In my wild youth, I spent a season in hell as a devotee of Arthur Rimbaud. I read about different-colored vowels as I stayed up way past my bedtime and drank cup after cup of stringent hot tea at the Waffle House. I forewent the suds and ablutions of civilization in my drive to throw off the shackles of convention and live authentically, as the fauvre Frenchman had done. (Those who knew me then never wanted to sit on the same side of the Waffle House table as me. Now I understand why.) I fancied myself a top-flight bohemian, with my untucked thrift-store shirt, my beaver pelt hair, and my defiance of all the niceties that kept the common folk in bondage to the workaday grind.
I had boarded a drunken boat, and, like Rimbaud, made a bad habit out of shocking the bourgeoisie. Or so I thought. What I mostly encountered in response to my pretensions was rolled eyes. Another unwashed adolescent, my friends’ dads must have sighed, trying to bridge the gap between childhood and a day job by flouting the basic decency that gets us through our lives.
If I could go back now and kick my 18-year-old self in the shins, I would gladly do so. I wish someone had at least slapped me with their gloves or laughed in my face. That nobody did so is because, well, it’s harder than it looks to shock the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie, as it turns out, are pretty nice people.
Just look at what decent folks have tolerated ever since “Verlaine an’ Rimbaud.” There were the Dadaists, for example, who liked signing urinals and placing them as exhibits in art museums. There was Allen Ginsberg, starving and hysterical and naked (not necessarily in that order). The bourgeoisie politely smiled through the hippies, the yuppies, the Seventies and the Eighties, Studio 54, David Bowie, the gross gyrations of Madonna Louise Ciccone, the new domesticity of Ellen and Rosie and Elton John, the copulating of David Crosby and Melissa Etheridge, the proliferation of the sperm bank, wardrobe malfunctions, Jim Carrey, the Movable Train Wreck commonly referred to as Johnny Depp.
Yet somewhere between Kim Kardashian’s eighth televised colon cleanse and Aaron Carter’s revenge face tattoo, I woke up from my Rimbaudian slumbers and found that, goodness, it’s really annoying to try to shock the bourgeoisie. Now I just wish people would stop.
Even if Jane’s Addiction isn’t right, even if there really are shocking things in this world (a freshly Botoxed Nancy Pelosi should be sufficient to sober up any God-fearing soul), the would-be shockers should still give up the “épater la bourgeoisie.” Why? Because the pose itself has become hopelessly clichéd. People have been trying to shock the consciences of the better classes since before the bourgeoisie was even a thing. By trying to get a cheap thrill out of a raised eyebrow or a clutched pearl necklace, one is doing nothing but checkmating oneself before one even begins.
Really. Young Jason Morgans of the present, take heed. People have been trying to do this since Leonardo da Vinci. No, since Sappho. It’s a phase you don’t need to go through. There’s nothing romantic about tilting at accountant-shaped windmills. In a world in which shocking the bourgeoisie has become the most conventional, most predictable, most stultifying form of utter conformity, I dare you to be different. In an age when a black Metallica T-shirt is almost as formal as a tuxedo was in John Jacob Astor’s day (at least it’s not dirty pajamas), the real cultural fruit is to be had by setting your sights on higher things. Things that very few people think about anymore.
Like learning. Like culture. (Remember that “culture” implies cultivation, not laziness.) Like devotion. Like charity. Like discipline. Like rock-bottom time preference. Like sacrifice. Like truth. Like love.
- The Diminishing Authority of Bourgeoisie Culture
- What Middle Class?
Rimbaud died a sad death and so did Verlaine. They were, in the end, big losers. This wasn’t at all shocking—anybody could have seen it coming. But because we’re all busy trying to shock one another with bathroom humor and pierced Adam’s apples, we tend to miss the obvious truth staring us in the face. Épater is bourgeoisie.
Now, young squire, put down the tattoo needle and hie thee to a library.
Jason Morgan is associate professor at Reitaku University in Kashiwa, Japan.