One of my favourite headlines from the parody newspaper The Onion dates back to 2000: "Man Reading Pynchon On Bus Takes Pains To Make Cover Visible." It's funny, in a cringe-inducing way, because I recognize that man as myself at my most excruciating. Worst of all, the gesture is so transparently vain that it negates the content: Rather than wowing anyone with my sophisticated taste, instead I just look like a goof.
"Pretentiousness," claims Dan Fox, "is always someone else's crime. It's never a felony in the first person."
Maybe I'm a self-flagellating weirdo, but pretense is a personal tendency of which I'm all too acutely aware. And not just in retrospect: Those familiar pangs of fraudulence strike every time I find myself, to borrow a term from hip hop pioneers Main Source, "fakin' the funk," whether it's appraising a wine list with a connoisseur's eye or quoting 1990s rap in a book review.
But Fox's definition of pretension is more generous, invoking its Latinate roots to suggest it as any extension beyond one's capabilities. And, in his estimation, to reach beyond oneself is not necessarily a bad thing. To be pretentious is to be precocious and experimental in one's ambitions; pretentiousness encourages risks, and without it few of the paradigm-shifting innovations in the arts, sciences and humanities would ever have occurred.
The book catalogues dozens of achievements in literature, film and music that, were it not for mainstream appeal, could easily be dismissed for their ostentation. "A concept rock album about a fictional Edwardian military band, featuring musical styles borrowed from Indian classical music, vaudeville and musique concrete," Fox poses slyly. "That's Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band."
Whatever you think of Fox's argument, he develops it expertly, moving through allegories of acting and performance to cast pretension as a necessary and fundamental aspect of being human. We all pretend to be people we're not; we all wear various masks and code-switch and adapt our behaviour situationally.
Fox contrasts this mutability with the relative stasis of authenticity – that allegedly genuine, fixed essence of personhood – which he roots in our accepted cultural investment in the individual: "In the eyes of democratic society, pretending to be something other than your true nature is to break a social contract. … Denounce pretension and you are on the right side of history, upholding the hard-won ideals of democracy."
Fox discusses the role that social standing plays in these disavowals: "Because pretension is measured against the baseline 'norm' of the accuser, there is an assumption that pretension always involves scrabbling up the class ladder" – and also dissects their attendant pejorative connotations. Not only does the allegation often lack context or elucidation, but calling something pretentious tends to say more about the person making the claim than it does about whatever is being judged.
"We smell pretentiousness," he writes, "when we believe something is trying to stay out of reach from us." That, of course, not only suggests a subjective judgment, it presupposes intentionality – as in George Harrison didn't pick up a sitar to try something new, he did it to seem better than me.
Where the book loses me is its distinction between pretension and the "refined arrogance" of snobbery: "Snobs are self-aware, conscious that they're being watched, whereas a pretentious individual isn't necessarily motivated by the opinions of others." This feels inconsistent with the idea of pretentiousness as performance, which invariably requires an audience. Maybe it's a matter of semantics, but displaying a particularly heady book on public transit isn't usually a pretence of superiority, but instead an attempt to impress or court approval from strangers.
Pretension, to me, involves a self-conscious lacquering of the self – not just the everyday masks that we wear, but one that is gussied up to conceal some inner ugliness or inadequacy. While Pretentiousness brilliantly discredits and reclaims the term, it doesn't really delve into the potential psychological or emotional reasons for our self-aggrandizing affectations. Even its autobiographical postscript, a report from the front lines of Fox's adolescence in Britain, resists examining what might inspire a brooding teenager to listen to Kraftwerk rather than, say, go smash stuff in a parking lot. I'm not convinced that pretentiousness is innately positive. Sure, it might inspire revolutionary works of art or lifesaving advancements in science, but for those among us who aren't likely to change the world, it tends to reflect an essential lack or insecurity more than some inevitable triumph. Who doesn't worry about becoming the sort of person captured in three lines by the poet Tomas Transtromer? (Which, yes, I'm going to quote it here – pretension be damned!)
We got ready and showed our home.
The visitor thought: you live well.
The slum must be inside you.
I think most of us would rather not constantly need to varnish our lives for outside eyes, especially when, with each fresh layer of veneer, that inner rot turns more palpable. Pretense, after all, isn't simply a cultural phenomenon; it's something personal that many of us grapple with in private ways. Which is to say, there's nothing wrong with reading Thomas Pynchon on the bus. But what if the only goal is to make people notice?