“Nothing is more exhilarating than philistine vulgarity.”–Vladimir Nabokov
Some people, like my English Lit. professor in college, have an expanded definition of vulgarity. He used an analogy to describe another form of the word: if you walked into a social gathering and said you had never heard of Schubert, many of the sophisticates in the room might exclaim that you have vulgar tastes in music. The philosopher in the party may think to himself that the sophisticates are vulgar because of their snap judgment of your musical tastes. He might guess that you are naïve, along with the possibility that you may also have vulgar musical tastes. The philosopher restrains himself from stating his opinion so that he does not display his own vulgarity.
Vulgarity is interesting to contemplate. As stated above, we think of obscenity, cursing, unthoughtful behavior, and brutishness as obvious forms of being vulgar. Ignorance may or may not be vulgar. I think the simple lack of data simply indicates that a person is only naïve; it’s the intent of being willfully ignorant that is vulgar. The wise philosopher at the party treats vulgarity in much the same manner as he treats being judgmental–if he points it out, he risks being guilty of the same sin.
There is also another way of being vulgar–pretentiousness. One of my great-aunts believed Liberace, the entertainer, was vulgar. She had a love-hate manner of thinking about Wladziu Liberace. On the one hand, she enjoyed listening to his musical performances. On the other hand, she winced at his over the top, lavish displays of “tacky” luxury goods. She hated being so judgmental about Liberace’s vulgar tastes, but she couldn’t help it. My great-aunt admitted that she felt conflicted about Liberace. One of my cousins advised her to just accept Liberace’s sparkling displays and go with the flow–simply enjoy the whole spectacle of cheesy set design and music for its entertainment value.
Glitzy pianos, jewel encrusted gold candelabras, Cadillacs, and rhinestone coated costumes aside, was Liberace a vulgar person? I don’t think so. He seemed to sincerely love people and enjoyed giving his audience a pleasant presentation. Although Liberace was a golden show-off, he was not a lout about it. He understood his audience. He understood vulgarity and used it in a constructive, mutually enjoyable way.
“Very notable was his distinction between coarseness and vulgarity, coarseness, revealing something; vulgarity, concealing something.”–E. M. Forster
There is the stereotype about organized crime bosses that screams vulgarity. They live in lavish, palatial mansions, are chauffeured around town in their Mercedes Benz Maybach limousines, while dressed to the nines in tailored, thousand dollar suits. Their wrists display solid gold Vacheron Constantine or Rolex President timepieces. In my opinion, nothing shouts vulgarity more than such displays accompanied by aggressive arrogance. There is something extremely dangerous about this type of vulgarity. If we look more carefully, crass vulgarity might reveal deep-seated personal insecurities.
The reader might be chuckling about my judgmental description of organized crime figures. Am I being vulgar as well? This is probably the truth. It only proves that vulgarity is ubiquitous in society. We can see vulgarity in others and realize that it might be present in different forms within ourselves. Vulgarity can be harmful or it can just be a spice of life. Our vulgarity can provide us with working material for our own self-improvement journeys.
The Blue Jay of Happiness quotes 19th century linguist, philosopher, scholar, and religious critic, Ernest Renan. “Man is not on this earth merely to be happy, or even to be simply honest. He is there to realize great things for humanity, to attain nobility and to surmount the vulgarity of almost everybody.”