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The Emperor's New Clothes

The Fall of Public Man by Richard Sennett Alfred A. Knopf, $15.00, 373 pages

By Diane Sherlock

IN PREVIOUS centuries, they were pleased to be known as dandies. Wearing only the latest fashions, using only the proper fork, amusing with only the most charming witticisms, they gave the best of Paris and London the pleasure of their company. To all appearances, the dandy of 18th and 19th century cities seemed to exist for others only, for the sake of appearances alone. Yet anyone so concerned with his own facade is of course really concerned with himself, and behind the public image of the dandy always lies the private person.

Richard Sennett also impresses with appearances in his recent book, The Fall of Public Man, writing with authority about urban population growth in the 1750s at one moment and about the revolutions of 1848 in the next. Dressing his argument in the social histories of 18th century London, Paris in the 1840s and 1890s, and New York in the 1960s, Sennett attempts to demonstrate a continuous transition from a public-oriented urban culture to one where nothing has any interest or meaning except as a reflection of private life. The codes and conventions that governed behavior in 18th century London encouraged productive political action by separating the issues from the personalities involved. With the intrusion of the self into the public domain, Sennett argues, such effective political action became more and more a thing of the past as a "cult of personality" that triumphed in the 19th century subordinated issues to the private lives of political people. Urban man began to sit and wait for the charismatic virtuoso to inspire him, or for the politician to help him.

Much of what Sennett writes about the '60s, when the "tyranny of intimacy" reigned supreme, appears superficially to be true. But because he leaps from one country and one historical period to another, Sennett fails to develop any historical continuity for his argument. The 18th century world of Samuel Johnson preparing speeches to recite to his friends becomes that of Richard Nixon assuring the American public he is a good man with only Dreyfus, unjustly accused of a public crime for private reasons, in between. Through this method of historical "postholing," Sennett presents only the finished products--the public personality at one end of the continuum and the private at the other--but none of their overlap. The upshot is that these two "separate molecules" of society remain worlds apart in a way that Sennett at first advocates but in the end cannot even himself believe.

The problem arises at the outset, when Sennett defines public life in a private, idiosyncratic and almost arbitrary way. Rather than updating the classical idea of res publica he exhumes from the attic (a notion of private citizens redefining themselves by subordinating their individual interests to the greater good of the community) Sennett merely fabricates a new definition. Public life "flowers" in Sennett's world when the proper "balance" is found between the public and private realms. The material for these conditions existed, according to Sennett, in 18th century London where citizens created through women's elaborate wigs, men's formal coffeehouse speech and other observable social signals a system that was commonly understood.

Logically, Sennet's contention that the artificiality of the 18th century streets produced a spontaneity and ease in social interaction is a little hard to accept; historically, this distance between the public and private lives of citizens of the period is even more questionable. Sennett does not write about Boswell, who during these years publicly frequented the salons of London to make connections that would further his private political ambitions. Nor does he make any mention of the widespread 18th century practice of keeping diaries meant for publication, a private penchant performed for public profit.

Only for one brief moment, in the 1840s, does Sennett view the public and private as inseparable: in his novels, Balzac wrote physical descriptions of his characters' appearances that revealed both their psychological make-up and social class. "The web of details" in Balzac's Paris, Sennett writes, "is constructed such that general forces have a meaning only as they can be reflected in individual cases." But instead of showing the gradual dominance of personality in the public realm, Sennett shifts the scene abruptly--to the concert hall where Paganini made his violin performances more riveting than the music itself, to the barricades of 1848 where Lamartine made his frequent appearances before the workers more inspiring than his policies, and to the courtroom where Zola in J'Accuse made the matter of personal honor in the Dreyfus Case a more important question than anyone's actual guilt.

TO EXPLAIN this apparently complete triumph of the private in public life, Sennett offers only his own poorly expressed version of the Marxist analysis of commodity fetishes and the mass production of goods. Instead of penetrating capitalism as a system of production and power, Sennett bows once more to appearances. To his mind, the drab, undistinguished-looking mass-produced clothing made in the new factories freed people to invest the clothes with personality. By breaking down the conventions of dress that defined the public image in 18th century London, industrialism let loose the private in the public realm. The emptiness of this seemingly sophisticated explanation evokes the images of the emperor in his new clothes.

Given the internal contradictions that characterize Public Man, it is not surprising that Sennett unleashes his strongest private vituperative to make a public case against the public outrage that emerged in the '60s from a private violation that had come before. The rise of personality politics, where the only thing that matters is the "image" one projects, and the physical atomization of the city, which gave rise to new urban ghettoes, combined in the `60s to create communities more concerned with establishing their own identities than in realizing practical political goals. The radicals who worked for "community," "sharing," and "participation" didn't help the cities, Sennett argues; their localism only denied the basic diversity that lies at the heart of urban culture:

This belief that human relations are disclosures of personality to personality has... distorted our understanding of the purpose of the city. The city is the instrument of impersonal life, the mold in which diversity and complexity of persons, interests and tastes become available as social experience. The fear of impersonality is breaking that mold. In their nice, neat gardens, people speak of the horrors of London or New York; here in Highgate or Scarsdale, one knows one's neighbors; true, not much happens, but life is safe. It is retribalization.

Perhaps it is hitting below the belt to criticize Sennett, an erstwhile `60s reformer himself, for attacking his old private beliefs in his new public position. As he might put it, he is simply behaving as a product of his age who allows his private experience to dominate his public conception. But when in his conclusion Sennett offers as an alternative to `60s communalism a vision of the controlled clash of private interests, and when he presents this vision as a return to the happier days of public man, then it is time to call the emperor naked. Rather than demanding that individual wills be subordinated to the greater good in the old res publica, Sennett claims in his new vision to maintain the distance between public and private. But his argument that we must return to a kind of open market where "rules" and "conventions" are the only things governing the free play of individual whims is not new at all; it is simply a return to American pluralism. Sennett's final public vision emerges as not only dependent on the private but as the most private public vision of all.

TODAY, Sennet writes, "we remain under spell of the Romantic performers' code that art transcends text, but we lack their passion, and a certain innocence with which they took themselves so seriously." Writing The Fall of Public Man, Sennett must have hoped that some of that innocence would return. But his fresh perceptions on fashion and theater are overwhelmed by the inconsistencies of his argument. And Sennett is left a dandy in the most embarrassing position of having nothing to say.

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