In a poor city in a poor country on a poor continent, there is a group of people with a singular purpose: to look rich.
Or, rather, to look good — and to fully embody the suave, elegant style that a wardrobe of three-piece suits, silk socks, fedoras and canes might suggest.
They are called sapeurs or members of the Societe des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Elegantes (the Society of Tastemakers and Elegant People). And when they go out, they turn the streets of Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of the Congo, into a fashion runway.
Photo Credit: Hector Mediavilla/Picturetank
I am torn between whether I want to condone this culture or criticize it. You hear about this sort of thing all the time, the poor neglecting the lower tiers of Maslow’s hierarchy and jumping straight to the upper tiers, where they achieve a sense of self worth through (the often unaffordable) haute couture and consumerism. Given my usual cynicism, I’d ordinarily criticize this sort of thing as being frivolous and wasteful.
But I think this is different and interesting and can be good. It shows that the poor do value aesthetics, that they can find a way to break out of the grim confines of their social class while still being aware of these confines, and that they can not only value the appearance of the upper class style, but also the genteel and refined behavior of the upper class. This is something I wish the Chinese people could do.
“But the shock came when I returned home. People would say, What was it like, what happened? And when I answered, they would say, No, that’s not what it was like, that’s not what happened.
So, long before I went to Central America, I was familiar both with the lengths to which people would go in order to evade information and also with the pain of trying to synthesize mutually exclusive realities. The mind simply could not encompass, let alone reconcile, the reality of what we, as a nation, were enacting in Central America and the reality of the heedless, cheerful life that so many people in New York were leading. If one place was reality, the other place could not be reality.”
— an interview with writer Deborah Eisenberg, in The Paris Review, Spring 2013
There’s nothing I’d rather be doing on a sunny birthday afternoon than reading in bed with my windows open, waiting for my best friends to arrive.
“Glassmaking has long been known in the Orient, but the craft never developed as in the West. Great progress has been made, however, in the manufacture of pottery. Surely this has something to do with our national character. We do not dislike everything that shines, but we do prefer a pensive luster to a shallow brilliance, a murky light that, whether in a stone or an artifact, bespeaks a sheen of antiquity.
There may be some who argue that if beauty has to hide its weak points in the dark it is not beauty at all. But we Orientals, as I have suggested before, create a kind of beauty of the shadows we have made in out-of-the-way places … Such is our way of thinking — we find beauty not in the thing itself but in the patterns of shadows, the light and the darkness, that one thing against another creates.”
— “In Praise of Shadows,” by Junichiro Tanizaki
But don’t come out and say it! Next people will start wondering why the names in the U.S. News rankings change so little from decade to decade. Or why the American population gets bigger and bigger, but our richest universities admit the same size classes every year, Or why in a country of 300 million people and countless universities, we can’t seem to elect a president or nominate a Supreme Court justice who doesn’t have a Harvard or Yale degree.
No, it’s better for everyone when these questions aren’t asked too loudly. The days of noblesse oblige are long behind us, so our elite’s entire claim to legitimacy rests on theories of equal opportunity and upward mobility, and the promise that “merit” correlates with talents and deserts.
That the actual practice of meritocracy mostly involves a strenuous quest to avoid any kind of downward mobility, for oneself or for one’s kids, is something every upper-class American understands deep in his or her highly educated bones.