Monday, September 1st, 2014
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Waiting for Goffman

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It opens by noting that as we grow to maturity, society enforces on us the need to “take care,” to “forego opportunities” of making mischief, noise, and trouble, or of getting hurt. “Personal development is the process by which the individual learns to forego these opportunities voluntarily, even while his capacity to destroy the world immediately around him increases. And this foregoing is usually so well-learned that students of social life fail to see the systematic desisting”—isn’t that a wonderful phrase for self-control?—“that routinely occurs in daily living, and the utter mayhem that would result were the individual to cease to be a gentleman. Appreciation comes only when we study in detail the remarkable disruption of social settings produced by hypomanic children, youthful vandals, suicidals, persons pathologically obsessed by a need for self-abasement, and skilled saboteurs.”

The social benefits of peace and quiet are obvious. Yet, notes Goffman, by arranging our lives to avoid what he calls the “eventful,” “fateful,” or “consequential,” we inevitably neglect the cultivation of some important qualities. In particular, the more active virtues—those encapsulated in the Greek term arete—can neither be demonstrated nor earned by playing it safe. “Serious action”—gambles and risks—thus offers “a means of obtaining some of the moral benefits of heroic conduct without taking quite all of the chance of loss that opportunity for heroism would ordinarily involve. But serious action itself involves an appreciable price.”

In the end only those who engage in “fateful” activities can truly test their characters, discovering in themselves and simultaneously revealing to others such qualities as courage, a game spirit, self-discipline, presence of mind, poise. Grace under pressure, Goffman reminds us, can only be shown during “action,” as he demonstrates with anecdotes about the coolness displayed by professional gamblers, pool hustlers, and even those condemned to the gallows. To live by the toss of the dice or to accept death with aplomb requires a consummate self-possession, which is the essence of character. No one becomes a hero by staying at home, going to the office, and attending church.
With the richness of his kaleidoscopic thought, there are few better interpreters of modern metropolitan life than Erving Goffman: every day in our cities people play their ever-changing roles, then gripe about them in dark bars at the end of the working day. We all try to “pass,” or desperately scramble to protect our secrets; each of us suffers sudden disappointments that require consolation, and to every man or woman there eventually comes a moment of decision and the chance to act with courage or generosity. To Erving Goffman we human beings are all on the same merry-go-round, but each of us displays a different attitude to the ride. In the meantime, around and around we go!

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About the Text

Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Washington Post Book World. He is the author of the memoir An Open Book and of four collections of essays: Readings, Bound to Please, Book by Book, and most recently, Classics for Pleasure.

Every city has a sex and an age which have nothing to do with demography. Rome is feminine. So is Odessa. London is a teenager, an urchin, and in this hasn’t changed since the time of Dickens. Paris, I believe, is a man in his twenties in love with an older woman.
John Berger, 1987
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