Good Manners

The Goulue and Valentin, The Boneless One; Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Le mauvais goût mène aux crimes.
– Stendhal

I’m for them—you? Depend on one’s culture, of course:
in a country I will not name lest you think less of both it
and its people, best friends throw excrement at each other,
a custom that might strike you, play on words intended,
as unnatural and even obscene yet is, in that sovereign nation,
proof of mutual devotion. Ha, ha—splat! I love you, Mamadou!
A guy I worked with who was something of a shithead himself
cackled as he told me that his middle-school daughter was
totally and completely contemptuous of the “Miss Manners”
advice column because she not only saw no need to be
mannerly but also considered manners beneath her dignity,
not that she had any, though today that same daughter
is neither a radical firebrand nor drug-raddled prostitute
but a high-school teacher and mom herself and wife
to a film editor and thus at least marginally bourgeois
and was as a young person probably only trying to
please her father, who is dead now of a stroke that,
come to think of it, was most likely brought on
by his chronic and acute shitheadedness, which is not
exactly a word, though perhaps it is if I say it is, for
if Shakespeare was able to coin such new words as bandit,
critic, dwindle, lackluster, lonely, skim milk, swagger,
green-eyed (as in jealousy), and elbow (as a verb), then
why should not I, who is assuredly not comparing himself
to the playwright called the “sweet swan of Avon”
by his contemporary Ben Jonson but also an “upstart crow”
by the equally contemporaneous Richard Greene,
be allowed to present to posterity the option of accepting
or not a coinage of his own coining, though one admittedly
less likely to achieve the status of dwindle or swagger.
Manners, Mr. Greene, manners! You were popular
in your day, though no longer, and are best known
to succeeding generations for your pamphlet denouncing
Shakespeare. You were born too soon to have read,
as Poe wrote, that “to vilify a great man is the readiest way
in which a little man can himself attain greatness,”
though certainly you might or perhaps should have been aware
that the widely translated essayist Michel de Montaigne
who had a marked influence on the Shakespeare
you dismissed in so cavalier a fashion, said, “Since we cannot
attain greatness, let us have our revenge by railing against it,”
which is essentially the same thing. When Stendhal said
that bad taste leads to crimes, I don’t think he meant
that scratching your ass in public will make you a murderer,
just that we should all be a little more thoughtful.
Some of us aren’t, you know. “We are all as God made us,”
said Henry Fielding, “and many of us much worse.”
In his helpful guide to manners Galatea (1558), Giovanni
Della Casa says, “Nor is it seemly, after wiping your nose,
to spread out your handkerchief and peer into it as if pearls
and rubies might have fallen out of your head,”
though it’s better than that, actually: it may not be seemly,
but everybody wants to know what’s in their schnozzola.
Just don’t let anyone catch you at it: blow your honker
all you want, but taking a good close look at your
own chop suey is not what I’d call appropriate
first-date behavior. Why can’t more of us be like
the woman I know who thought she was buying
a therapy dog that turned out to be a special-needs dog,
though she took care of it anyway—they took care
of each other—or the little girl who had obsessive-compulsive
disorder and was on a road trip with her two older sisters
but couldn’t stop crying after counting telephone poles
for twelve hours straight, at which time one of her sisters
turned around from the front seat and said, “Why don’t
you get some sleep, and we’ll count them for you?”