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Jan 24

Sprezzatura

As I child, I’d watch Blue Jays games with Dad. The bat cracked, the ball sent on a line into a gap for a sure double. We’d hold our breath.

Devon White loped towards it. Then, somehow, he’s there. Waiting.

Never seemed to speed up. Always seemed to jog. But his glove always found the the ball. I even remember how he caught them. Chest high. Two hands. Textbook. No problem.

Dad always said the same thing: “He makes it look easy.”

And he did. Even when he made the greatest world series catch since Willie Mays in 1954, he still made it look easy. Then he said: “It came easy. Pretty much. It looked a lot harder. To me, I thought, the ball’s in the park. I gotta make that play.” But does anyone actually think that was easy? Does he?

There is a word for this:  Sprezzatura.

As Count Ludovico says in Castiglione’s “Book of the Courtier,” sprezzatura “is an art which does not seem to be an art. One must avoid affectation and practice in all things a certain sprezzatura, disdain or carelessness, so as to conceal art, and make whatever is done or said appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it. Obvious effort is the antithesis of grace.”

This concept exists in all things that require effort. Sports, dressing and the arts. It’s making it look easy. Making the impossible appear natural.

Dad would also say: “The great ones always make it look easy.”

In prose, I can think of no better example than Oscar Wilde. His epigrams sound obvious and inevitable. “The only worse than being talked about is not being talked about.” They’re so casual and to the point that one easily misses his balance of words. One hears the sharpness but, perhaps, fails to notice than any word added or taken away would destroy the wit.

At his leisure?

His books, plays and poems all have the same nonchalant air. One can imagine him dashing off  “The Importance of Being Earnest” in an afternoon. This illusion of ease was purposeful. He carefully cultivated this lie of “genius” for years. He hid his long hours of work then performed his intelligence like a parlor trick.

One wonders if such deception is even possible today. Given the amount of low-grade, social contact we have, through facebook, twitter and the like, interested parties would surely detect that Oscar was awake at all hours or discover, through his absence, that he must actually be working.

He thought long and hard on how to wear the watch that made it look like he wasn't thinking at all.

The difficulty of achieving sprezzatura has led to its exact opposite. People now publicly wallow in their work. There is no decision or thought tool little to agonize over. Showing effort has become a good thing. And unlike most good things, it has also become desirable.

There is, of course, a benefit to this. Sprezzatura has always had an element of cowardice. If this doesn’t work out, well, it doesn’t matter very much because I didn’t really try. When properly cultivated, it is a perfect defense. Sprezzatura suggests someone walking away from a failed romantic encounter and saying: I never liked you anyway or playing hard to get just to defend their heart from the difficulties of love. Often, it’s much safer to avoid committing yourself.

Taken to its logical extreme sprezzatura is the sweatpants of life.

An ostentatious display of comfort.

And by revealing the work, one makes it easier for others to follow. You cannot ape genius or talent or any god-given, mysterious nonsense but you can work hard. Anyone can hustle. By being frank about the work, we open art to imitators. This is what most people call democratization. It’s what I call bollocks.

Because, even here, sprezzatura rears its head.

Now, instead of exalting a talent for something, we exalt the work ethic behind it. When we talk of a Roy Halladay we do not so much discuss his talent for pitching as we do his amazing talent for showing up early and working out. Drudgery has become the new hero. We worship push-ups instead of perfect games.

Frankly, I prefer to worship perfect games.

But I council moderation.

One should be frank and open. One should never be afraid to say they tried just to hedge their ego against failure.

But even if we forget to make the difficult look easy, we should certainly avoid making the easy look difficult. By placing too high a value on work, we risk losing any benefit from showing the effort. The benefit is not about us but about those people who would follow us. Talent is a mysterious and desirable lure. More push-ups are just that.

There is no glamor or grace here.

As a child, I wanted to catch the ball like Devon White. I did not want to perform his work out regime.

As an adult I know that even if I had of performed his work out regime, I still never would have caught the ball like that.

I also know that I value magic higher than drudgery. Luckily, the choice is not between them. The best choice is the most moderate and the most difficult. To avoid wallowing in either while celebrating both. To understand that without the work, the magic would be impossible and without the magic, the work would be pointless.

We must simply avoid thinking that there’s anything magic about work.

There’s not.

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