Friday, January 11, 2013


Before you read, if you have not already done so, please give a thought to Slow Looking, and consider whether you can help me spread the word!

Now this, from my online friend and TBD reader John Torcello.  (You should know that he's a trained and expert classical accordion player:)

From John:

One definition I found this morning for 'gentleman' is a courteous designation for a male fellow member of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Gentlemen indeed! 
Likewise, in the UK, a man is considered a gentleman if he is of noble birth and attached to a royal household.
More generally, 'gentleman' is a polite or formal form of addressing a man of good social position; especially, one with great wealth and time for leisure.  A 'gentleman' is someone considered to be chivalrous, courteous, and/or an honorable man.
Hmmm?…good social position, wealthy, leisurely, chivalrous, courteous, honorable…sound like anyone you know? 
As I prepare for a first rehearsal tonight with the Hungarian composer, Peter Eötvös, conducting his piece, "Schiller Energische Schoenheit"; it was a little jarring to discover yet another definition for 'gentleman' this morning:
"A gentleman is a man who can play the accordion but doesn't." Unknown  
I searched the web in vain to try to find the actual culprit who first expressed these thoughts; some attribute this accordion quote to Oscar Wilde; but, the closest I found was something similar attributed to Mark Twain:
"A gentleman is a man who can play the banjo but doesn't."
Mark Twain
In either case, it was a little disconcerting to find that people might define and pre-judge me  -- an accordionist who can and does play it -- as the opposite of a gentleman; a boob, a cad, a sneak…!  
Accepting the prejudicial perspective of my being damned a 'boob' leads me to a new understanding and acceptance of another fairly well-known quote about the accordion: 
“Welcome to Hell. Here's your accordion.” Gary Larson
(End of John's communication.)

So what do we think?  Is the term just a quaint and antiquated notion?  Or does it have any relevance and validity today?  I myself tend toward nostalgia.  I was brought up (in England, of course!) to be a "gentleman"--though certainly not by any nobility of birth.  I think my own definition would have to do with simply knowing about good manners and how to practice them.  Mutually satisfying social relationships are not possible without good manners--not even, perhaps especially not marriages.  My definition would also have to do with the much-debased quality of considerateness, of knowing when it is appropriate to defer to others, or at least to be sensitive and responsive to their feelings.  And it would have to do with a certain poise and self-confidence, an elegance in one's dealings with others.

There is a downside to being too much of a gentleman, as I have discovered in my life.  It comes from being "nice"--or as a result of being over-deferentail, or inappropriately so--a trait that is helpful to no one, not even the recipient of the deference.  Self-sacrifice can turn rapidly into resentment against the person to whom the self is sacrificed.  Once again, I learned from the Buddhist teaching of Thanissaro Bhikkhu that the whole notion of "no-self" can be badly misunderstood and misapplied.  A strong and healthy ego, he has said, is an indispensable asset to a happy life.  Without, a person can easily become a doormat.

But I'd be truly interested to hear what readers think about the term in this distinctly unchivalrous age.  Should we retire it?  Or does it still have its uses?  What do you think?

1 comment:

David Santamaria said...

I too have seen the accordion quote attributed to Oscar Wilde. My source suggested that it was in the original version of "The Importance of Being Earnest", but that some arrogant little twit of an editor cut it, saying "it looked like carelessness". Wilde kept that line and wrote it into one of Lady Bracknell's most famous quotes.
My guess is that the accordion joke predates Wilde.