Merriam-Webster defines pretention as an aspiration or intention that may not reach fulfillment. What we call pretentious in day-to-day life, is often a person’s attempt at something bigger than the person is capable of achieving. The gap between the intent and execution is a visible, laughable failure.

(Fail again. Fail better.)

A child learning to walk is pretentious whenever she falls. Talking in a language one doesn’t speak well is pretentious. Saying “explicate” when one only knows the meaning of “explain” is pretentious, too. Volunteering for a job one has never done before is pretentious. April Wheeler is pretentious, and so is Synecdoche, NY.

What this equation doesn’t account for is that the path to success goes through failure. That pretention is a sign of hard work. (Let’s refer from calling it ambition. Ambition often takes the easy route.) The tragedy of April Wheeler is not, as has been implied, that she and her husband had no talents, but that they didn’t strive to develop what talent they had. To assume that our gifts are finite, and fully formed at birth, is to be blind in the face of reality: dyslexic writers, hoarse singers, women who divorce at 50, Eugene Ionesco, Rosalie Gascoigne. To admire talent that’s “fully formed”, and to condemn “pretentiousness”, goes hand in hand. To cut tall poppies is to look at the result without looking at the path, to fail to appreciate the work, to fail to appreciate the courage of working harder than necessary, of searching beyond what one knows, to look at art (person, country, act) as a thing, not as a part of a process.

Perfect, beautiful objects are everywhere: our world is littered with remaints of the past, achievements of history. We could import the past and make it anew until our ears are red, and we would be surrounded with beauty, just like we can surround ourselves with modern Provincian furniture in modern Georgian houses. There is no pretention there: there is only blissful refusal to work, to seek, to fail. (Even the aesthetic failure of the nouveaux riches is a path, a process, a failure that gets better with time. The refusal of a modern Georgian should not be confused with the learning stumble of the owner.)

In the theatre, the pretention of the hopeful theatre-goer (to be enlightened, to be inculturated, to feel and learn and think) will clash with the pretention of the hopeful theatre-maker (to shatter the form, to break the rules, to shock). Two types of courage clash, and there is nothing phillistine about that. Not until we condemn pretention.

What remains, in some strange magic-realist world, is the seasoned performer, on stage for the seasoned spectator, in an intimate duet only they know the rules for. Some sort of love. Safe, blind and aloof.


4 thoughts on “Pretentiousness

  1. Simon says:

    I have always understood pretentiousness as someone who believes he has achieved something, while he hasn’t yet. So it’s not just that he’s trying, an attempt, but him believing that he already reached the goal, just by trying to get it, while he has not completed the job yet.

  2. Jana says:

    Good point. When it comes to a work of art, however, how do you (I, we) judge what the artist believes has been achieved?

    This is a genuine question: does the public/critical perception of the work stand for artist’s belief? Is it cumulative? Do you get more pretentious with time, by being hailed greater than you are (case study: Fabre)?

  3. The accusation of “pretension” is so often used as an attack on the new or the “difficult” that it’s probably better to examine why it is used. It’s most often code, and when it’s used like that, it’s a dismissal in favour of the status quo. Otherwise you wouldn’t get, as you do, someone like Beckett being termed pretentious… A child learning to walk isn’t pretentious – it is naked learning, which is quite different. The journalist sitting in a cafe yabbering about the novel he will write one day (and lambasting those who actually have written novels) is closer to the mark. But it’s one of those very slippery words.

  4. Jana says:

    I wasn’t hoping for any discussion, Ms Croggon, since you’ve announced Life! But oh how wonderful to have you here!

    Child walking, I meant before they have a realistic chance to succeed. Month 10, say. A child who can, or just on the verge of walking, is a safe better. The one that will get hurt many times is pretentious, in the sense of intending more than they are capable of. What I was trying to get at is that, at the beginning of every process, one has nothing but pretention.

    (Talking in a language you haven’t mastered yet is a perfect example. There is no way to master a language without practice, there is no way not to be laughable at first. It is interesting, although perhaps completely unrelated, that we label multiple-language speakers pretentious too. Particularly when they’re fluent..! Even more so, the people who will use a few words of French. But in both cases the hard slog of getting the grammar down, of practicing, of mispronouncing, is completely undervalued as a pursuit. In both cases, it’s to do with humility, rather than pretention. To allow yourself to fail, to aim so high that success isn’t guaranteed, isn’t that somehow humble, humble in the face of the world?)

    I like your re-definition of pretention. I think you hit the nail on the head. What word do we use for Beckett, then? (The Beckett that fails, I mean. Not the one that succeeds.)

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