Truth is, more often than not pretension is simply someone trying to make the world more interesting, responding to it the way they think is appropriate. It’s more likely that what you think is one person’s pretension is another’s good faith. – Dan Fox, Pretentiousness: Why It Matters
When I was in university, I once had to do a presentation on the playwright Samuel Beckett. In the weeks leading up to it, I read all his plays, watched as many performances as I could, read as much critical material as I could, and all in all, did a decent amount of work. The presentation would be on a Friday, and as soon as the week began, I gave up sleeping. It would be a safe environment, the couple of dozen people taking the course and the professor would be the only people present. We were well into the course, and I would actively participate in the class discussions. However, for five nights prior to the event, I could not sleep. I could not manage to prepare my notes and ideas in a presentable manner. On Friday morning, I skipped classes altogether and went and sat under a tree by a lake just to gather myself. I scribbled on some bits of paper what would turn out to be rather ineffectual thoughts. In the end, I couldn’t even manage to keep my shoes on during the presentation as I felt I couldn’t do it with them. I was awarded a passable grade, but the only relief I felt was when I was finally able to sleep that night.Much of the anxiety I feel, for as long as I remember, stems from a need to reach out for something bigger than what I am to the world I live in, and being found undeserving of it. To be found out, a “phoney”, as someone pretentious as opposed to someone cultured. However, the dilemma isn’t so simple. If I had really got to pretend, to be Estragon (character in Beckett’s Waiting For Godot) instead of Amrita Sarkar talking about Estragon, I would have been better. I would still be an insomniac, but I would be free from the burden of being Amrita Sarkar, to be able to focus only on Estragon.
For better or (mostly) for worse, I spend my life trying to escape being Amrita Sarkar.
Up until reading Pretentiousness: Why It Matters, I used pretentious and snobbish interchangeably. I hate snobs, and I sure as hell am not one until the situation demands it. You might say, hang on a minute, how can snobbery be a necessary thing? Isn’t it unarguably bad? Shouldn’t we all be nice and humble and keep all signs of our accomplishments to ourselves so as not to make the uncouth person next to us feel ignorant and stupid?
Yeah, that’s snobbish too.
Might as well accept it. Might as well flaunt your education, your wealth, your status, your upbringing, your achievements, anything and everything that makes you better than most people you meet. But, that, as I’ve come to understand, is not pretension. Not according to Dan Fox it isn’t.
Let me give you an example. He calls Madonna the “queen of pretension”. It made me laugh, but it also is a very fair, nay complimentary assessment of her art/industry. Madonna is threatening. Those who dismiss her are threatened by her ability to assimilate talent (which is also a talent), to be able to project it without apology, and to impact culture through provocation rather than gratification, which separates her from pop starlets who get compared to her for unimaginative reasons, such as hair colour and sexual imagery. Her admirers, on the other hand, feel a sense of empowerment, of freedom, of courage but are also threatened by her awe-inspiring presence. You don’t stand next to Madonna. You worship her.
Which is a big deal for a rather short, slight woman from Detroit, Michigan who isn’t much of a singer, much of a dancer, much of a conventional beauty, much of a songwriter, much of a businesswoman. What makes her the queen of pretension is precisely this: without being a much of an anything, she has the autonomy to be everything. No one can call her a manufactured pop product, in the age of manufactured culture. She might not know what a whole note is called, but she sure as hell gets her “duck eggs” in a composition in the studio when she wants it. You don’t doubt for a second that she is the maker of her industry – there is no one covertly running operations at any point in her career. And all this is made possible by her constant ability to ask, and then receive.
Pretension, ultimately, is simply asking. Asking to learn, to make, to be better. Snobbery is projecting what has already been accumulated, while pretension is searching for more. Fox also reevaluates words such as amateur – stripping it down to its original French meaning to be “a lover of” and sophistication – which when traced back to the Latin means falsity in knowledge i.e. far from what is meant by it today.
In my insecurity at not being cultured the way I would have liked to be cultured, I had failed to notice that culture is not a static thing. In fact, the same piece of music, philosophy, literature, film etc.will mean different things to you at different moments in your life. To give you an example, I first encountered Kate Bush in the early days of YouTube. I must have been eighteen or nineteen, already enjoying my pretentious glam rock, but couldn’t make sense of the four-and-a-half-minute music video of a girl in a red dress, who had somehow managed to work the words ‘Wuthering Heights’ into a melody. Though she had a poppy name, the overall effect was too complex for my brain, and it would take me three or four years to finally get it, and be led into her universe. I am still astonished by her especial artistry, irrespective of the affection and affinity I feel for it.
The book makes a case for the idea that not only is pretension (which comes from the word for pretending) a good thing, it is a thing worth pursuing. You might be a snob, or a phoney who’s scared to death of being found out (I’m the latter, which one are you?) but if that means you’re that much more open to the beauty in this world, why not?
What are your pretensions?