To the Untimely One at the Dinner Party: So let me get this straight: you’re some sort of undiscovered genius, who’d be great and famous in a nobler, more literate, more cultured age—a place with higher standards—a place, like, I don’t know, maybe fin-de-siècle Vienna. Or Renaissance Italy. My God! I can practically see that autobiography you’ve been writing in your head since high school: Too Good for a Barbaric Age (2018). “Great art requires a great audience,” you say, before staring off soulfully into the middle distance . . . of a Plateau dining room, which lacks a middle distance, a Plateau dining room, that’s furnished, still, with the last tenant’s Ikea furniture.
You probably think I’m put off by your arrogance, your elitism—but you’re wrong. Arrogance can be immensely charming. And elitism, whilst somewhat nettlesome, is almost always forgivable in those who are, in fact, exceptionally amazing—in those who are, in fact, elite. It’s your passive, entitled, Cinderella-like desire to be “discovered” that gets on my nerves, not your megalomania. It’s your lazy lack of entrepreneurial fire-in-the-belly that makes you so insufferably annoying, not your smug, self-satisfied manner. Can’t you see that real artists create their audience just as much as they find it?
In nature, bright colors are often a warning: I’m poisonous! Don’t eat me! Stay away! Insect-eating birds avoid any butterfly who looks like a monarch, intelligent residents of the Amazon refrain from handling poison dart frogs, and only a fool would eat that bright red mushroom in the meadow. However, in the forest of social life, bright colors are often an invitation: I’m friendly, gregarious, approachable, somewhat outrageous, thoroughly interesting, and definitely not poisonous.
My friend Janice Simpkins taught me a handy heuristic based on this insight, which has served me well on numerous occasions: “If you find yourself stranded in a room full of strangers—at some social function—talk to the person wearing the loudest outfit, because that person is invariably the friendliest person in the room.”
But alas, in nature and in social life, we sometimes encounter false advertising. Biologists call it mimicry. For instance, the red milk snake (Lampropeltis triangulum syspila) is not poisonous, nor is the equally harmless scarlet kingsnake (Lampropeltis elapsoides). Yet predators steer clear of them both because they look like the deadly coral snake (Micrurus fulvius).
Likewise, in social life, we sometimes encounter brightly colored bores (e.g., middle-class hipsters who dress like bohemians but talk like accountants). The sense of betrayal that washes over you when you find yourself stuck in a pointless conversation with one of these philistines is surprisingly intense: their mimicry seems to offend our innate sense of social justice. Brightly colored bores should come with a warning. Something like this:
WARNING: OBJECTS BEHIND
THIS INTERESTING PERSONA
ARE DULLER THAN THEY APPEAR
If you’ve seen Catch Me If You Can (2003), you know how easy it is to fool people when you look the part. What’s less obvious is that the opposite is often equally true. People like me, who’ve been fooled one too many times by smooth-talking charlatans in suits, are often overly critical of anybody who looks the part, and overly trusting of unkempt vulgarians.
Problem is, con artists have always known this. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s popularity amongst the French aristocracy is a case in point. He mastered the art of playing rich people: an impressive feat, when you think about it, because rich people are surrounded at all times by a cloud of people who are trying to play them.
How did Rousseau do it? By playing the part of the uncouth but thoroughly down-to-earth guy who just doesn’t give a fuck. It’s a well-worn ploy. At least as old as Romanticism. And we ignore its allure at our peril. Protecting yourself from the Frank Abagnales of this world is important. But it’s also good to remember that being rough around the edges can be an integral part of a charlatan’s shtick.
Sometimes the nice guy with the perfect teeth really is just a nice guy with perfect teeth. And sometimes the rude asshole isn’t a misunderstood genius with a heart of gold. Sometimes he’s just a rude asshole. Sometimes, if it looks like a schmuck, talks like a schmuck, and walks like a schmuck, it’s a schmuck.
We were raised to believe that common sense was the enemy, that the moody guy in the corner was merely misunderstood, and that judging a book by its cover was the worst thing you could do. Perhaps that’s why Tom Perrotta’s novels are so jarring for me, for a member of a generation raised on preachy after-school specials. Because in Perrotta’s world, if it looks like a duck, it’s usually a duck.
Though famously ugly, Socrates was a skilled seducer of the young and beautiful. Alcibiades attests to this in The Symposium, and we can witness him in action in Charmides, wherein he quickly gains the undivided attention of the quintessential cool kid: “at that moment, when I saw Charmides coming in, I must confess that I was quite astonished at his beauty and stature; all the world seemed to be enamored of him; amazement and confusion reigned when he entered; and a troop of lovers followed him. . . . all of them, down to the very least child, turned and looked at him, as if he had been a statue.”
Though old, funny looking, poor, and powerless, Socrates could always get the attention of the hottest person in the room. How does he do it? Well, he ignores them: and this causes them to find him extraordinarily interesting. Because extremely good looking people are used to being worshiped. Indeed, they’ve come not only to expect, but to need that attention. From everyone! So if you hold out on them, if you withhold that worship, they’ll gravitate towards you. Because overgrown vanity is a delicate flower that needs daily watering.
Socrates was well aware of this weakness. He exploited it often. That he wanted these beautiful young people for students and disciples, not lovers, is beside the point: because seduction is seduction, whether you’re seducing a body or a mind. Socrates would surely say, in his defense, that the philosophical ends justify the manipulative means. But be that as it may, if this recurring theme in the Platonic dialogues makes anything clear, it’s that great beauty can make people surprisingly easy to manipulate.
—John Faithful Hamer, The Myth of the Fuckbuddy (2017)