Cool cats and gentlemen

“Coolness” is an odd sort of thing. It’s a little ridiculous for someone over the age of 40 or so to notice or comment on it. He should have something better to do, people will say, and he’s going to get it wrong anyway.

Still, it’s an ideal of life that does have some authority among many people. It started with jazz musicians and such but for the past 50 years it has been spreading throughout the mass market. Today it’s thought to matter what grade-school kids think is cool and some people seem to live by the ideal in a sort of eternal adolescence that extends into their late 30s and maybe beyond.

You can’t understand the world around you if you’re not willing to venture onto shaky ground. So with that in mind, here are some similarities between coolness and a more traditional ideal: the gentleman.

  • Both suggest independence and self-possession.
  • Both suggest mutual respect among those who’ve got the right stuff.
  • Both suggest a certain disengagement. If you’ve got the quality you’re not easily flustered or excited.
  • Both suggest effortless practical knowledge, so if you’ve got it you’re not often at a loss but know immediately how to deal with sticky situations in an effective and unobtrusive way.
  • Both suggest a sort of perfect pitch in matters of style.
  • Both are antibourgeois, although the bourgeoisie take one or the other as an ideal: formerly bourgeois gentility, now the bourgeois bohemian.
  • Both are rather masculine ideals, although coolness now affects androgeny: if you’re cool you’re above all categories.
  • Both suggest social centrality. In the case of coolness it’s an odd sort of centrality that sets itself in opposition to established institutions. You’re “in” but also edgy. That creates all sorts of conflicts when coolness becomes a mass marketing ploy or Tony Blair rebrands the English gentleman as Cool Britannia.

Here are some differences:

  • Coolness has less intrinsic content. If you have to ask you’ll never understand. It is constantly changing and suggests improvisation. If you try to discuss it you’re more likely to become confused.
  • If you’re cool you know what’s current. A gentleman has more depth of culture. A cool oldster is a paradox while “young gentleman” is something of a euphemism.
  • Coolness is more anarchic and less concerned with obligation. For a gentleman deceit and betrayal are the ultimate sins. For someone who’s cool the ultimate sin is more like bigotry.
  • Coolness is more about style. A clumsy attempt to be—not appear to be but be—a gentleman is admirable, because the ideal of the gentleman has moral content. A clumsy attempt to be cool is ridiculous.
  • Gentility is more on the side of the general structure of society and the world. It requires implicit belief in a morally ordered cosmos. Coolness exists in a sort of eternal now without reference to any valid structure outside itself and the present moment. As such, coolness is both more absolute and less serious. Because it’s more absolute it makes more sense for art and music to be cool than for it to be genteel let alone gentlemanly.

1 thought on “Cool cats and gentlemen”

  1. Eternal now vs. timelessness
    Excellent post! One thing that may be noted, in regards to your salient observation about “coolness” being tied to the present, whereas gentlemanliness (if that’s a word) has a timeless quality, is the different ways one learns (to the extent one can learn) how to be either cool or a gentleman. Simply put, books have been written, dispensing advice on how to be a gentleman; whereas, notwithstanding some airport reading, throwaway books, most of the information given on how to be cool, is through magazines. In other words, tied very much to the shifting, eternal present.


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