Trans-Class

Notes on Class, Anxiety, and Class Anxiety

This is the second in a series of essays broadly inspired by my reading of Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (currently I’m in the middle of volume III). For the first essay in the series, go here.

And don’t forget to listen to my podcast “What Is X?”, especially the newest episode, in which I talk to Danielle Carr about Mental Health, and what it is.

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“If there is any good in philosophy, it is this, — that it never looks into pedigrees. All men, if traced back to their original source, spring from the gods.” —Seneca, Moral Letters to Lucilius

1.

In the early 2000s, when my father was making one last college try —hold on to that expression— at the life of bon-vivantism to which he had always aspired, freeloading off of a more successful business associate who owned a vacant apartment in Nice, I paid him a short visit. At a café on the Promenade des Anglais he caught the bright young serveuse briefly looking at the name on his credit card as he paid, and seemed to believe she was smiling. “She thinks I’m an aristocrat,” he said. I’d never thought about it before, but it’s true that his credit card, like his birth certificate, did say “Kenneth Von Smith” on it, which when written in all caps might be interpreted as “Kenneth von Smith”. Admittedly it would be unusual to attach a nobiliary particle to a surname derived from the modest if respectable trade of the smithy. But in France, where in any case “Smith” gets deformed into “Smiss”, and where most service workers probably do not know that this is really only the Anglo-Saxon equivalent of “Lefèvre”, “Ferrier”, etc., or of the Breton “Le Goff”, the title “von Smith” probably looks no more implausible than, say, that of the Finnish philosopher Georg Henrik von Wright (1916-2003), who likewise affixes the von particle, which he gets from Germany via Sweden, to a fairly common English surname.

The truth in my father’s case is far better than what we may call here his little “noble lie”: “Von” was simply his middle name, and his own father’s first name, which the latter received in turn, it appears, only because his parents, my great-grandparents, in the Mormon enclave of the beet-sugar factory town of Sugar City, Idaho, circa 1914, were uncertain of the correct spelling of “Vaughan”.

If my father occasionally enjoyed falsifying his ancestry for a bit of role-playing fun on the French Riviera (I don’t believe it ever went very far, though he may once have gained admission with this ruse to a party at the vacation home of Sally Jessy Raphael), I have tended to adopt the opposite evolutionary strategy as I move through rather different social circles than those I may once have been expected to end up in. When an animal is threatened, it can puff itself up to appear even more threatening than its adversary, as a cat does; or it can lie prostrate like an opossum, even generating from within its living body the stench of death itself. While I have never been so desperate as to slip into thanatosis, I have often gone out of my way to imply, in rarefied social settings, that my own origins “stink”, that I come from the pure stock of Dustbowl migrants, from a sort of topsy-turvy farce of aristocracy in which you convince others that you are somebody precisely by establishing that you are descended from absolutely nobody.

This is both a useful strategy for social advancement —“What a wonder”, you can easily get people to think, as they might when confronted by a talking dog (like the one G. W. Leibniz went to investigate in a German peasant village that could say thé, café, and chocolat, thus not only being gifted with human speech, but somehow turning out Francophone), when you have established that you are an American who speaks French without ever having gone to boarding school in Switzerland or otherwise been thrust into a privileged bicultural setting in early childhood—; and, as Seneca reminds us, coming from nowhere —nowhere but the gods— is also the only genealogy worthy of a philosopher.

2.

The truth is that my origins are not that humble, though my father’s origins were. In 1936 his mother, Bertie Mae, left poverty in Arkansas to seek out an existence in Los Angeles. There she met Von, who had quit the Mormon Church, severed ties with his tee-totalling family, and hitchhiked from Sugar City to L.A., along the southwestward route of what is still known as the “Mormon Corridor”, to pursue a life of hard-drinking non-belief. In her 1996 memoir, encouraged by my father in order to help stave off her mental decline (and subsequently edited by him too), Bertie describes meeting my grandfather sixty years earlier:

Orlean [Bertie’s sister] and her friend Hazel always went to the Oro Ballroom every Saturday night. I don’t remember if I had gone there with them before the night I met Von… We had no more than walked in when this handsome young man walked up to me and started talking… After the dance we went with Von and his friends to the Zamboanga Club which was out toward Hollywood. The club was called “the home of the tail-less monkeys”… I suppose Willie and the other guy had been drinking because after we were there for a while the bouncer was threatening to throw us out. Von drove us home and he had dropped Hazel and the other guy off so there was just Willie, Orlean, Von and me when we got to our place. When we got home Willie went into the bathroom and passed out and we kept trying to get Von to go in there and get him out. Von kept saying he couldn’t get him out and I think we sat there until about four o’clock in the morning before they left. I told Orlean, “I hope I never see them again”.

This inauspicious and impromptu first date (not so different in its general contours from the experiences I know at least some of Von and Bertie’s children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren would later have of youthful freedom and all its attendant disappointments) is followed soon after by a drunken car accident with Von and the boys, who somehow manage to swipe five parked cars at once and then pressure Bertie into telling the cops she had been the one driving. This is followed in turn by a long series of comparable shames and occasional bright moments, Von sitting on barstools with Willie until dawn at joints with liquor far cheaper than the Zamboanga’s, my father’s birth, Bertie fleeing with the infant on a train back to Arkansas, her return to L.A., the war, several more children, and the constant weight of grinding financial precarity.

My father joined the Navy when he was nineteen, and was taught Chinese, and some Tagalog, at the Monterey Naval Language Institute. After discharge he was able to take advantage of the vast educational benefits his veteran status afforded him in the brief window of class mobility made possible by post-war prosperity and the expansion of higher education. He took a smattering of philosophy classes taught by Jesuits at the University of San Francisco. He went on to get a few advanced degrees in journalism and criminology, and he kept some shabby but still serviceable editions of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas on the shelves that were still there, next to Tom Robbins’s Still Life with Woodpecker and Peter S. Beagle’s I See by My Outfit, by the time I came along. In this respect I think of myself as a second-generation “GI Bill philosopher”. I was never in the military myself, but only continued the climb out of cultural poverty that, even with the support of the state —offered to some of its citizens in exchange for their “service”—, can sometimes take more than one lifetime to complete.

I think you know what I mean by “GI Bill philosopher”. There were once legions of them, Boomer men who read Hermann Hesse, Aldous Huxley, Albert Camus, in their army barracks at night with flashlights, who, when they returned to civilian life, were broadly encouraged by society as it was back then to keep “expanding their minds”. The ones who did not take this instruction as nothing more than an invitation to experiment with hallucinogens sometimes found their way to graduate school in philosophy, and from there ended up in long, stable careers, with no publications to their names other than perhaps a few regional conference proceedings, at places with names like “Three Rivers Community College”. Today their work —the work of providing a last faint glimpse of the tail end of the humanistic tradition to students who otherwise might have missed it— is mostly being done by precaritized adjuncts. Or it is not being done at all.

These men were typically from the Western United States, or ended up there through the wanderings of their early lives. Although generally improvisational and unrigorous in their work, their spirit was continuous with that of the “frontier philosophers” of the nineteenth century, from the Missourian Henry Clay Brockmeyer, to the Californian Josiah Royce. When the full cultural history of American philosophy is written, they will deserve as prominent a place as those ensconced in Northeastern institutions with trans-Atlantic telegraph cables keeping them ever attuned to the sensibilities of the Old World.

The GI Bill philosophers wore bolo ties with obsidian arrowhead clasps, and by the time they taught me (at American River Community College), they had read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, and their thin ponytails had turned silver. They were typically of a libertarian bent, and were way out of their depths even trying to summarize something so standard to the classical philosophy curriculum as the ontological argument for the existence of God. Many of them really had no business teaching philosophy at all. I remember one in particular who had recently fallen in with some branch or other of the Primal Scream therapy movement, and who spent entire class sessions telling us about the pain of “giving birth” to his inner child. It was the end of the 1980s, but it was still California, and just as in the 1960s and still today, the typical recipe for most locally grown thought included equal parts frontiersmanly anti-Washington paranoia and New Age Schwärmerei.

(See this touching reminiscence from Poison Ivy about meeting her soulmate, Lux Interior, in a class taught by a hippie at California State University Sacramento in 1972, before going on to form The Cramps with him; this is a bit before my time, yet still very familiar. Even as children our local institutions of higher education had an air of mediocrity about them that could only be ironized upon. When I was in elementary school and played trombone in the school band, our ridiculous bandleader Mr. Tulga —whom my maternal grandmother always called “Mr. Tonga”—, with his peach-colored Sansa-Belt pants pulled up to the middle of his torso, often tried to rally us when our musical spirits were flagging through some barely recognizable rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In”, while also poking fun at our own obvious mediocrity: “Let’s give it one more college try,” he’d say. “And I’m not talking about American River College, either. Let’s take it all the way to Sac State!”)

Even when they were not politically libertarian, the GI Bill philosophers were in their personalities deeply individualist, and typically oblivious to the historical forces that shaped them. This individualism after all is the common ancestor that proves the aging hippies of Pynchon’s Vineland, the post-liberal oligarchs of Silicon Valley, and the Trump-voters of “the State of Jefferson” are only different species of the same Californian genus. So some of the GI Bill philosophers gave birth to their inner children, and some ended up running for state assembly, getting 0.3% of the vote with ominous stumping about “the Fed”, or about a return to the gold standard, or dizzying counterfactual global histories of money and power drawn from the oeuvre of Lyndon LaRouche (it all came down somehow to the joint machinations of Queen Elizabeth II and Al Gore). They were what today we call “white men”, but what for most of most of their lives, and for all of some of their lives, they themselves had the luxury and oblivion of conceiving, though generally not without some complex mixed feelings, as “Americans”.

A close friend of mine recently came across the website of one of that generation’s finest specimens, and intuiting how poignant I would find it, sent it along to me. Take a moment to look in on Dr. Kelley L. Ross’s digital trace, and then come back to me (I’ve been reading him obsessively for days). The whole delirious “Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps” aesthetic of his site, the white-on-black font, the archaic-internet graphics and the multilingual glossolalia; the obvious autodidacticism only distantly rooted in anything he could have been taught in his formal education; the urgency with which he tells us that although he is a scholar of the philosophy of Jakob Fries (1773-1814), he is more importantly a descendant of R. L. “Les” Kelley (how Dr. Ross’s ancestor’s surname became his first name, à la Gore Vidal, remains unclear), the very same Kelley who opened a car-lot selling Model-T Fords in downtown L.A. in 1918, and eventually began to publish what is known today as the Kelley Blue Book: all of this, I say, hits very, very close to home.

Is this very Substack nothing but my own version of The Proceedings of the Friesian School? Surely, to some extent, yes, it is. But it’s probably best for me not to think about that, and instead to just keep doing my thing.

3.

The typical second-generation GI Bill philosopher is often also a “GED philosopher”, that is, someone who has failed to complete their studies at a public high school, and instead has taken the General Educational Development test, which is enough to get a drop-out into a community college in the United States, and from there, with a certain minimal grade point average, into a proper university, and eventually into graduate school. In my own case it was the local variant, the “California High School Proficiency Exam”, which I took in 1989 at the age of seventeen, after failing to show up at said high school for the previous several months. I had spent those months mostly lying on the couch watching television reruns (Little House on the Prairie, Green Acres, What’s Happening featuring Freddy “Rerun” Stubbs), and presuming that the station of life in which I had ended up was, more or less, the one I’d stay in permanently.

In hindsight people who have known me my whole life have enjoyed saying I must have been “too smart for high school”, but the truth is I was just as “dumb” as anyone else who has ever flunked out. I still have a sort of situational illiteracy: many forms of writing I should have been mastering at that time have remained permanently inaccessible to my limited brain; certain registers of speech still sound to me like the garbled twittering of the unseen grown-ups in the Peanuts cartoons. I managed, anyhow, to hone my neurodiversity and to pay attention long enough to pass the CHSPE with flying colors. Most of the questions involved nothing more than basic logical reasoning; I seem to remember one concerning the number of sides a triangle has, which I doubt the test designers new was propaedeutic, for those who go on to study the ontological argument, to acquiring certain knowledge of the existence of God.

Over the last twenty years I have met no fewer than six other people from California, all Gen-Xers, all men, and all white, who hold both a CHSPE certificate and a Ph.D. in philosophy. All the others, too, have struck me as hard-headed individualists, and all the others are plainly cut from the same cloth as I am. This paradoxical discovery, that in our individualism, in our conviction that we are self-made, we are in fact conforming to a very distinct type, is one that I suspect most of the GI Bill philosophers never made. Or at least they do not appear to the youth to have made it, and it is this apparent lack of self-awareness, I think, that stands at the top of the list of indictments that the younger generation —who not so long ago were circulating memes of an old man having a heart-attack with the words “Die, Boomer”— wishes to bring against the disappearing beneficiaries of the post-war boom.

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4.

I recently participated over Zoom in a very prestigious event at an elite American institution, where an old friend of mine, let’s call her “Susan”, was being introduced in ceremonially heightened terms. I was struck when Susan’s presenter highlighted the fact that she was a “first-gen university graduate”. This struck me because, though I had known her for a long time, I never really knew the details of her past, and I had always taken her to be a sort of aristocrat, to the extent that the Americans have such a thing, some sort of Boston Brahmin or New York Knickerbocker —what do I know?—: someone anyhow who, unlike me, got her table manners from her ancestors. I looked at her the way Proust’s narrator looks at Mme de Guermantes.

I’ve been in France for a long time, and it struck me only at this late moment, when I heard the term “first-gen” used as ceremonial praise for Susan, that in the United States it is now bad to be mistaken for a patrician, and that even if you are something close to that, you would do well to find a way to maneuver downward, or to find some other aspect of your identitity that might earlier have counted against you, and then to play that up to the hilt. I take it that this emphasis on “first-gen” identity, evoked ceremonially at roughly the same moment in an event when you might also hear land-acknowledgments (I keep waiting for an occasion to acknowledge that I’m speaking from “the unceded territory of the Gauls”), amounts to little more than empty elite signaling done in the aim of constructing an ad-hoc quasi-ethnicity that can “mark” at least some portion of the white people who are looking for a way to cling to their privilege in a transformed university environment in which the new overarching imperative is to avoid getting stuck in the unmarked category.

This new règle du jeu is difficult for people like me to internalize. On the one hand, as I’ve said we are indeed individualists, and we like to imagine that we are entirely self-made; to this extent the celebration of a “first-gen” professor’s ability to make her career ex nihilo, without being “to the manner born”, would seem to be something good. On the other hand, as individualists we want the distinction of being self-made to be one that we alone manage for ourselves, according to our own social strategies; we do not want it to be a distinction that facilitates our slotting with others. True to her noble character, my friend seemed unable to hide her embarrassment when she was picked out by her presenter as “first-gen”, not because this showed her to be from humble origins in an elite setting, like the mythical version of J. D. Vance’s hillbilly law-student whose table manners are scrutinized at a Yale Law School meet-and-greet, —no, again, the rules of the game have changed, and humble origins are at least for now an advantage—; she was embarrassed, rather, because her identity had been taken out of her own control, and made a matter of institutional slotting by dull functionaries, among whom I would surely count the woman who introduced her.

To be slotted in this way can feel, to some people from humble origins, like uninvited exposure, and a negation of years of hard work. For one tried-and-true way of rising out of humble origins is to cultivate and internalize a sharp sense of dignity —it is her dignity that for so long caused me to presume that my friend must have been born into the class in which she now seems so at home—, and to know, as dull functionaries do not, when it is undignified to speak of certain things.

5.

Though Walt Whitman may have been right that we Americans have no need for trans-Atlantic cables, it is useful at least on occasion to send a frontier philosopher to the Old World in order to take the measure of our differences.

One thing that is growing ever clearer to me, as these years in Paris pass, is the great difficulty Americans have brought upon themselves, with the myth of egalitarianism that comes down to us from the Revolution, when it comes to thinking and talking about class. France had a revolution too, of course, but it was quickly followed by a restoration, an empire, and then a complex sequence of ordinally numbered republics that, at least until the entre-deux-guerres when Proust achieved his opus, made it possible for the aristocracy, at least those who kept their heads after the Terror, to thrive. So fine-tuned were the gradations of nobility that even during World War I (at least in Proust’s fictionalized telling) Prince Borodino, a high-ranking officer who is also the grandson of Napoleon, is still seen as an interloper, and thus as unfrequentable, by Robert de Saint-Loup of the Guermantes clan, whose family extends back far enough in Frankish deep time to have not only its title, its escutcheon, its lands, but even its own clanic war-cry, still proclaimed on ceremonial occasions.

Saint-Loup is by contrast happy to frequent members of the bourgeoisie, whose inferiority is not in question — at least as long as they share his intellectual interests, for no one is more worthy of a cold shoulder than the common run of republican ministerial placeholders. And of course he adores the unnamed narrator as well, whose precise class status, like his name, remains ambiguous throughout the work, though may be presumed to be roughly equal to Proust’s own. These gradations are a thing of wonder for Proust. Contrary to what dull critics such as Maxim Gorky suppose, Proust’s interest cannot be reduced to fawning sycophancy or “royal mania”; it is rather a concern to know and to describe the way in which social reality imposes itself on us, succeeds in making us take it for granted.

Saint-Loup reads Nietzsche and Proudhon, like Marie Antoinette before him who sat in her garden pagoda with her mistresses discussing Rousseau’s Social Contract, admiring the Genevan republican’s wit and insight, yet unable fully to infer what it all might eventually entail for her personally. In part he is intellectually curious, but his range of reading is also driven by a desire to impress his mistress, the thespian Rachel, known to him as Zézette, whom Saint-Loup had first seen on the stage, and, we learn at some point, whom Proust’s narrator had himself encountered before that in a maison de passe. The narrator had been unimpressed, up close, by “Rachel quand du Seigneur”, as he thinks of her, deriving this nickname from the libretto of La Juive, Fromental Halévy’s 1835 opera about a Jewish prostitute. In the brothel Rachel was prepared to do for twenty francs, the narrator coldly and misogynistically notes, what Saint-Loup is now desperately holding onto at the cost of 100,000 a year.

That Saint-Loup first sees Rachel on stage is crucial for understanding how, sometimes, even in the rigid hierarchy of Old World class, everything gets turned upside down. For art, alongside aristocracy, is the only thing powerful enough to transfigure the commonplace, to make people appear as something more than “tail-less monkeys” (I will not belabor the fact that monkeys are by definition be-tailed; to lack a tail as a primate is to be an ape, though significantly this is a lexical distinction unavailable in French, where both monkeys and apes get lumped together as “singes”; in any case what they meant with that phrase at the Zamboanga Club was to bring us human beings down a few notches).

Occasionally, even on the stage an actress can lose her aura and become a mere human being. There is no passage of the novel I have found so disturbing, so far, as when Proust’s narrator describes his disenchantment with the famous actress la Berma, who for so long had been the object of his most intense fantasies. He goes to see her a second time on the stage, some years after his first exposure. She is at the zenith of her craft, with every gesture at every joint of her body determined by her will-to-artifice. But a problem remains that can never be overcome: there are regions of la Berma’s body between the joints, as for example between her elbow and her wrist, over which art has no possible control; there is nothing la Berma can do to transfigure her forearm, and so it just waits there on stage, between the joints dominated by her will, exposing her for what she is: a work of artifice not in the sense of artistic sublimation, but in the sense of counterfeit.

It’s the same dual aspect that explains the difference of perception that Saint-Loup and the narrator bring to Rachel: the one at a distance and therefore elevated, the other up close and fallen. An aristocrat who falls in love with a thespian, whose ranks are always graduated at the lower end into the world of prostitution, is therefore always going to be tormented by the gap between the real and the transfigured, in the same way that Proust’s narrator is tormented by the gap between la Berma’s wrist and elbow.

6.

But so far we have been considering the matter only from Saint-Loup’s point of view. How does Rachel see things? At one point when she wishes to make her lover jealous, the actress effuses praise for one of her fellow thespians, a male dancer, made up with rouge on his cheeks, shirtless, and transfigured by his stage presence in a way more powerful even than Saint-Loup’s nobility and wealth. Echoing back to the narrator’s disappointment with la Berma’s inflexible (and therefore “real”) body, Rachel notes the dancer’s apparent powers of full physical transformation:

“Oh, I know him, that’s my friend,” the mistress of Saint-Loup exclaimed while watching the dancer. “Look how well made he is, just look at those fine hands that dance like all the rest of his person!”

Art transfigures, and in so doing it trumps nobility. In the broadest sense of “art”, the sort of self-cultivation that comes with the life of the mind also opens up, as Rachel understands, a wormhole to spiritual aristocracy that effectively short-cuts across the distance even a princely grandson of Napoleon would ordinarily be expected to traverse before he is welcome in the most exclusive settings. Or, to put it differently, the life of the mind is its own sort of nobility, and a Bohemian who speaks competently of Nietzsche can find advantages in this with which no slow climb through the ministerial ranks, and no slow descent from an imperial usurper, can compete.

Of course, Rachel’s position is always threatened — at any moment Saint-Loup may come to see his transfigured love in the way the narrator first saw her, and indeed the cycles of their life together, between romance and conflict, are really just cycles between these two “ways of seeing”. But the aristocracy is always threatened too: notably by revolutions, such as the one that already happened under Robespierre and the one that was about to happen, somewhat more gently, with the relative obsolescence in the post-war period of the social world that had fascinated Proust.

Everyone has good reason to be anxious about their class position, and again, whether it’s inherited or “first-gen”, the surest way to weather the threats is through the cultivation of dignity.

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7.

It seems strange to describe becoming a philosopher as a short-cut to aristocracy, let alone as a short-cut comparable to the one taken by a brothel-worker who tortures an aristocrat into buying her obscenely expensive necklaces. In the one case the pay is shit, and the social status undoubtedly lower than the degree-holder likes to imagine; in the other case, prima facie some people might think there is nothing particularly dignified about the strategy.

But each of us works with the tools we’ve got. A high-school drop-out in California might also go into banking or tech, and make a good deal more money. But at least until recently such a move seemed, while offering unlimited riches, only to offer limited social advancement, in view of the stigma of nouveau-riche arrivisme. This stigma matters less and less, especially as the world of tech is, for better or worse, increasingly displacing the humanistic tradition as the center of intellectual weight in our society. But still, even at the most recent fin-de-siècle the life of the mind as classically conceived continued to seem more transfigurative than the simple acquisition of riches, and thus to offer quicker entrée into higher social circles, just as a Genevan orphan was able to mingle at the most exclusive Parisian salons not because of his money, which came and went, but because of his books.

Class is complex, and in the rigid Old World order as in falsely egalitarian America, it is surprisingly permeable and subject to inversion. It is also brutally real, in a way that my own American ancestors, being American, were never able adequately to comprehend or express. They had early big nights at the Zamboanga Club, felt on top of the world for a moment, and always ended up, in the end, back at more or less the same social rank at which they had started.

Until he was close to death and evacuated back to the United States, my father, who had once attended a party at Sally Jessy Raphael’s place in Nice, and who had big dreams for the future when he got out of the Navy, nevertheless lived out his last years in a tiny motel room in what I would describe as an ex-pat slum near Guadalajara, inhabited by hardened Vietnam vets with eye-patches, drug addictions, and various legal obstacles to ever returning to the country of their birth (non-payment of child support, of course, but also other more serious transgressions).

As for me, I suppose the jury is still out. I’ll just say, for now, that class remains an issue. I am sharply attuned to its gradations in my home country, and after nine years am only beginning to make out, in part with the help of Proust’s admittedly dated guide d’usage, the very different ways in which class expresses itself in my adopted country.

I hate that the dynamics of class leaves me in a state of perpetual anxiety, and I certainly do not want my path or anyone else’s path in the world to be limited in any way by origins. Neither do I want the vectors of identity established by my origins to be inserted by others into some newfangled “table des rangs”. My origins, like my destiny, are mine to control and to maneuver as I see fit, to embellish like the Hochstapler Felix Krull, or to diminish according to the American marsupial strategy I have already confessed to adopting.

Perhaps I’ll reverse my strategy at some point. I might just decide to start sporting a von of my own. After all, it was my father’s middle name.

Suggested further reading:

Chantal Jaquet, Les Transclasses, ou la non-réproduction, Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, 2014.

Marcel Proust, Le Côté des Guermantes, volume III of À la recherche du temps perdu, Paris, Éditions Gallimard, 1988 [1920/21].