Tuesday, January 7, 2014

comme il faut

The British television serial "Downton Abbey" continues to rack up viewers here in the United States. Set in the late 19th and flowing into the early 20th century, the serial follows the lush adventures of an aristocratic family on a fictional estate in England.

Visually, the show is like eating chocolate mousse: Everyone and everything is perfectly appointed, from the place settings at the dinner table to the paintings on the walls, to the scrupulously scrubbed and trained servants. The estate is vast and manicured and conversation is invariably well-turned, if dutifully opaque (it's England, dontcha know ... although blaming the English is not quite fair: Rich people everywhere have a distanced way of approaching all those they imagine might deprive them of what they have and, sotto voce, deserve).

I'm not in a position to say with certainty why "Downton Abbey" should arouse a growing television following, but I can guess. And part of my guess is that the well-gardened certainties of aristocratic life can seem wonderfully delicious from the point of view of a world suffering from economic rawness, corruption, war and a sense that the unending up-to-date bruises and wounds provide no promise of surcease: Getting kicked in the ass is not so bad if there is some sense that up ahead there is a place where life will stop kicking you in the ass ... perhaps in a realm that, while not as posh as Downton Abbey, at least provides a bit of peaceful respite... a place of format and social agreement and ... things are just comme il faut. Where there are rules and regs, you can relax a little and let the rules and regs bear the burden.

Here in the United States, there was a time when businesses of a certain size would create a "personnel" department -- an agency that would vet incoming employees and cope with the problems those employees might encounter. But they were also, I suspect, the agency that would rebrand itself as "the department of human resources," or "HR" for short. "Personnel" was an adequate description but "human resources" sounded more caring and thoughtful and, well, human.

And the same quiet and caring legerdemain found a home for what was "the War Department" during World War II. Now it's "the Defense Department." "Life insurance" was never, as far as I know, called "death insurance" although its usefulness was contingent on the policy holder's dropping dead. Every realm seems to have its "Downton Abbey" parameters -- its rules and regs that smooth and soothe and make things work better.

And what is sauce for the world of commerce and politics is likewise sauce for the world of spiritual endeavor. Religious persuasions all draw up visions that are as nicely-appointed and well-spoken as the world of "Downton Abbey." There are as many versions of heavens and hells, rights and wrongs, threats and promises as there are place settings and proper forks at the aristocratic dinner table. Here are the rules and regs and the participant can rest easy: When things are comme il faut, the participant can be reassured and rest easy and make assured progress within stated and unstated boundaries.

It all can work pretty well. And it's certainly better than the chaotic barbarism that might ensue without rules.

But what is true for the TV series "Downton Abbey" is likewise true for other well-appointed rule books, whether institutional or personal. Life comes calling. At "Downton Abbey," the Industrial Revolution, World War I, the telephone, electricity, and a host of very human needs and longings and demands all chip away at a perfectly perfected world. Rules work ... right up to the moment when they don't work.

Suddenly, in the face of some event or situation, life asserts its wider potential. Comme il faut, "As IT should be," is suddenly seen for what it is: "what I WANT it to be." The overarching and impersonal IT displays its true colors and the Department of Defense becomes the Department of War; life insurance becomes death insurance. There are no rules outside the rules I impose or agree to and this responsibility is worth shouldering, however reluctantly. What the department of Human Resources deems "unacceptable" when it chastises an employee is not unacceptable from some rock-solid and ethereal and impersonal perspective (think "God"), but rather it is a personal choice made for personal, rule-book reasons. And those rules may in fact steady the course of events.

Who has not learned incalculably-useful lessons from the Downton Abbeys of this mind? How could baseball be played or houses erected or space shuttles built without the comme il faut of the realm? How could spiritual aspirants gain experience without entering into a world that is carefully coiffed?

But at some juncture as well, doesn't it need to be conceded that the rules that once informed are not necessarily the rules that work? To remain mired in the comme-il-faut's is to defeat the purpose of the exercise itself. Doggedly clutching the rule book to the breast ... does that really compute or is it rather a fear of living life whole?

Teenagers and other confused souls may think that fuck-the-rules is the way to go. The problem, of course, is that that approach simply concocts another rule book, another comme il faut.

Just something to consider, I guess: The delicious humming birds' tongues on the Downton Abbey plate all come to a toilet-flushing end. It's not good or bad or better or worse, but it is what happens and it's probably a good idea to make peace with what actually happens and release the reins of what should happen. If you doubt this, just check out the stale and sometimes barbarous activities of those who cannot or will not loosen those reins... as, for example, in the Downton Abbey of this mind.

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