« Is Sun Tzu's "The Art of War," one of Trump's inspirations ? | Main | Don't argue, or I will use my cold engineering heart to build a SolidWorks project that will make your mother cry like a shoeless hobo. »

Bildung and Sitzfleisch

In Germany, the keyword is almost untranslatable: Bildung, which means education in the form of personal cultivation and improvement. That idea, expressed in different languages in different nations, tied this rising class together across national borders. Self-improvement differentiated them from the decadent 1 percent.

For example, listening to music became an educational -- rather than entertaining -- experience. The eighteenth century's classical chamber music functioned as a pleasant soundtrack for aristocratic soirees. At concert halls, the nobility would canoodle in their boxes, only half paying attention to the performers.

But when the rising capitalist class attended concerts, they did not gab away in a convivial fashion: they sat still and demanded silence, in order to concentrate on the music.

German Victorians coined the term Sitzfleisch -- sitting flesh -- to describe the muscle control required for sitting absolutely still during a concert performance. Even coughs and sneezes had to be stifled, lest they break anyone's concentration and derail self-improvement.

The quest for Bildung saturated daily life as well. Wealthy young women, who could not hope for any career beyond wife and mother, learned at least one other language and took piano and singing lessons. Men often spent their evenings attending lectures or participating in civic organizations.

For this dedication to pay off, however, these enriched Victorians had to display it, making their difference from both the wealthier and the poorer obvious to all.

Today, spin classes, artisanal food, and the college application process have replaced Sunday promenades, evening lectures, and weekly salons. But make no mistake, they serve the same purpose: transforming class privilege into individual virtue, thereby shoring up social dominance.


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)