A female friend recently told me that my enthusiasm is one of my charms. I think this is true but then, I’m an enthusiast: of course I think my own enthusiasm is charming.
I remember literally sitting on my hands in primary school so that I wouldn’t raise my hand too much. But I find figurative hand-sitting more challenging.
I am an enthusiast in what the OED tells me is the principal current use of the word enthusiasm: I frequently evince “passionate eagerness in any pursuit, proceeding from an intense conviction of the worthiness of the object.”
Trust me, I am also frequently deeply unenthusiastic. There are many things I actively detest, including calculating tips, submitting receipts for reimbursement, and passive-aggressive baseball coaches. But when I’m in, I’m in.
When I’m in a less enthusiastic mood, however, I think of my propensity for enthusiasm less as a charming feature and more as a fundamental character failing. And so we return to a perennial topic of this blog: the duck-rabbit’s inability to be cool.
Strikingly, the OED does not link “cool” as a favorable appraisal of someone’s demeanor (8. a. Attractively shrewd or clever; sophisticated, stylish, classy; fashionable, up to date; sexually attractive) to “cool” as a characterization of a person’s lack of warmth (3. a. Lacking in fervour or zeal, unenthusiastic; lacking heartiness or warmth of interest.) And, maybe, in fact, the two are not historically connected. But they feel intrinsically connected to me today: that is to say, it feels obvious to me that the culture tells me that in order to be attractive I should refrain from displaying “warmth of interest.”
I find this almost impossible. And I’ve been trying pretty hard. Hence the figurative sitting on hands. But it’s a constant struggle. And all of the labor and energy expended in the effort to appear disinterested is, frankly, exhausting. I find myself wondering: is this a constant hidden labor for everyone? Are other people genuinely less enthusiastic or just better at feigning disinterest?
I have always been an enthusiast. One extremely fond memory that comes to mind is hanging out with SJ. I can’t remember if we were in London or Cambridge, or Toronto. But I remember SJ saying casually, hey do you wanna look through this magazine together and we can say which clothes we think look good? And I don’t remember exactly what I said in reply, but the important thing was the affect. It is possible that I actually gasped and clasped my hands with delight. It is quite possible that I said, “that would be AMAZING.” And SJ laughed and laughed at how excited the prospect of flipping through the fashion mag with her had made me.
I’m trying to think through how the economy of desire works in terms of the prohibition on expressing enthusiasm. It’s certainly not limited to romantic relationships. I distinctly remember that when I asked a friend of mine at secondary school why she and the others disliked so strongly the girl that they bullied, she explained that it was because this other girl was desperate to be liked. The whiff of desperation is a turn off. And I guess that makes sense in theory to me. Except. I don’t know. In practice, don’t we only read enthusiasm as “desperation” when we’ve already prejudged someone as “annoying”? If we think that someone is kind and funny and intelligent and all round good company, would that person’s warmth towards us truly be off-putting? That is hard for me to believe.
In fact, I think the opposite is true. In my experience, if I’ve already judged someone to be a good egg, her declared warmth towards me can only be flattering and endearing. Take good Dr. Lake. We had not been five minutes in each other’s company when she collected me at the Cincinnati airport (and, mind, this was the longest we had ever been in each other’s company) when she pulled out a beautiful crocheted scarf from her bag and said, “I made this for you.”
Reader, she crocheted me a scarf.
I wore it this morning, in fact, and every time I do, I feel a sweet pang in my heart that says, “Dr. Lake made this for me.”
Making something for someone is such a gratuitous act of kindness. It’s a gesture that says, so openly, “I’ve spent time thinking about you.”
I don’t want to gender stereotype, but it is harder to imagine a man making something for a friend although perhaps that is simply because they receive less training in the domestic arts. Maybe men make their friends other kinds of things. Maybe they whittle each other little wooden … gadgets.
The sphere, of course, in which I’m most keenly aware of enthusiasm’s unacceptability, is that of dating. Aziz says, “if your messages are in blue and the other person’s messages are green, if there is a shit ton blue than green in your conversation, this person doesn’t give a shit about you.”
Please, don’t sugarcoat it, Aziz.
I was messaging with someone I met on The Internet over the weekend, and looking over our texts now, I am aware of the disparity. All of mine are in vertically elongated blue rectangles. All of his are in squat little grey rectangles and say things like, “Ha.” And, “that’s right.” And, “that’s crazy.” While mine are … well, you know what mine are like.
Likewise, when someone else recently texted me asking if I’d like to get a drink, I texted back immediately, “yes, I would love to!” But that was all wrong, right? I should have texted back something like “Sure.”
In fact, maybe what I need is some kind of autocorrect app. It would automatically make all of my texts more acceptably terse .
I would love to! Autocorrected version: sure.
That sounds great! Autorrected version: ok.
And, most importantly of all, any texts longer than five words would simply automatically fail to send.
You know whom I blame for giving enthusiasm a bad rap? Jane bloody Austen.
In Northanger Abbey (1818) enthusiasm is at best naïve, like Catherine Moreland’s, but at worst fake and manipulative, like Isabella Thorpe’s. Enthusiasm betrays either a lack of sophistication or else a calculated manipulation of affect in order to exploit others. Either way, enthusiasm is superficial. Austen’s depiction of enthusiasm consciously reacts against the eighteenth-century valorization of involuntary physical symptoms – tears, fainting, blushing – as indexes of sincerity.
Austen’s critique of sentimentalism validates, on the other hand, emotional reserve: still waters run deep, we are meant to conclude, from observing characters such as Darcy in Pride and Prejudice or Elinor in Sense and Sensibility.
In reality it seems to me that neither philosophy is consistently true. If only people were so consistent! Fervor and effusiveness doesn’t reliably indicate a lack of deep feeling any more than coolness and reserve does. And, after all, coolness is not a lack of affect but its own affective performance. Take this scene in Northanger Abbey in which Henry’s display of composure makes Catherine “restlessly miserable”:
“At length, however, he did look towards her, and he bowed—but such a bow! No smile, no continued observance attended it; his eyes were immediately returned to their former direction. Catherine was restlessly miserable; she could almost have run round to the box in which he sat and forced him to hear her explanation. Feelings rather natural than heroic possessed her; instead of considering her own dignity injured by this ready condemnation—instead of proudly resolving, in conscious innocence, to show her resentment towards him who could harbour a doubt of it, to leave to him all the trouble of seeking an explanation, and to enlighten him on the past only by avoiding his sight, or flirting with somebody else—she took to herself all the shame of misconduct.”
Although it is Catherine and not Henry’s affect that Austen emphasizes (she is the one “possessed” by feelings), his actions—the formal bow; the grave face; the refusal to maintain eye contact—perform feeling just as vividly and deliberately as Isabella’s histrionics.
That’s my reading, anyway. Of course a Henry Tilney sort would pour cold water over all of my speculations and say, smugly,“well of course you’re defending enthusiasm. That’s exactly the kind of self-serving move I’d expect from an enthusiast.”
The rabbit would throw up its front paws in exasperation; but the duck is sitting on them.