Epater les bourgeois
My cultural heroes are: Oscar Wilde, Bertrand Russell, Vladimir Nabokov, Jean-Paul Sartre, Philip Larkin, Kingsley and Martin Amis, Peter Cook, John Lennon, and Larry David (among many others). What they all have in common is the quality captured by the French phrase “epater les bourgeois”, which the OED defines as “shock people regarded as conventional or complacent”. We might paraphrase this in a number of ways: taunt the prudish and prim, ridicule the conventional and boring, outrage the pious and conformist. The cultural tradition that falls under this description sees itself as in favor of art, freedom, creativity, spontaneity, playfulness, life, and experience; it casts itself as standing against stifling social norms and dull conformity. It is given to provocation, controversy, and shock tactics. Accordingly, it is often pilloried and persecuted, and of course misunderstood. It does not see itself as against morality as such, but it does view conventional pieties with a beady and skeptical eye. It is on the lookout for hypocrisy, dogma, intolerance, suppression, and sheer dullness of spirit. These to me are admirable values that I try to bring into my own life. I am particularly fond of provocative irony, which has got me into trouble on more than one occasion (especially in irony-deficient America). I am often amazed that people fail to see the irony in this or that utterance of mine.
I trust readers will see the relevance of these remarks to current events.
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