By snobbery I mean, in the context of cultural taste, the achievement of (or quest for) self-worth by distancing ourselves from those whose tastes we despise and insinuating ourselves into the company and approbation of those whose tastes we admire. Think of C. S. Lewis' "inner ring," the appeal of which I think is just as much in its power of disassociation from some set of people as in the lure of association with another.
One observation I would make: at its core, snobbery has very little to do with the love of arts and literature, and has much more to do with the love of self. The snob does not truly value works of culture for their own sake; rather, the snob loves these things in an instrumental way. The snob loves music or a certain author for the sake of what they do for him or her. As such, the pleasures of snobbery are those of a disordered soul, disordered in being unable to see and grasp a thing in its proper place and time. To delight in the goodness of things in their own right is the privilege of charitable aesthetic vision, whereas snobbery is a debaser of true delight, symptomatic of spiritual derangement.
Which brings me to a related point. Surely a distinction should be made between snobbery and having high standards. Here's what the essayist Joseph Epstein writes in his excellently entertaining book, Snobbery: The American Version:
High standards generally — about workmanship in the creation of objects, about what is owed in friendship, about the quality of art, and much else — far from being snobbish, are required to maintain decency in life. When the people who value these things are called snobs, the word is usually being used in a purely sour-grapes way. "Elitist," a politically super-charged word, is almost invariably another sour-grapes word, at least when used to denigrate people who insist on a high standard. The distinction, I believe, is that the elitist desires the best; the snob wants other people to think he has, or is associated with, the best. Delight in excellence is easily confused with snobbery by the ignorant.
Reverse snobbery--one of the many deleterious results of snobbery--is just as pleasurable a self-valuation as snobbery, and no less insidious. To dismiss as snobs those who delight in excellence is merely to replace one kind of judgment with another, no less judgmental and more self-oblivious one.
Snobbery perpetuates injustice against the works of culture as well as one's neighbor. According to Marcel Proust, it is "the greatest sterilizer of inspiration, the greatest deadener of originality, the greatest destroyer of talent." It is also the friend and enabler of envy, which is the bane of friendship and true community. "Envy," said Samuel Johnson, "is mere unmixed and genuine evil; it pursues a hateful end by despicable means, and desires not so much its own happiness as another's misery."* To give oneself over to snobbery is to be consigned to a life of anxiety, perturbation, and dissatisfaction, since there is always some new pitiful upstart down the road to beat down and some new ringbearer up the road to adulate and crawl after, no matter how much one progresses in taste.
My question is, how to guard against snobbery without falling into some other, equally sinful habit of being?
*My quotations of Proust and Johnson are merely meant to establish my personal superiority over you, the lowly reader.
Edited by du Garbandier, 23 March 2010 - 06:42 PM.