Saturday, May 25, 2013

On Charm

I vaghi fiori
Giovanni Palestrina
A heated debate followed one of The Atlantic's puffy articles this week when Benjamin Schwartz's The Rise and Fall of Charm in American Men rang in the next bout of history's longest-running conflict. In fact the wrangling in the comments impresses, given the lightweight nature of the piece, and to me highlight a few points. First, no one is sure what charm is. Second, everyone thinks charm is desirable. Third, charm is lacking today and no one knows why. Let us see if we can lighten the befuddlement.

First off, while Schwartz never defines charm, the dictionary seems adequately to have done so as, a power of pleasing or attracting, as through personality or beauty. That's not half bad, for charm is certainly a magnetic force of attraction. Another definition clarifies further, saying that to charm is, to act upon (someone or something) with or as with a compelling or magical force, a property which emphasizes the natural, seemingly mystical, pull toward the charming.

A still better definition we find, though, in the more obscure source of a Renaissance treatise on beauty. Here, Florentine poet and man of letters Agnolo Firenzuola, leaning on Petrarch and Boccacio, calls our mysterious property vaghezza. From these poets he isolates three properties of what we broadly call charm: wandering, desire, and beauty. I'll depart from Firenzuola's analysis but consider myself these properties, which seem to me wisely discerned.

Rembrandt Laughing
Wandering is perhaps the most surprising of these traits, for why should that which moves itself, move us? Firenzuola wrote that what we see at ease moves us less than what we must work for, an observation which might figure into the raging gender war, but this seems at best a secondary property. First, though, we must clarify that it is not simply movement which charms us, for no one finds a swinging pendulum or spinning fan charming. Nor do we find sunsets or blowing leaves charming, although we might describe their motion as beautiful. Rather we find charming that which seems animate, that is, alive, and full of vitality. Too this is a property particular to people, for although animals move themselves we do not find them charming. It is the self-possession of an individual, moreover an awareness of his place in the world and an ease in that place, that we find charming. The charming man neither hurries or tarries, speaks too much nor too little, or suffers from want or excess.

He exists with joy in the order of the world, or even seems himself to order it, and thus we rejoice in the apparent excellence of both him and "his world." Such is why the charming are so desirable to others. The charming man extends his apparent good order around us, hence the propensity for the charming-and-devious to use their power for swindling others. We comply with charmers because we are so persuaded that the ease with which they move signifies the rightness of their order. Even the man of intelligence may be persuaded by a charming man, for in seeming to find the mean in personal conduct and himself to be happy, the charming man approximates wisdom. For this reason, charm may conceal a lack of wisdom, lead to wisdom, or flow from wisdom, and hence the various disputations about its essence and goodness.

In speaking of beauty I will quote Firenzuola, who writes that charm is, "a beauty that attracts and sparks the desire to contemplate and enjoy it." [Eisenbichler & Muray, 36] As alluded, at the personal level we seek to enjoy the company of the charming. We find enjoyment in their apparent harmony with the world and with us. Not inappropriately, we call this harmony beautiful, although not friendship per se, which has other requirements. Hence again the propensity to abuse charm, for it may simulate the appearance of friendship with simple friendly feeling.

At the aesthetic level too, though, we seek beauty. The beauty of the human face which charms us and moves eros through us may move us either toward love, friendship, and giving, or to lust and utility.

Finally, although we described charm as appropriate only to people, we might attempt discuss two potential qualifications. The first is for certain places, which are not properly called charming because they are not vital or self-possessed, but which draw us into their order and beauty. We call them charming nonetheless because we project ourselves into them and in doing so feel a part of order and beauty, and thus at peace. Hence the charm of a well-ordered farm, a cozy cabin, or a simple nook in nature where we feel at home.

The second potential qualification is for music, because a musical idea 1) exists in time, 2) has shape and character, and 3) seems to act and react. The seems there is the catch, though, for the musical idea is the will of the composer and not self-possessed. Still, though, but for that one qualification would we not call both the seductive and sensuous Adagio and the bumptious Rondo themes of Mozart's Clarinet Concerto KV.622, like Rembrandt chuckling above, charming?

Does that theme not seem at peace with itself and the world? Does it not call us?

Charm may be misconstrued and misused, but it's a call to something greater, for to charm one must know oneself and cultivate the good, and to be charmed we must be open to goodness and beauty. If we wish charm to return, that is where we ought to start.

Eisenbicher, Konrad and Murray, Jaqueline (trans. & ed.) On the Beauty of Women, by Firenzuola, Agnolo. University of Pennsylvania Press. 1992.

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