(Nothing vaguely cultural going on there for five minutes)
[We interrupt our interrupted programing again [programmus interruptus is our specialty] to bring you this newsflash]
I have been planning to write an essay on Jerzy Stempowski — in my book, the literatus par excellence — the only man I have ever read whose writing style matches that of Russell – not a single spare, wasted word; a prose so stripped of fluff — so full of meaning — as to appear skeletal (burgeoning); the argument races so fast through the text, one has to read slowly, for fear of falling behind — and meaning to begin the essay with the observation that he was a kind of fruit typical of his climatic zone — Podolia.
Like Korzeniowski (“Conrad”), Szymanowski, Lechon, Iwaszkiewicz, Neuhaus — the A list — the B list is an arm long — he grew up on a largish property whose owners, idle and isolated as they were from the rest of the world, were want to beat the blahs with… culture. Multilingual (Polish, Russian, French, German), classically trained (Greek and Latin), they read voraciously, wrote extensively (mainly letters and memoirs, but also manuals, chronicles, genealogies, dramas in the Greek style, novels in the French), composed and performed music (piano played well enough to handle Chopin and Beethoven was de rigeur, amateur opera performances with neighbors not an unusual pastime), and spoke and thought of the world in a manner reflecting their deep reading: off the cuff quotes from Marcialis, or Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy — not meant to impress but a natural turn of mind — the way some of you might refer to Saturday Night Live (or whatever else you refer to). (They had no television in Podolia). They were also well traveled — mainly in the Romance South — between which and Podolia they often divided the year; and they imagined themselves a Mediterranean people accidentally cast in the North of the continent (ego Romanus sum, wrote their sixteenth century ancestors). Sicilia and Podolia are much alike, wrote one of them, meaning great geographical beauty, fabulous fertility, long history, changing political fortunes, layers of historical influences, a baffling (and fertile) mix of languages and religions (in Podolia: Ukrainians, Poles, Jews, Armenians, Russians, Greeks, Karaites, Tartars, Germans).
Which is why Wyspa Montresor, a book about Montrésor, a Polish feudal fief in France (Indre-et-Loire) is such a profound surprise: it is a kind of collage of voices of three-dozen different people — mostly family members — associated with the property, documenting the life of its half-Podolian owners in the 19th and 20th centuries. That life is colorful (the family was related by marriage to both Hohenzollerns and the House of Savoy, lived east and west, participated in French politics as well as Polish, etc.); tragic (it is hard not to see the twentieth century as a plot to eradicate them — everyone robs them — Russian revolutionaries, Ukraininan freedom fighters, German conquerors, their own domestics, the Soviet regime, the Polish People’s Republic, even Giscard d’Estaing’s farm policies); but above all — shocking: the family — in the 19th century among the richest in Russia, certainly among the most landed in Europe — appear to have been… cultural idiots: there is not a single mention of any book, any opera, any museum, any painting. It’s all about hunting — and mostly of the dumb French variety in which the beaters drive the animals towards stationary shooters who spend the whole day shooting — thousands of animals — without the least expenditure of energy or brain-power (but develop a pretty strong forefinger).
Why is it a shock?
It is a shock because, in my generosity, I have always imagined the present (apparent) decline in cultural interest among the higher echelons to the disappearance of the economic class who in the past embodied cultural life: by which I meant the economic class with 1) the free time to engage in culture and 2) the financial resources to pay for it — in short, Veblen’s “leisure class”: land aristocracy, the agrarian rentier class. (Stempowski himself, in his bibliophilic La Terre Bernoise, makes a similar claim regarding the cultural lives of Swiss peasants who used to engage in folk art until, suddenly, cities began to grow thus creating a demand for village products, and thereby robbing the peasant of his free time).
I am now made to realize that for a cultured class to arise a third element must be present: an interest. Without it, it turns out, it is perfectly possible to be rich and idle and do nothing cultural for five minutes; a free, rich person can remain a cultural idiot all one’s life.
Good breeding in action
Aesthetic theorists of the cultural constructivist bent have long argued that the striking similarities between the physical features of the upper classes of a nation („fine features”, „aristocratic noses”, etc.) and the „established cannons of beauty” (i.e. the way beautiful men and women are portrayed in the art of the same nation) are a result of the upper classes setting themselves up as the object of worship and imposing themselves upon their peons as the aesthetic standard de rigeur. (E.g. “I have red hair therefore red hair is beautiful”).
The theory feels intuitively correct (after all, the ruling classes do a fair bit of imposing on their peons in all sorts of other ways); as well as fair (it generously refuses to accept the possibility that the upper classes could indeed be more beautiful than their peons on average; or even appreciably different — we’re all human beings, the same, created-equal, etc.). For both reasons, and out of plain decency, self-conscious scions of the upper classes tend to embrace it. (E.g. Eco).
Yet, the theory has one major failing: it fails to explain why in many societies across the world the upper classes do tend to look appreciably different from the rest of their nation – and why various members of the upper class of a nation often share physical features to the extent of being able to recognize each other on sight.
The explanation for this phenomenon is as risible / outrageous as it is obvious to any animal or plant breeder: however the cultural standard of beauty may arise (perhaps they are culturally constructed; or, yet differently, simply reflect the physical appearance of the founder), once the upper class adopts that standard, it is free to pursue it. Which it does by breeding itself in its image: upper class men marry down; since they control all power and all means of production, their only interest in females is physical attractiveness; if the upper-class men of a nation accept a standard of beauty whereby gray eyes are good, it will take only three to four generations of selective breeding (whereby they will select gray-eyed milk-maids for their breeding stock) to establish gray eyes as a prevalent physical characteristic of the upper class. QED. 1
A corollary of this theory helps explain why many upper class members so readily and uniformly recognize/ stigmatize/ reject nouveaux riches and why they claim to be able to recognize them just by looking. Haselhuhn and Wong report2 that broad-faced men are more likely to lie and more likely to resort to violence : many nouveaux riches are in the words of the upper classes “crudely made” (by which they mean “thick-set”, “thick featured”, “roughly hewn”); their broad faces betray a tendency to aggressive self-assertion and readiness to violate established principles of social cohesion. Such features are a readily perceptible warning of danger.
If the opposite is true – that narrow faces indicate lower likelihood of resorting to lies or violence – and therefore a higher tendency to play by group rules – then it is understandable why the upper classes – whose survival rests entirely on class solidarity – would prefer such features and would actively seek to acquire / breed them into their children. It is entirely possible that the founding members of many – perhaps all – aristocratic families were broad-faced Chingiz-khans – reflecting (betraying?) their readiness to resort to lies and violence as they “pushed up”; but their descendants speedily bred that look out. Everywhere in the world the aristocrats – meaning those of old upper class stock – are described as fine featured, elongated and narrow-faced (relative to their nation).
1 My research suggests that upper-class in-breeding is relatively rare. Rajputs — royalty of a caste and ritual-purity obsessed nation, who today marry exclusively within their caste (as did much European aristocracy by late 18th century), as recently as early 1800’s married women of all castes, including untouchables and non-Hindus. Polish noblemen consistently married non-noble women as recently as 1750. Endogamy appears to be an exception rather than the rule in aristocratic societies; its rise might perhaps foretells the aristocracy’s imminent downfall (or even arise as a consequence of it).
2 “Dr Haselhuhn and Dr Wong found this was the case. In both a staged negotiation using MBA students and a separate experiment in which ordinary undergraduates were given an opportunity to earn more money if they misreported the results of a series of die rolls, the two researchers found that the wider a man’s face was, compared with its height, the more likely he was to lie about his intentions (in the case of the negotiations) or cheat (in the case of the die rolls).” Interestingly, they found no detectable width of face/ proclivity to lying correlation among women. See the original article here, or its brief summary here.