I was fired last Sunday. Good news, I know!
For you see, in addition to literary excellence, I supplement my otherwise inconsistent income by wait-staff work.
On that unpropitious day, while only just recuperating from an extended illness that made certain my final pay would be less than it ought ordinarily to have been, I was fated to wait a table of 15.
I took their orders. Brought them their drinks. Took fresh drink orders. Brought them their food. Brought them more drink orders again. Finally, I saw them smiling out without a word of reproach to me or complaint to my supervisor.
An hour intervenes.
On the restaurant’s Facebook page a comment appears. Oh! But my. Someone didn’t get their preferred beer because we had run out. A good restaurant’s staff would have used their powers of clairvoyance to see the patron’s preference in advance of time. The faulting here was clearly fair. But, moreover, the waiter was “rude.”
I wasn’t. I never am. That was my supervisor’s initial response, though it availed me nothing with the employer. So why did the customer say so?
I know and have known for the longest time. I have been persecuted ever since I was in the Grammar School on this count. There are people in the world to whom to be polite is to be rude. Or, more often, less formally, “snobbish.”
- You tuck your shirt in and you’re a snob.
- Reading with glasses is arrant snobbery.
- Wearing a tie is appallingly snobbish.
- Taking napkins at MacDonald’s is an iron-caste proof of a snob.
- Speaking another language other than the nationally known one is to be in upper aether of snobbism.
- Speaking the nationally known one correctly is snobbishness beyond the point of pardon.
Such is the thinking of a portion of people who we must concede the numbers to. They outnumber us snobs—I won’t trouble them with an actual figure in the event that they’re reading. Something they give signs of being capable of at times.
These vengeful creatures ever after the snob have a name of their own: the philistine.
A brief clinical outline of the species for clarity’s sake.
They self-mutilate for causes not known to the author. Primarily by the piercing of their skin or the injecting of ink to make pictures which make them slightly uglier than they were prior. In addition they:
- Suffer severely from coprolalia.
- Are ardent enemies of trousers.
- Increasingly dispense with shoes proper.
- Are immune to and incapable of reason.
- Sport deformed hair.
So much for the philistine. Let us leave him here.
If a snob is the opposite of the philistine, to the extent even of revulsion on the philistine’s part for us, is then to be a snob a bad thing? I submit that it is not. To be a snob is a very high honour. A calling to be lived up to.
A snob has a sense of self-worth.
The snob to the extent possible attempts to parallel their outward apparel with that sense of their value.
Although, they will also take care to match their surroundings and so to establish a balance of casual and formal. But always being neat, presentable and tasteful in their choice of clothing. No occasion out of doors exempts them from that.
The snob knows they are not a walking advertisement for a clothing company and that were they to be, then the company ought to pay the snob to wear the clothes and not they the company to wear them.
The snob knows running shoes are not required when not running.
The snob understands etiquette. The little unspoken rules of society that make company at home with each other and ensure conversation carries on without wrinkles or rips.
It also regulates the less direct and less lasting relations such as the giving up of one’s seat on the train or tram, holding open of doors and helping of the shopper unlucky in the strength of the plastic bag their items were placed in.
Returning of smiles, length of time looking at a person you don’t know, how close you are entitled to sit next to someone. Etiquette is the standard by which we measure such things.
The snob is polite. Says please, excuse me, thank you, after you, I couldn’t, etc.
The snob reads. The snob listens to classical music. The snob likes looking up at beautiful buildings —inside and out.
The snob is sensitive to others. The snob doesn’t react emotionally. The snob only ever returns fire.
This then is the mirror of snobbery. Hold it up to your eyes and look hard to see whether you find your features there clearly. If not, polishing is in order.
The Origin of the Snobs
In the Graeco-Roman world, emphasis on the Roman, being seen was paramount. Duties were to be met, and they differed according to the station one occupied.
The Byzantine Empire inherited that concern, and it came to Kiev together with Holy Orthodoxy.
Indeed, these obligations cannot be separated out from each other.
Without etiquette, politeness, manners, to carry out the precepts of the Gospel would be impossible. You couldn’t love one another, do good to others, or in a word, live out the unconquerable kindness Christ taught humanity.
The West eventually after the collapse of Roman order rediscovered and even refined the preoccupation with form. Etiquette and taste—ideals, and in the former case: a word that was appropriated from the French.
In the reign of Peter the Great, one of the earliest books published in the Russian Empire was entitled The Honourable Mirror of Youth. Such things were instilled and inculcated as,
- Cutting one’s nails;
- Sitting up straight;
- Not to splash or slurp one’s soup;
- Cutting meat off of bones with that simple but inexhaustibly useful implement: a knife;
- Wiping one’s mouth with a napkin and never your sleeve;
- Not to speak while eating.
It also taught to love God and the Tsar, honour priests and respect one’s elders.
The other Great, Catherine, continued the sharpening of society’s basic behaviour, and subsequent Russian rulers upheld the tone.
Dividends of Snobbery
For I dare not suggest that any of the above is good obviously of its own; I dare not present a defence without an explicit outline of what one stands to gain by conceding the point. We are modern men, yes? What’s in it for us?
The improvement of your mind and character first and above all, perhaps—God is merciful—even so much so that you won’t ever ask that horrid question again.
Pushkin was polite. Gogol had good manners. Even Lermontov, thunderstorm for a soul, understood etiquette.
Pushkin could not have written as he did outside of Imperial Russia, not any more than Philip Pullman could ever have had a word published in Imperial Russia. Note that Voltaire did. It wouldn’t be a matter of censorship.
High art was born of the sense of human value and the need to live up to it. The value of oneself and then of society taken together as composed of people like you. This gave confidence, inspired and fired people and provided the blocks with which to build a civilisation.
And we are living off the very last of it. Bulgakov and Prokofiev struggled with inhuman energy to exist in the aftermath of the overthrow of the visible Russian civilisation. Claudel and Mauriac were anomalies in their France.
Is there anyone anywhere else?
Isn’t it time at last to turn the tables back on philistinism? To make the ones who actually ought to be ashamed of themselves blush, rather than blush ourselves for not being shameless? Kindness needs teeth. A gentleman needs a backbone. Hope frequently calls out for a battering-ram.
Who’s strong enough to be a snob today?