The Vanishing Face of Refinement
A once important concept has fallen into disuse, if not
disfavor, in our coursened egalitarian culture
by Shane Hayes
[This personal essay appeared in the Jan./Feb. 1993 issue of
The Saturday Evening Post.]
My daughter Holly, age 16, threw down the gauntlet.
"Dad, I need you to write down all the reasons why you won't let me chew gum."
I looked up irritably from my Barron's and growled, "Why?"
"It's an assignment for composition class. I have to pick out something I want to do that my parents won't let me do. You have to write a list of reasons and I have to rebut them."
"That's a silly topic," I said. "Pick something else."
"No, Dad, I've thought about it," she insisted. "There isn't anything else. Apart from that, you and Mom are perfectly reasonable. You pay for my gymnastics, you let me date freely, and you don't give me a curfew. The only unreasonable restriction you place on my freedom is not letting me chew gum. You have to write down all your reasons (there aren't any good ones), and I have to write a five-page essay on why you're wrong. Then you'll read it and change your mind."
"Don't bet on it," I warned.
"Come on, Dad. When you're that close to being perfect parents, why not go all the way? Just write 'em up and I'll shoot 'em down."
All right. Here goes.
But I can't explain my reasons without using a word that none of my four children, ages 14 to 20, understands or can utter without embarrassed accents of sarcasm and derision. It's a word that has fallen into disuse if not disfavor in our coarsened egalitarian culture. The word is "refinement." The concept being far easier for me to visualize than to define, I reached for my dictionary. Significantly, Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary gives no very helpful definition, but my Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of the English Language (part of the Encyclopedia Britannica and perhaps chosen to reflect the less egalitarian culture of England) does:
"Fineness of thought, taste, language; freedom from coarseness or vulgarity; delicacy; culture."
And under "Synonyms":
"Refinement applies to either nations or individuals, denoting the removal of what is coarse and rude, and a corresponding attainment of what is delicate, elegant, and beautiful."
Certain forms of behavior are generally agreed to be unrefined, even by those who don't give the matter much thought. Some of the grosser illustrations are loud belching and spitting in company, and licking one's fingers at the table. One reason they are deemed unrefined is that while they bring increased comfort to the perpetrator, they are offensive to most observers -- perhaps because there is something animalistic about them, and we like to see ourselves and our fellow humans as more elevated than drooling quadrupeds, even amiable pets.
A milder and more widely accepted form of unrefined behavior, confined as a rule to males, is chewing tobacco. The fact that it is common on the baseball field but unheard of in the office, the board room, and the halls of academia, supports my thesis that it is certifiably unrefined; more characteristic of those known for physical prowess than for highly developed mental powers or extensive learning. Apart from this ad hominem argument, a "chaw" is bulky and distorts the face; its brown salivary juice discolors the teeth, is probably less than fragrant, and demands frequent egress from the chewer's mouth by way of spitting.
If the perpetrator has redeeming grace in the form of a 90-mile-an-hour fastball, one tends to to pardon his social deficits, at least when viewing them from a distance. But one might have real concern about inviting him into a spitoonless living room.
Granted, gum chewing does not deserve to be labeled gross. It does not visibly swell the cheek, or discolor the teeth, or require spitting. It is nevertheless, I contend, distinctly unrefined. If the chewer has not learned the polite art of chewing with lips closed, that person's aura includes a low-toned and abrasive crackling-smacking sound as infelicitous as screeching chalk on slate.
Moreover the human face is most pleasing when it is in repose. It is unavoidably distorted to some extent when eating or singing, and even to a slight degree when talking. But because none of those three worthy activities fills all of one's waking hours, one's serene and undistorted face is observable most of the time. Not so for the habitual gum chewer. His face is, like a rabbit's pink nose, always in twitching motion.
Contemplating the human face in its endlessly varied forms, in all of Shakespeare's seven ages, can be as gratifying as contemplating the paintings of the masters. Anything that makes the face visually displeasing should be avoided if it can be. Heaven knows, glasses, hearing aids, skin blemishes, poor complexion, and eventually wrinkles, are unavoidable for many of us. But we should -- for our neighbor's sake if not our own -- make ourselves as attractive as we can. Opting to form an oral habit (and gum chewing does tend to become a habit, even a kind of addiction) that suspends the lower face in a state of incessant mastication is, I think, an unpardonable breach of good manners and good sense.
And I would point out here that the most notably refined people are never guilty of it. Can you imagine Queen Elizabeth chewing gum? (I choose women here as exemplars for my daughter.) Can you imagine Margaret Thatcher chewing gum? Or Mother Theresa? Or Grace Kelly? Or Jacqueline Kennedy? Or Princess Diana? Or Leslie Stahl? Or Diane Sawyer? Or the Venus de Milo? Or the Mona Lisa? Or a Lippi Madonna?
As to the singer Madonna, so widely admired by my daughter's generation, yes, I can imagine her chewing gum (or even tobacco), though she is probably too conscious of the beauty-impairing aspects of such chewing to indulge in it.
Refinement cuts across social classes. Maria, the slum-dwelling heroine of West Side Story, was portrayed by Natalie Wood as the perfection of urban Hispanic loveliness. She did not chew gum. Sprinter Wilma Rudolph, as portrayed in the film Wilma, did not chew gum. Neither did the poor governess Maria in The Sound of Music -- and if she had, I doubt the master of the house would have made her his bride. Eliza Doolittle, the flower peddler in My Fair Lady, probably did chew gum; but she left it in the gutter when she learned how to behave like a princess and won the heart of Professor Higgins.
Beyond the issues of good manners and human aesthetics there is the distressing (no doubt often misleading) sense that gum chewing exhibits a certain coarseness of mind. It seems (though no doubt it often is not) incompatible with sensibilities attuned to fine cultural stimuli. Can you conceive of a ballerina chewing gum during her performance?
And though you, dear Holly, are a gymnast and not a ballerina (and you have often heard me say that a ballerina is just a gymnast with a soul), I want you to exhibit a refinement now -- even against your will -- that I hope you will internalize later, as maturing years reveal to you the difference between vulgarity and culture, coarseness and refinement.
I am not saying, by the way, that those who chew gum are coarse or unrefined -- only that gum chewing makes them, to some extent, appear so. And it is even more regrettable to give than appearance when it is misleading than when it is not.
Holly scanned my arguments with irreverent speed and no hint of appreciation. "But Dad," she parried, "you chewed gum when you were a kid. Granddad told me so. And you turned out refined."
Because I wanted to deny only part of her statement -- and could only partly deny that -- I was a little disarmed.
"Well," I allowed grudgingly, "in my benighted youth I may have peeled a stick or two. But I didn't know any better. Granddad didn't indulge, but he never told me not to. He tried to lead purely by example and that wasn't enough. Besides, I chewed at most occasionally. Never habitually."
"You were a moderate gum chewer," Holly smiled, "not a gumaholic. Not a gummo."
"Never," I averred, "in my most dissipated hours could I have been called a gummo. And I saw the light when I was about eighteen. I've been on the wagon for thirty-five years. By now I have a right to speak out."
"With the zeal of a reformer," she observed. "What if I promise to chew just moderately?"
"No," I deprecated, "that won't do. I don't want you to look even moderately unrefined."
"In any case," she warned, "I'll be able to do it as much as I want in two years. Eighteen is the gum-chewing age in Pennsylvania."
The age of emancipation. I nodded ruefully. "Just notice in the meantime that we're becoming a Nation of Restless Jaws. Then if you want to join the Masticating Masses, you can. I'll love you in spite of your iniquity. But I'll pray for the repose of your soul -- and your pretty twitching face."
Copyright © 2012 by Shane Hayes