Monday, November 16, 2009

The Conventional, The Real and The Genuine

A convention is a thing agreed upon—perhaps by the relevant authorities, at a convention; or, perhaps by The People, tacitly. The U.S. constitution was hammered out in 1787 at a meeting or convention—a coming together— held in Philadelphia. There are conventions or rules, believe it or not, for various forms of violence. The Geneva Conventions are rules for the treatment of prisoners, worked out in Geneva in 1949; an earlier convention set rules for the way nations at war should conduct themselves. We have many conventions for the way we treat others in a vast array of social situations. Those who are ignorant of these conventions have no manners. Soliloquies on stage can only be overheard by the audience—that's a theatrical convention, which, like those of grammar or spelling or good manners, just happened, no one knows how. If you are a man or woman of your word, you will earn the respect of others—anywhere; if not, not. That's a convention, I suppose.

With the word 'conventional', things get stickier. Conventional behavior is behavior according to the relevant conventions, or agreements, or rules, or social norms; conventional ideas don't stray far from those that have been approved . . . by . . . the relevant authorities or experts; the same goes for conventional opinions, which are ready-made, so to speak, or off-the-shelf. Conventional expressions of feeling have been used so often as to become lifeless.

None of this is fresh or new or original—what I've just been saying is the conventional wisdom about conventionality. I have a point, however: this way of thinking has a history. According to my authority on all such matters, The Oxford English Dictionary, the word 'conventional' did not acquire these vaguely restrictive or oppressive implications until, approximately, the 1840s. In other words, it has not always been necessary to assume that society is, or may be, the enemy of sincerity and authenticity.
Now consider this sentence from Chekhov's "Lady With The Dog", which I quoted in my last essay:

"He had two lives: an apparent one, seen and known by all who needed to know it, full of conventional truth and conventional deceit, which perfectly resembled the lives of his friends and acquaintances; and another life that went on in secret." Gurov's secret life is his real, genuine life; his public life is merely the "shell" that hides and protects it. And he assumes that this public-private fault-line is universal—at least among those "cultivated" people who can afford to maintain it: everyone who is anyone is keeping up appearances in order to protect their real lives from . . . what? Exposure? And, though it is hard to be sure, Chekov seems, in this story at least, to endorse the idea of a public-private, appearance-reality, fault-line—with its corollary, universal deceit.

What mainly interests me here, and what I want to try to be clear about, is this use of the word 'conventional' as an adjective modifying 'truths' and 'deceits' so as to imply that there is no difference at all between those words: the artificial, or conventional, surface or facade of social life is theatrical; whether it is true or deceitful is irrelevant—only people who have never been in a theater before confuse art and life in plays or movies; only similarly unsophisticated people fail to understand that at certain levels of wealth and class, social life becomes essentially theatrical. That strikes me as a deeply cynical view of upper-class life, coming from a writer who is never cynical. What's going on here? It may be that what comes across as cynicism in English is not present in Russian, an accident of translation, though I doubt it. I know nothing about the Russian word that is being translated here as 'conventional' but it has to mean pretty much the same as the English word: that which has been agreed to, by those who have power, as the proper way to appear to behave.

Or maybe the word I'm looking for is 'paradoxical.' It is at least paradoxical that Gurov, after a life of conventional truths and deceits, should discover within himself the possibility of a secret and genuine inner life, sheltered by the very conventions or conventionalities he is violating—as if he had gone underground and were living in a cavern hollowed out of the very rock our hypocritical civilization is built on.

I remarked, above, that it has not always been necessary to suspect that society may be the enemy of authenticity and sincerity; I don't know exactly when or how that idea became so potent that it began to change the meaning of the word 'conventional'—the romantic revolution had a lot to do with it—but I think I know where it makes its first appearance: in Hamlet. Something is rotten in Denmark and nobody can put it right because that is how societies are: all societies have been corrupted by power in one way or another. But you'll have to read my essay, "Tragic Virtue", if you want to see why Hamlet is the quintessential modern hero.

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