Renaissance Lit and the Importance of (Not) Being Earnest, essay by Jeremy Klemin

Art: Caravaggio


“It is probably no mere historical accident that the word person, in its first meaning, is a mask.” –Robert Ezra Park 

It’s difficult, I think, to blame students for the general apathy they have towards renaissance literature. Translations are often stilted, and the preoccupations of the characters of these books are, if not totally irrelevant, then at the very least antiquated to contemporary readers. I very rarely read books from this time period for fun, and always feel a bit awkward talking with people who have studied or are studying pre-1600’s literature. Do these books solely tell us about what life was like when they were written, or is there something in them that can still nourish us emotionally or intellectually?

These were the questions I had in mind while reading Baldassare Castiglione’s work The Book of Courtier (1528), written some 30-odd years before the birth of Galileo. It is, superficially at least, what is called a courtesy book – it discusses how a 16th century socialite ought to act, both through hypothetical social situations and, at times, direct instructions. Some parts of the book haven’t aged well and bear little relevance to readers today (especially the sections on gender and proper manners for a lady in the court), but the book has probably stuck around because it introduces the idea of sprezzatura, which can roughly be defined as studied carelessness. The closest synonym is probably nonchalance, but it is a studied nonchalance; nonchalance with the explicit purpose of appearing unconcerned. In essence, The Book of Courtier is essentially a detailed study of the heavy amount of maintenance that goes into social interactions.

Post-industrial culture thinks and writes frequently about the ways in which technology falsifies our interactions with each other, how it widens the chasm between our “true selves” and the self we want everybody to think we are. One of the reasons The Book of Courtier is so historically important is because it presents a fundamentally modern view of what being human means, of how any concrete notions of a “self” are entirely context dependent. It implies that “modern life” and all of the distractions that come with it are not the cause of our estrangement, but the most recent (and convenient) tool for what comes naturally — the tendency to misrepresent and deceive in a myriad of small, petty, and almost unnoticeable ways.

Later (much, much later), sociologists like Erving Goffman and the Symbolic Interactionists would try to basically show the same thing. Because a person’s behavior is so specific to the situation she has found herself in, attempting to identify the “core” of a person is not only futile but counterintuitive. It was for this reason that Goffman saw all interpersonal communication as performative. The Book of Courtier is so impressive, then, because it understood the fluidity of personhood nearly 450 years before the symbolic interactionists started to heavily invest themselves in the idea and before proto-postmodernists like Fernando Pessoa and Macedonio Fernandez incorporated it into their fiction.

A bit more on sprezzatura, which is really the crux of the Castiglione’s strange four-part book: Castiglione describes sprezzatura as seeking to “conceal all art and make whatever is done or said appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it.” He expands a bit later, arguing that true art is art “which does not seem to be art; nor must one be more careful of anything than of concealing it…” So, then, the successful courtier must master sprezzatura and must constantly conduct himself and his affairs in a fluid, at-ease manner. Immediately, this need for mastery presents an important contradiction. To appear to do something effortlessly usually takes a tremendous amount of effort, and as a result, the courtier must consciously practice and prepare for situations in order to seem effortless. If the courtier seems artificially at ease, bullshit is called and she’s accused of being affectatious. A delicate balance indeed.

Castiglione presents a great example of a failure to maintain this delicate balance early on in the book via a rather sad little fellow named Roberto Bibbieno. Describing Bibbieno’s dancing, Castiglione explains that to make it “quite plain that he is giving no thought to what he is doing, [Bibbieno] lets his clothes from his back and his slippers from his feet, and goes right on dancing without picking them up.” Bibbieno is mistaken to the extent that he thinks “making it quite plain that he is giving no thought” is a positive attribute. In an effort to seem nonchalant, Bibbieno has laid it on a bit too thickly and tragically failed. The legitimacy of his performance is no more.

We see this pretty frequently on social media, when somebody posts a very carefully-composed photograph and posts a cringe-worthy caption along the lines of “Dave snapped a photo of me when I wasn’t paying attention, just a regular day at the beach!” Most of the grievances that both serious and amateur media critics have about social media revolve around the idea that it falsifies our relationships with other people, and provides numerous social incentives to misrepresent ourselves. Based on books like Castligione’s, it seems as if outlets likes Facebook and Instagram merely exacerbate what is already innate within us; the tendency to perpetually blur the line between lying and misrepresentation in daily micro-interactions with other people.

As the character Bibbieno mentioned above painfully learns, our social interactions become jeopardized when it becomes obvious we’re deliberately mystifying/misrepresenting. Another character in the book named The Count astutely recognizes this idea, arguing, “Do you not see that what you are calling nonchalance in [Bibbieno] is really affectation, because we clearly see him making every effort to show that he takes no thought of what he is about, which means taking too much thought?” The necessity to appear nonplussed by whatever the given social situation is requires the manual regulation of one’s own behavior, and further management is needed to conceal the fact that one’s actions are being manually regulated.

In Goffman’s introduction to The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1956), there’s a fantastic fictional situation that closely mirrors the situation that Castliglione describes above. Goffman affectionately describes the exploits of Preedy, a middle-aged Englishman who is vacationing through Spain. In the story, Preedy is seen sauntering on the beach. “If by chance a ball was thrown [Preedy’s] way, he looked surprised; then let a smile of amusement lighten his face, looked round dazed to see that there were people on the beach […] and then resumed carelessly his nonchalant survey of space.” Goffman goes on to explain the multitude of selves that Preedy presents: cosmopolitan Preedy carrying a Spanish translation of Homer, Methodical and Sensible Preedy folding his beach materials into a neat pile, Big-Cat Preedy stretching his huge frame, Mediterranean, comfortable Preedy (but not too comfortable, as to appear forced) in the cold water. In these seemingly mundane beach activities, nearly everything that Preedy does is being consciously manipulated. Preedy is easy to make fun of, but he’s not alone. Albeit in less dramatic ways, Preedy is less an aberration and more the standard when it comes to how we interact with others.

For Castiglione’s courtier to possess sprezzatura, then, he also must hide any indication that he has gone through enormous trouble to appear at skilled at whatever the given task or activity is. According to Goffman, “Performers may even attempt to give the impression that their present poise and proficiency are something they have always had and that they have never had to fumble their way through a learning period.” The appearance of effort, then, is almost completely counterproductive. The Count, a quasi-prophetic character in The Book of Courtier by this point, realizes this, arguing “art, or any intent effort, if it is disclosed, deprives everything of grace.”

Describing a situation where a person’s first impression falls short of their reputation, Castiglione argues that; “you would expect to discover from day to day some other hidden virtue, always holding fast to the good impression that had come to you through the words of so many persons;” in essence, you would “always be imagining something more than met the eye.” How does the courtier, and we as humans by extension, implicitly lead other people to believe that there is more to us than meets the eye, that there is some hidden, potent inner life? Goffman advocates for a subtle but deliberate mystification. “Restrictions placed upon contact, the maintenance of social distance, provide a way in which awe can be generated and sustained by the audience.” Here, the courtier is faced with the complicated task of finding an appropriate middle-ground. He must be approachable enough to be affable in the minds of others, but removed enough so they continually wonder about him.

Castiglione’s rather strange courtesy book has  probably endured because it highlights how “selves” is a far more appropriate estimation of the human psyche than any essential, all-abiding “self.” This is liberating in some sense, but there are pretty grievous moral implications associated with The Book of Courtier’s worldview. If we are to take Castiglione’s advice, it seems as if the most well-adjusted person is the one most willing to modify their behavior based on the context. Taken to its logical extreme, The Book of Courtier seems to be advocating for absolute moral fluidity, for a chameleon-laden world in which people adopt whatever opinion most benefits them in that specific moment.

According to Goffman, we are always playing a part, and if we are to heed Castiglione’s advice, should be invested in that role only as much as a successful execution of the role demands. When that role is no longer favorable to us, a more appropriate (meaning personally beneficial) role should be enacted.

For the courtier, legitimate emotional or ideological investments are hindering, and appearing wholly invested in something is almost always counterproductive. In nearly any case, we smile upon the person who seems to have fortuitously succeeded in something, and are less heartbroken about the failure of an endeavor that was deemed unimportant to begin with. The dedicated basketball player will appear far more impressive to his coworkers at a pickup game after work if they suspect basketball is only a middling hobby of his rather than something he’s dedicated thousands of altogether banal hours to practicing. This is why pop-psychology instructs us not to tell anybody what our plans are: not only are we preserved from the embarrassment of failing, but from the dedication and passion that being wholly invested in something requires. In an epoch saturated by irony and detachment, passion and emotional investment are rarely more profitable than their counterparts.

Living earnestly seems to destroy the sort of safeguard that living ironically creates; it diminishes the mystique and the distance that we find so appealing in others. By being emotionally and intellectually transparent, both our personality and values are open for display, which not only leaves us open to criticism, but more importantly, destroys the possibility of there being “more than meets the eye” as Castiglione refers to it. Irony and cynicism are invaluable means of self-defense; they preserve the enigma that being wholly up-front completely destroys. If we are to heed Goffman’s condemnation, most of us are “cynics who do not actually believe in anything.”

Once again, I return to a literary example. This is the great mistake that the narrator of Philip Roth’s American Pastoral makes about the protagonist Swede Levov, he continually assumes Levov’s reticence is some kind of asceticism instead of what it really is, banality. In the words of Castiglione, he wrongly assumes that there is “more than meets the eye.” If we are completely transparent about the things and causes we’re emotionally invested in, we destroy the illusion that there’s something more to us, we’re laid bare. That’s why living behind under the security of irony is so powerful, because it misleads people into thinking that behind our cynicism and banality lay quiet, compassionate erudition.


Jeremy Klemin studied Comparative Literature at the University of Edinburgh for his MSc, and is currently based in Lisbon. You can find other pieces of his in 3:AM MagazineThe Ploughshares Blog, and This is Africa. He can be found on Twitter @JeremyKlemin.

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