A lesson in ‘Snobbery’

I’m reading this great book called Snobbery: The American Version by essayist Joseph Epstein, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and a frequent contributor to The New Criterion, both erudite publications that render “Snobbery” all the more enjoyable because it is playful and humorous. I like this book for many reasons, the least of which is that it includes chapters like “Names Away!” about the snobbishness of name dropping, and “The Celebrity Iceberg” about the superficial power of being a celebrity (which Epstein distinguishes from being ‘famous’ by pointing out, “celebrity is usually more detached from pure achievement”)—both apropos of a Hollywood paradigm. Also, the book is a nice counterpoint (or perhaps a complement) to Portrait of a Lady; one can only be so civilised before craving some snark.

The book teaches three main things: There’s a little bit of snob in all of us, snobbery is not at all attractive, but not everything considered elitist, extravagant or highbrow is snobbish: “Something can have all the earmarks of snobbery and turn out to be… absolutely worth it.” Like a good meal, for example, or a very fine bottle of wine.

When William F. Buckley Jr. reviewed the book for The New Criterion in 2002, he [snobbishly] called Epstein “the wittiest writer (working in his genre) alive.” I say snobbishly because of the parenthetical, a snob being someone who feels “superiority to his subject”. But anyhow it seems to be true. Though I suppose it’s impossible to make such a statement without significant breadth of knowledge in the work of all living writers, but let’s pretend…

Though it learns much from its ways, the book is not particularly nice to Hollywood: “Can a nation remain healthy, can all nations draw together, in a world whose brightest stars are film stars?” Epstein quotes from a 1930 essay by Winston Churchill.

“Fame has long been separating itself from real achievement, but for the celebrity snob achievement hasn’t much to do with anything. The celebrity’s most serious achievement is in keeping his or her name before the public; and perhaps the greatest achievement of all, as the public understands it, is a talent for celebrity itself.”

Snobbery emerges from various arrangements, Epstein writes: “social class, money, taste, religion, admired attainments, status of all kinds.” But it is ultimately shallow, corrupting and worst of all, confining. “No easy job, that of the snob; the pay is entirely psychic and the hours are endless.”

“Life,” wrote William Hazlitt, “is a struggle to be what we are not and to do what we cannot.” If Hazlitt is to be believed, we are, as he goes on to say, “very much what others thinks of us.” At the heart of snobbery is the snob’s hope that others will take him at his own (doubtless) extravagant self-valuation. It is his high if shaky opinion of himself that he needs to have confirmed, and at frequent intervals. Since the world often does not concur in this valuation, the snob is usually left feeling raw, resentful, agitated.

There is something deeply antisocial about the snob. He is, in a profound sense, in business for himself…the snob can be the loneliest man in town.

Snobs are more concerned with the way things appear than the way things actually are. In this vein, Epstein illustrates with a quote:

We will drink a little

and philosophize a little

and perhaps we both

who are made of blood and illusion

will finally free ourselves

from the oppressive levity of appearance.

-Zbigniew Herbert, “A Parable of King Midas”

Being a slave to nobility is still being a slave.

“Everything painful and sobering in what psychoanalytic genius and religious genius have discovered about man revolves around the terror of admitting what one is doing to earn one’s self esteem.” – Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death