagination. American novelists of the 1920s and 1930s, not least among them such Irish-Americans as F. Scott Fitzgerald, John O'Hara, and, later, Mary McCarthy, wrote novels that spoke to a longing for upper-class standards of elegant good taste. It is because F. Scott Fitzgerald in particular was able to infuse so much style into his fantasies of upper-class good taste that so many kids named Scott and Nicole (never, alas, poor Zelda) walk the streets in our own day.
The combination of style and taste is not always so easily disentangled. Style tends to be free, taste restricted; style, by its very nature, independent; taste, by its nature, conventional. To have taste implies a strong sense of tradition; to have style is to think, act, feel rather like no one before you. (Much avant-garde style is intended to affront good taste.) Taste of a certain kind can be bought or, through training, acquired - Elsie de Wolfe claimed that the interior decorator's job was to introduce new money to old furniture; style appears to be something with which one is born. When from time to time people with style appear, they change taste, sometimes radically, more often ever so slightly. The late Audrey Hepburn, for example, made it possible for a woman to be skinny and still seem sexy. At the same time that we admire style, we worry about taste. Or at least some of us do. Meyer Schapiro writes that "good taste is essentially conservative, for while it is poor taste to be behind the time, it is still worse to be ahead [of the time]." I have never for a moment been in danger of being ahead of my time. When I was younger I felt a moderate urge to be at least abreast of my time, but less and less do I feel this as I grow older. Coco Chanel, savvy though she was about so much else, was, I believe, wrong when she said, "La mode est toujours jolie." I have seen too many past styles that, when they are done, are far from jolie; hideuse comes closer to describing them. To restrict myself to men's styles, consider the bell-bottom trousers of the 1960s, the long sideburns of the 1970s, the stonewashing and other perversions of denim of the 1980s. I am fairly confident that, before long, the oversized men's double-breasted suits of the 1990s will join this cavalcade of comic fashion, so that grandchildren will years from now laugh at photographs of you in your $1,000 Italian suit. ("Hey, Giorgio, you made the coat too long.")
I wish I were quite as impervious to fashion as that last paragraph suggests. Feeling happily well out of it, a touch old-fashioned by deliberation, a paid mocker of my own time, I nonetheless occasionally still feel myself gripped at the throat by the fashion of the day. I put on an old single-breasted raincoat I own, and it feels, somehow, skimpy. My blue blazer feels oddly narrow in the shoulders. The wool plaid shirt I have always fancied has a collar that nowadays seems too long. Why should I care? I am not in the permanent Easter parade. I am not in the skirt chase. I don't even yearn to be the sixth best-dressed man in the geology department. Yet, I find, I do care. I stop wearing my old raincoat. I buy a new, looser-fitting blue blazer. I have a tailor shorten the collar of my old shirt for roughly what the shirt originally cost new.
I seem to have slipped from taste to fashion. Quentin Bell, in his little book on Ruskin, writes that "fashion is the grand motor force of taste." Certainly this is true to the extent that one of the few certain things about taste is that it changes. Chroniclers of taste have even charted a cycle through which taste in the modern age passes. "Indeed," writes Stephen Bayley, in a book titled Taste: The Secret Meaning of Things, "the cycle of taste - from modishness to disfavor and then to camp revival - is a familiar one upon which the spurious dynamics of the fashion industry depend." I feel rather sorry for people who have allowed themselves to become hostages to these changes - who become breathless in the race to stay ahead of their time. But perhaps I should save my pity, for the race probably makes them very happy, and another way of living may not, in any case, be available to them. In "Psychology of Fashion," Georg Simmel holds that there are "classes and individuals who demand constant change...[and who] find in fashion something that keeps pace with their own soul-movements."
Yet, I sometimes wonder, why does my own soul move so differently? Why am I not among the people who seem able to change styles, adopt new fashions, turn in their taste so regularly and so easily? Why is it that I myself prefer to remain in the outer purlieus of fashion, far from the chic and madding crowd, content to indulge in my own mildly out-of-it tastes? Is this owing to my temperament, upbringing, reason, propensity for moral judgment? I think perhaps it is because I have for a long while conceived of my life as a small work of art - a minor sculpture, perhaps, or a miniature portrait-while people who can change their tastes from week to week think of their lives as, perhaps, a television series or the nightly news. However ineptly I have shaped this work of art I strive to make of my life, I cannot suddenly recast it, switch to all black clothes, pierce an ear, go about in cowboy boots. I grow old, I grow old, I shall wear my trousers with a one-and-a-half-inch cuff and a slight break at the ankle.
For all that taste changes, runs in cycles, is manipulated by designers and advertisers, and is often little more than a co-efficient of social class, for all that it can be the agent of snobbery, an artificial way of separating people from one another, the product merely of the cultural environment in which one grew up - for all this, I believe that taste really exists. I believe, moreover, that there truly is such a thing as good taste whose roots lie in something much deeper and more mysterious than fashion. A friend who edits an intellectual magazine once returned a manuscript to an academic author, saying that he would be pleased to publish it if the author would remove the manuscript's heavily jargonized language. The author wrote back to say that he would be pleased to do so, since he assumed that the use of jargon was nothing more than a matter of taste. "Yes," said my friend, "it is a matter of taste: good taste versus bad taste." I agree completely. I agree, too, with Edith Wharton, who wrote of taste: "Divest the word of its prim and priggish implications, and see how it expresses the mysterious demand of the eye and mind for symmetry, harmony and order."
When good taste is removed, one feels the loss rather dramatically. A strong case in point is the changes that have taken place in recent years at The New Yorker magazine since the removal from the magazine's editorship of William Shawn. Much in the old New Yorker, under Shawn's editorship, was imperfect. I frequently disagreed with the magazine's politics, found some of its comedy only worked to tighten the lines in my natural frown, felt myself turn blue with boredom at many of its three- and four-part articles. But the one thing that could not be faulted during William Shawn's editorship was the magazine's inherent good taste.
Shawn did not permit four-letter words or other profanities in The New Yorker, my guess is, because he knew that such locutions were being used everywhere else and he knew that there was neither distinction nor courage in having them in his magazine. Perhaps for the same reason, he did not publish stories that described or talked about fornication, plain or fancy. And so when a John Cheever or a John Updike story appeared in a magazine other than The New Yorker, you could almost predict what it was about. You could rely on Shawn's regard for the integrity of words generally, so that under his editorship you would never find the word intriguing as if it were a synonym for interesting or fascinating; discover presently misused; or see so bloated a word as prestigious used at all.
Some might argue that Shawn did these things out of prudery or because he was a language crank. I don't think this was so. I think that William Shawn insisted on these points because of his intrinsic good taste. And nowhere did Shawn pass the test of good taste better, in my view, than in the unsigned obituaries he used to write on the deaths of longtime employees of the magazine. So perfect was his touch, avoiding sentimentality and overstatement, drawing out exactly the detail that revealed character and made plain the significance in these lives that, in reading these obituaries, I used to feel a touch of something like envy for the person who had died for his having been so perfectly appreciated. These obituaries were matchless exercises in good taste.
When Shawn himself died, no one on The New Yorker could be found who could write anything like an obituary of the same quality for him, which, sad in itself, suggests the loss of something serious. Much of the complaint one now hears about that magazine since Shawn was dismissed from its editorship, I believe, has much to do with the loss of good taste that he brought to the magazine. Read the magazine today, with its unbuttoned and often sloppy language, its edge of political meanness, the childish obviousness of its attempts to outrage, and one comes to yearn for the quiet good taste that could once be counted on in a magazine one has been reading for decades. The result is as if a fine and reliable old friend, a little dull perhaps but always with beautiful manners, has, in his senility, discovered a novelty store and suddenly taken to pulling various obscene objects out of his pockets: rubber vomit, inflatable sex organs, plaster of paris dog droppings. None of it, shall we say, in the best of taste.
Good taste may not be as important as original thought, wit, or even charm, but life can seem more desperately competitive, haunted by snobbery, much less gracious without it. Under endemic bad taste, life takes on a decline-and-fall quality that is not easily shaken off; while being in the presence of unpretentious good taste allows one to feel - allows me at any rate to feel - both contented and calmly uplifted. Nicely muted but genuine good taste makes the world seem a pleasant place where you can relax and where you may even have a shot at becoming that apparently most difficult of all things to be - exactly what you are, your true self.
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Source: American Scholar, Spring93, Vol. 62 Issue 2, p167, 8p.
Item Number: 9304060180