I used to think that sophisticated people were like the people who read or wrote for “The New Yorker”. They were insouciant under the worst of circumstances. I thought up a New Yorker cartoon, when I was a teenager, of a cocktail party where there was an atomic explosion in the background and one guest says “I think it's time for another Martini.” That is sophistication: coolness in the face of difficulties either social or existential. I was also impressed at the time by the ads in “The New Yorker”. They exposed me to products and poses I would never see in my working class neighborhood. These people were dressed to the nines and carried themselves as such. .
I was reminded of my introduction to sophistication by watching for the sixth or seventh time “Mr. Blanding Builds His Dream House”, a 1947 comedy with Myrna Loy and Cary Grant as a sophisticated New York couple who set out to buy a house in the suburbs when that seemed a brave thing to do. (The eldest daughter of a rich relative of mine had at the same time moved to Babylon, Long Island, when it was still so undeveloped that along with its treeless streets it had as yet no Chinese restaurants.) The movie was based on the memoir of a New York City executive who had done just what his title said but its primary interest is as a comedy about a sophisticated couple who get snookered by the locals, who in this case are classic Yankees, quiet and conniving, while the New York city slickers are long on talk and dreams and short on good sense.
So what are the urban sophisticates like? He is an advertising man, which is the hot and glamorous profession at the time the movie is made. He is cynical about what he does, selling nonsense to the masses, but falls for an ad to buy a piece of country property. The adult Myrna Loy plays the same character she did in “The Best Years of Our Lives”: wise and aware of what is going on, quietly maneuvering her man about. Their friend, played by Melvyn Douglas is also sophisticated. He smokes a pipe and gives them sound advice that they are being played for suckers by the rural hicks. Douglas always kisses his friend’s wife on the cheek and there is never any suggestion of hanky panky. They are too sophisticated for that.
The theme, the running joke, of the movie is that Cary Grant gets flustered but can’t get out of being snookered. He has to pay for the drilling of a deep well; he gets less acreage than he thought he had bargained for; he has to rebuild the entire house rather than just strengthen it. He pours out money, which he apparently has, and so no harm is done except that he seems angry and flustered, which a sophisticated person should not, but he gets over that and finally his lawyer tells him that perhaps the purchase of a house should indeed come from the heart rather than as a financial calculation. The sophisticate is defeated, but remains so and restores his equilibrium after settling into his new house.
So where did this idea of sophistication come from that it could be so easily be satirized in the late Forties? One might think that sophistication has always been with us, that it is one of the possibilities inherent in sociation, just as is irony, humor, melodrama, jealousy, fear and hatred. How can you do without the conception that some people are blase? As a sociologist might say in an analysis of the role of sophisticated people, they are able to make the world take itself less seriously, and that is a good thing, a way to balance off our engagement in our lives and our purposes. Sophistication supplies relief in the same way that alcohol does, and all societies at least as advanced as the Egyptians had that as a way to solace themselves. So we need sophistication. And wasn’t Hamlet sophisticated? He was educated in a worldly way; he could be wry about the goings on at the Danish court. But his humor is taken for madness, not flippancy, and he cares too much, much too much, about what will happen to Denmark and what is happening inside his own soul. At best, we can say that Shakespeare was on the verge of inventing sophistication, just as he was inventing the unconscious and the political hero who sees himself as serving history by making it.
In fact, a consideration of world literature, which is what a sociologist of culture uses in the way of evidence, reveals no standard stereotype of the sophisticate, nor even of any examples of it, if what we mean by that is the coolness that comes from distancing oneself from affairs so as to notice what is fey or charming without being deep. (I would be pleased if one of my readers could point out some literary examples of sophistication.) What there is, instead, is sophistication in the sense of a deeper understanding of a situation than most people have and that is a property which more educated people or people of a higher social class may have. I am thinking in particular of Lady Bracknell, Oscar Wilde’s creation, who is wry and witty and extremely well informed and knows that she wishes to preserve the proprieties but is sufficiently engaged with them that one would not think that she is uncertain of their value and so certainly is not insouciant.
There are a number of people in world literature who might seem to qualify but, on closer examination, do not. Voltaire is acerbic when he says that the worst that can be said about Quakers is that they are in favor of peace rather than war. And, in “Candide”, he portrays the world as definitely not a place where things work out for the best. So he is skeptical. But he is too engaged in politics and the emotions of drama to be considered sophisticated. Similarly, Alexander Pope may write a satire on the epic in “The Rape of the Lock”, but there is no suggestion that he is considering literature in general as being so much poppycock, worthwhile only for its amusement rather than its depth, and his “An Essay on Man” turns out some clever lines but is in thought a rather conventional outline of just the philosophy satirized by Voltaire, that things work out for the best.
Sophistication is, rather, a characteristic of a nihilistic soul or one so without values that only the superficial in life is of any value. And this point of view comes into existence at about the same time as “The New Yorker” did, and so we can credit it as a New Yorker invention, though it is also the creation of such a lesser literary light as Noel Coward, and reaches its apex in the work of Truman Capote, who turned gossip into high art and was always supercilious. Indeed, what Susan Sontag identified as the gay contribution to culture, which was the world of camp, predated the Seventies and goes back to the homosexual writers of a prior generation and to the atmosphere around the original New Yorker. Quite an accomplishment for a literary magazine, but that was also the case in the Eighteenth Century with Addison and Steele and Samuel Johnson, who in their periodical essays created a morality for the middle class, and, more recently, with “Commentary” and “The Public Interest” which invented neo-conservatism, or with “Partisan Review”, which coined the combination of a Conservative view of the value of elitist high art, as that was represented by such moderns as Lawrence, Kafka and Joyce, with a politics that was politically Liberal.
Indeed, the greatest exemplars of sophistication appear in the Twenties and Thirties in popular music, and so are of the same period as the original “The New Yorker”. Ira Gershwin and Cole Porter and Lorenz Hart and others wrote sophisticated lyrics that were supposed to be taken as such, while Irving Berlin, from the generation before, and Oscar Hammerstein II, who achieved his greatest fame in the generation afterwards, were sentimentalists, and so not sophisticated at all, however gifted they were at their trade.
There is Cole Porter’s “Let’s Fall in Love”, the point of which is that birds and bees and other animals have sex so why not us, except that we will call it love, as if that made everything alright, as it does if you take a sufficiently distant view of the mating instinct. Then there is Lorenz Hart’s “There’s a Small Hotel”, from “Pal Joey”, music by Richard Rodgers, where a couple engage in an illicit romance that people might think immoral but which they consider very satisfying even if they have to take account of the need to maintain some degree of secrecy. That is the nature of sophistication: you do what you have to do and don’t moan about it. Or consider Otto Harbach’s “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”, music by Jerome Kern, where the sophisticated process of smoking is used as a metaphor for the difficulties of communication, a most sophisticated message. Or think of Ira Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch Over Me”, music by George Gershwin, where the idea is that everyone, especially women, can surrender to that impulse and that noting that is the height of sophistication because it is so simple a request and yet irresistible, just as is the need of pets to be handled. Sophistication means paying attention to the essentials of the everyday without shame or particular notice because that is just the way the world is.
Sophistication has passed out of fashion, as that is indicated by popular culture, the movies in particular measuring the cultural temperature of the moment, able in World War II to shift from movies about immediate Nazi threats and taking it on the chin in the Pacific, to a buildup of the Army and Navy, the militarization of the civilian population, to, by the end of the war, figuring out, as in “The Best Years of Our Lives”, how we would build a new peacetime world. Myrna Loy appeared in that movie doing her usual sophisticated turn, just as she had in the Thirties when she played Nora Charles opposite William Powell’s Nick Charles, the two of them the epitome of sophistication because they both got plastered while solving murder mysteries. Myrna Loy has left us a weighty presence.
Well, there are no more Cary Grant movies in which he plays a cool jewel thief just brimming with sophistication, rather than a sleazy gangster, as did the entire cast of “The Asphalt Jungle”. Rather, putting all the technical gimmick movies aside, there is “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”, where people figure out how to engage and maybe transform their basic emotions, de-sophisticating themselves so as to get in touch with their feelings. Or there is “The Favorite” in which the audience is asked to revel in perverse behavior for the thrill of it all, only some attention paid to the fact that Sarah Churchill really did have concerns of state at heart. Sophistication may not be a major emotion, but it was worth something, and I think it is to be missed.