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Jewish World Review
January 27, 2009
/ 2 Shevat 5769
Are you sophisticated? Here's how to find out
The word 'sophisticated', though commonly used, especially by persons who turn out on close investigation to be unsophisticated, is tricky, and truly sophisticated people avoid it altogether. Now, having got that off my chest, let us try to define it.
One difficulty is that the root of the word can mean opposite things. Thus, a sophist can be either 'a wise or learned man' (Oxford English Dictionary), or 'one who makes use of fallacious arguments'. 'Sophistry' nearly always means 'deceptiveness'. To sophisticate, used as a verb, is to mix commodities and render impure, to adulterate, deprive of simplicity, and make artificial. Hazlitt, himself a fascinating mixture of intellectual sophisticate, rare for his epoch, and downright naivety to the point of idiocy (falling hopelessly in love with a nasty servant-girl), sometimes used the word, verbally or adjectivally, as a term of abuse. The hint of criticism lasted throughout the 19th century thus in the 1880s it was noted that plain names for girls, like Sarah or Mary, were being 'sophisticated' into Celestine or Mariette.
The use of 'sophisticated' in its modern sense occurred only in the third decade of the 20th century, though the OED cites Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure as an early authority. When used with approval, envy and admiration, it is essentially a 1920s word, cropping up in the early Aldous Huxley of Crome Yellow and Antic Hay, and applied to young women as well as men. Huxley's Mrs Viveash was sophisticated and so was Nancy Cunard, on whom she was based. It quickly moved into the cultural field, puzzling pundits and know-alls unable to decide whether Sons and Lovers, let alone Lady Chatterley's Lover, were sophisticated or not or even faux-naif, thus forcing them into dishonest compromises or having it both ways.
In the Thirties and Forties it made deep inroads into academia. We read that in ancient Athens, 'probably pederasty was more common among the aristocrats, the idle rich and the sophisticated than among the simpler people'. Scrutiny took it up in its usual gruesome fashion, both as a term of guarded praise and of stealthy abuse. So we find the dreadful Raymond Williams droning on, in Marxism and Literature: 'Mediation, in this range of use, thus seems little more than a sophisticate of reflection.' Puzzle that out. In 1947 C.S. Lewis told me it was 'one of those words to be employed with the greatest care'. He loved to discourse on its etymology and contradictions, and made cunning use of it himself (cf. his That Hideous Strength).
All the same, I intend to have a shot at defining sophistication in this day and age, and even devising a test by which you can fairly (or even unfairly) determine whether someone is sophisticated or not. The word provokes not just argument but rage. People really dislike being called unsophisticated, or accused of a lack of sophistication, unless they are very sophisticated indeed, in which case they don't care tuppence, since they consider the person who calls them such lacks the qualifications to pronounce. To which my philosopher friend Professor Prodnose adds: 'Yes, and the only true Sophisticated One is G-d.'
Let us then proceed to give the ten tests by which you can decide whether you, or those you know to be in the running, are sophisticated or not. You don't have to pass all ten. Seven will do perfectly well. And test number one takes up the last point. Can you remain truly indifferent to what people say or think about you? I mean, not just take no notice but remain perfectly calm. Can you take no notice of what is said about you in a gossip column, or better still, refrain from reading it when kind friends tell you you're in it? Personally I think this point can be carried too far.
Now come two tests of knowledge. A sophisticated person knows all, or a very great deal, but rarely chooses to display knowledge. A know-all is horribly unsophisticated. Ideally knowledge should be kept in reserve, and displayed only in response to earnest questioning. But it must be true. Don't pretend you know about art unless, say, you can name all the 35 authentic Vermeers, and discuss sensibly the question of a 36th. All right, a dozen will do. Can you?
Thirdly, and again on culture, it is vital to be able to command behind-the-scenes knowledge of the kind John Amis displays so easily and naturally in his invaluable little book My Music in London: 1945-2000 or Cyril Connolly in Enemies of Promise and The Unquiet Grave. Did Benjamin Britten first lose interest in choirboys when their voice broke or when pubic hair sprouted? If John Sparrow had given evidence at the Chatterley trial would the history of modern literature have been different? Is a Picasso more likely to be genuine with a signature or without? Vitally important, however, not to appear knowing. The surest sign of a failure in sophistication is name-dropping. Are you capable of hinting rather than asserting?
Fourthly, and relating to this last, comes the question of anecdotage. A sophisticated person ought to be able to make you laugh. But an anecdotalist can so easily tip over into the pit of boredom. And to be identified as a bore is even worse than to be hailed as a name-dropper. Learn to listen to yourself and when to stop. Old 'Monty' Mackenzie was enchanting company for the first half-hour. After that, the conversational law of diminishing returns set in fast. A true mark of sophistication is the ability to mix with perfect timing a blend of talking and listening. No one can be called worldly who is not a genuine listener. Are you?
Fifth, a point of behavior. Cardinal Newman defined a gentleman as one who never willingly inflicted pain. There is some doubt whether the adverb he used was 'needlessly' or 'consciously'. And of course a gentleman is not necessarily sophisticated, though an unsophisticated gent is a problem in social algebra. I would say a sophisticated man never inflicts pain except in an attempt to extract information in a good social cause. A sophisticated lady can always get what she needs to know without inflicting anything. Do you pass this test?
Six, the essence of sophistication is unflappability. A sophisticated person never swears, that is uses four-letter words. I could never get this into Ken Tynan's head. It's all right for a man to say 'G-d damn you!' in a very English accent. Or a Yank to exclaim 'Darn it!' in upstate Connecticut. A lady may use a four-letter whisper once in a blue moon. Princess Margaret said: 'Well, I do. The Queen never does. But then she's less sophisticated than I am.'
Seven is one of Diana Cooper's obiter dicta. It's very unsophisticated for a lady to say she must go to the lavatory (never 'john' or 'loo', note). She ought to train the bladder properly. I maintain this applies to a man, too, and is another argument against drinking. Indeed, the more I think of it, it is impossible, in a practical sense, for a man, still less a woman, to be sophisticated unless they drink the absolute minimum. Again, on a practical point, the eighth test is: 'Granted only one moderate-sized suitcase, what do you pack for a weekend at Highgrove or Sandringham? The ninth test is related. After such an event, which servants do you tip, and what, and how exactly do you do it?
Finally, and this is the ultimate test of sophistication if invited to call on the Prime Minister or the President, how do you successfully avoid any mention of politics? And how do you decide when it is time to leave? A few seconds before it is made plain to you, clearly. But how do you judge it? Let me know if you can think of better tests.
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© 2009, Paul Johnson