Charm, Charming, and Charmed

charm

Fred & Adele Astaire. ca. 1906

The term “Charm” isn’t used all that much anymore, and to be honest the last time I heard it used in day-to-day conversation was to sound purposefully formal in describing someone. So maybe there is something to the notion that it has fallen out of favor. Life’s Little Luxury, by Joseph Epstein writing in The Weekly Standard, takes a deep dive into the disappearing aspect of charm in public spaces.

If Ponce de León were alive today, viewing older billionaires with oxblood-colored hair, aging actresses with skin drawn so tight by cosmetic surgery they cannot close their eyes at night, old men whose jogging pace resembles nothing so much as that of infants just beginning to walk, former student radicals now sporting gray ponytails or topknots, no doubt the Spanish explorer would give up his legendary search for the fountain of youth and resign himself to aging as gracefully as possible. George Santayana thought it a great sin, the greatest, to set out to strangle human nature. The attempt to stay perpetually young is the most common attempt to do so in our day. It is also among the most effective ways to divest oneself of charm.

Charm will not feed the hungry, help end wars, or fight evil. I’m not sure that it qualifies as a virtue, and, as is well known, it can be used for devious ends. Yet charm does provide, among other things, a form of necessary relief from the doldrums, the drabness of everyday life. Sydney Smith, the 18th-century clergyman and himself an immensely charming man, wrote that “man could direct his ways by plain reason and support his life by tasteless food; but God has given us wit, and flavour, and brightness, and laughter, and perfumes to enliven the days of man’s pilgrimage and to charm his pained steps over the burning marle.” If your vocabulary is as limited as mine, you will have to look up marle, which turns out to be “unconsolidated sedimentary rock or soil consisting of clay and lime, formerly used as fertilizer.” What Sydney Smith was too charming to say straight out is that charm helps us to get over the crap in life, which, as anyone who has lived a respectable number of years knows, can be abundant.

In his Notebooks, the English philosopher Michael Oakeshott posited what he thought an ideal character. This, he held, was composed of integrity, the inheritance of civilization known as culture, and charm, the three joined together by piety, by which Oakeshott meant reverence for life. “Charm,” he wrote, “compensates for the lack of everything else: charm that comes from a sincere and generous spirit. Those who ignore charm & fix their appreciation upon what they consider more solid virtues are, in fact, ignoring mortality.” Since we all die, all are merely guests briefly here on earth, we have an obligation to get the most of our limited time, or so Oakeshott believed. In his reading, then, those who ignore charm are ignoring one of life’s genuine pleasures.

It’s a long piece, but do read it all and draw your own conclusion on what you may, or may not, find charming.

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9 thoughts on “Charm, Charming, and Charmed

  1. “I was taught to be charming but not sincere.”-Prince Charming, Into the Woods.

    Charm is great but I think we live in an age that finds it to be an artifice. Did Americans ever really do charm or did we import our charm from abroad. Cary Grant was charming. Did anyone ever describe Henry Fonda or James Stewart as charming.

    What current society is focused on for a wide-variety of reasons is that charm can be used to insidious reasons. It also seems to be very subjective. A lot of people thought Bush “the Pres you could drink a beer with” had a certain kind of folksy charm. A lot of people like me found his faux-Texan thing false and insidious.

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    • I think that irony kills charm. As a society we’re so focused on giving ourselves not just wiggle room (implying a little movement) but room to mean exactly the opposite of what we’ve said. There are other traits that oppose charm, but irony strikes me as a particularly powerful one. The word “charm” calls up an image of magic. It suggests a willingness on the part of the recipient to lower his guard. A culture of trolls isn’t going to be charming.

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      • I agree in part and dissent in part.

        We live in the era of Deconstruction, but when there are those who engage able to engage the public sphere with Construction, and do so with wit and grace, and without naiviety or (excessive) saccrinity, the world beats a path to their door.

        This is why everyone loves Tom Hanks, and most people love Oprah Winfrey.

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  2. Charm can make up for a lot. Not everyone is blessed with good looks or athletic bodies, but charm (along with humor and wit) can break ice that would otherwise stay solid.

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  3. I think “charm” (or what we used to call such) can be dangerous in a person. I know a few people that, when I was younger, I thought they were charming in some way or other, but have since learned they are actually somewhat predatory. That they used the charm not for warmth and comfort of others, but to get what they wanted. (Mostly men, going after women, but not exclusively so).

    There’s genuine charm (which I think is rare) and that icky false charm – think the glad-handing salesperson type. Some people see through it but apparently enough don’t that it keeps going. (Sometimes I don’t see through it, not at first)

    I try to be kind and as “warm” as someone who is deeply introverted and perhaps-not-completely-neurotypical can be, but I wouldn’t call myself “charming,” that seems to presuppose a certain level of something like comfort with the world and ease in navigating it, and one thing I find is that the world is a damnably hard place to navigate some days.

    “Charm” in terms of nice things in architecture or the public sphere or things just generally being nicer than the bare minimum, though – that’s totally different and seems quite essential to me. I dislike the uglification and functionalization of things. I was sad to learn of the closing of the “Fresh Market” in my parents’ town – now, yes, maybe a lot of that “charm” was artifice designed to get people to spend more money, but darn it was nice to walk into a grocery and have low lighting and quiet and classical music playing from the speakers. To me, the average wal-mart feels kind of assaulting: too bright, too loud, too many hard surfaces, ceilings too high, too much of just a box plopped in the landscape. But it seems as much as brick-and-mortar retail survives, the “big sterile brightly-lit loudbox” model is what we’re going to get. Maybe we deserve it; I don’t know. But it’s unpleasant to shop there some times.

    I spend a fair amount of effort trying to make my house colorful and soft and have pleasant lighting, because I need that. If I can’t live in a world where the outsides are pleasant, at least I can return home to my softly-colored walls and the set of fairy lights I hung around the doorframe to the living room a couple Christmases ago and never took down…

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  4. Americans are going to have a confused attitude towards charm. Like Saul pointed out, Americans might have liked it but we also saw it as anti-American. We saw ourselves as a plain speaking democratic people while charm is associated with artifice and the upper classes. It used to not be uncommon for Americans of a certain class to teach their children to speak with a posh English accent rather than an American one.

    As Fillyjonk noted, charm is also seen as predatory these days. At least in some quarters. It’s assiciated with Nice Guys, White Knights, and other louts. People who are seemingly pleasant on the surface but not great in the interior. Again, charm is seen artifice rather than something sincere or true in this case.

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    • Thing is, you can be plain speaking and still have charm. Charm is in the delivery, the bearing, and how one treats others and the topic at hand.

      It isn’t that people want to be plain spoken, it’s that they want to be bluntly honest to the point of abrasive.

      A person with charm can be painfully honest and you’ll thank them for the telling.

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