Reflections on the Aesthetic &
Literary Figure of the Dandy, Part I
Translated by Greg Johnson
Part 1 of 3
Before getting to the quick of the subject, I would like to make three preliminary remarks:
I hesitated to accept your invitation to speak on the figure of the dandy, for this sort of issue is not my main subject of interest.
I finally accepted because I rediscovered a magisterial and lucid essay by Otto Mann, published many years ago in Germany: “Dandyism as Conservative Lifestyle” (“Dandysmus als konservative Lebensform”). This essay deserves to be republished, with commentaries.
My third remark is methodological and definitional. Before speaking of the “dandy,” and relating the subject to the excellent work of Otto Mann, I must set forth the different definitions of the “dandy.” These definitions are for the most part erroneous, or superficial and insufficient.
Some define the dandy as “a pure phenomenon of fashion,” as an elegant personage, nothing more, concerned only to dress himself in the latest style. Others define him as a superficial personage who loves the good life and wanders idly from cabaret to cabaret. Françoise Dolto has painted a psychological portrait of the dandy. Still others emphasize almost exclusively the homosexual dimension of certain dandies like Oscar Wilde. Less commonly, the dandy is assimilated to a sort of avatar of Don Juan, who filled his emptiness by racking up female conquests. These definitions are not those of Otto Mann, which I have adopted.
The Archetype: George Bryan Brummell
Following Otto Mann, I hold that the dandy has a far deeper cultural significance than superficial Epicureans, hedonists, homosexuals, Don Juans, and fashion victims. For Otto Mann, the model, the archetype of the dandy remains George Bryan Brummell, a figure of the early 19th century, which he opposed.
Brummell, contrary to certain later pseudo-dandies, was a discrete man, who did not seek to draw attention to himself by vestimentary or behavioral eccentricities. Brummell avoided loud colors, did not wear jewels, was not devoted to purely artificial social games. Brummell was distant, serious, dignified; he did not try to make an impression, as did later figures as varied as Oscar Wilde, Stefan George, or Henry de Montherlant. For him, spiritual tendencies predominate. Brummell engaged society, conversed, told stories, using irony and even mockery. To speak like Nietzsche or Heidegger, we could say that he rose above the “human, too human” or quotidian banality (Alltäglichkeit).
Brummell, a first generation dandy, incarnates a cultural form, a way of being, that our contemporary society should accept as valid, indeed as solely valid, but that it can no longer generate, or generate sufficiently. Which is why the dandy opposes our society. The principal reasons that underlie his opposition are the following: (1) society appears as superficial and marked with inadequacies and insufficiencies; (2) the dandy, as a cultural form, as the incarnation of a manner of being, poses as superior to this inadequate and mediocre society; (3) the Brummellian dandy does nothing exaggerated or scandalous (sexually, for example), does not commit crimes, does not have political commitments (contrary to the dandies of the second generation like Lord Byron). Brummell himself could not maintain this attitude to the end of his days, because he was crippled by debts and died in poverty in a hospice in Caen. At a certain point, he had turned his back on the fragile equilibrium required by the initial posture of the dandy, of which he was the first incarnation.
An Ideal of Culture, Balance, & Excellence
If the dandy’s behavior and way of being contain no exaggeration, no flamboyant originality, then why does he appear important, or merely interesting, to us at all? Because he incarnates an ideal, which is to some extent, mutatis-mutandis, the same as Greek paiedeia or Roman humanitas. In Evola and Jünger, there is nostalgia for Latin magnanimitas, for the hochmuote of the Germanic knights of the 12th and 13th centuries, Roman or medieval avatars of a Persian proto-historical model, first advanced by Gobineau then by Henry Corbin. The dandy is the incarnation of this ideal of culture, balance, and excellence during one of the most trivial periods in history, where the crude, calculating bourgeois and the rowdy militant of the Hébertist or Jacobin sort took the place of the aristocrat, the knight, the monk, and the peasant.
At the end of the 18th century, with the French Revolution, these virtues, rising from the oldest proto-historical depths of European humanity, were completely called into question. First by the ideology of the Enlightenment and its corrolary, militant egalitarianism, which would erase all the visible and invisible traces of this ideal of excellence. Then, by the Sturm und Drang and Romanticism, which, by way of reaction, sometimes tilted toward ineffectual sentimentalism, which is also an expression of disequilibrium. The immemorial models, sometimes blurred and diffuse, the surviving archetypal attitudes . . . disappear.
The English first became aware of it, at the end of the 17th century, even before the upheavals of the 18th: Addison and Steele in the columns of the Spectator and the Tatler noted the urgent necessity of preserving and maintaining a system of education, a general culture able to guarantee the autonomy of man. A value that the current media do not promote, quiet proof that we have indeed fallen into an Orwellien world, which dons the mask of the “good democratic apostle,” inoffensive and “tolerant,” but pitilessly hounds down all residues of autonomy in the world today. In their successive articles, Addison and Steele bequeathed us an implicit vision of the cultural and intellectual history of Europe.
The highest cultural ideal Europe has ever known is of course ancient Greek paideia. It had been reduced to naught by primitive Christianity, but, from the 14th century on, one sees throughout Europe a desire for ancient ideals to be reborn. The dandy, and, long before his emergence on the European cultural scene, the two English journalists Steele and Addison, wished to incarnate this nostalgia for paideia, in which the autonomy of each individual is respected. In fact, they try to concretely realize in society Goethe’s objective: to incite their contemporaries to forge and fashion a personality, which will be moderate in its needs, satisfied with little, but above all capable, through this quiet asceticism, of reaching the universal, of being a model for all, without betraying its original humanity (Ausbildung seiner selbst zur universalen und selbstgenugsamen Persönlichkeit).
This Goethean ideal, shared avant la lettre by the two English publicists then incarnated by Brummell, was not unscathed by the vicissitudes of the French Revolution, the industrial revolution, and the assorted scientific revolutions. Under the blows of modernity’s contempt for the Ancient, Europe found itself devoid of any substantial culture, any ethical backbone. The consequences are fully apparent today in the decline of education.
From 1789 throughout the 19th century, the cultural level steadily collapsed. Cultural decline started at the top of the social pyramid, henceforth occupied by the triumphant bourgeoisie which, contrary to the dominant classes of former times, has no moral (sittlich) base capable of maintaining a high level of civilization; it has no religious base, nor any real professional ethic, unlike the craftsmen and tradesmen once supervised by their guilds or corporations (Zünfte). The sole aim of the bourgeoisie is the contemptible accumulation of cash, which allows us to speak, following René Guénon, of a “reign of quantity” in which all quality is banished.
In the disadvantaged classes at the bottom of the social ladder, any element of culture is eradicated quite simply because the pseudo-elites no longer uphold a cultural standard; the people, alienated, insecure, proletarianized, are no longer a matrix of specific enthnically determined values, much less a matrix capable of generating an active counter-culture that could easily nullify what Thomas Carlyle called the “cash-flow mentality.” In short, we are witnessing the rise of an affluent barbarism (eine ökonomisch gehobene Barbarei), economically advanced and culturally void.
One cannot be rich in the bourgeois style and also refined and intelligent. This is obviously true: nobody cultivated wants to find himself at dinner, or in conversation, with billionaires like Bill Gates or Albert Frère, nor with bankers or manufacturers of automobiles or refrigerators. The true man of culture, who would be lost in the presence of such dismal characters, would continually have to repress yawns at their inept chatter. (Those of a more volcanic temperament would have to repress the desire to rub a pie in the fat faces of these nullities.) The world would be purer—and surely more beautiful—without such creatures.
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