Sir F. Chook, Inventor of Leopard Oil

Likeness captured upon a daguerrotype machine in Japan, July 1891

Lettres

Wherein the Author reflects upon certain topical & personal issues of the Day.

l’Amour de l’Armoire: The Tao of the Fop

Penned upon the 30th of April, 2007

First, the matter of terminology: by ‘fop’ I refer to that great swathe of the population who dabble in the arts of appearances. No suitable umbrella term exists for the range of philosophies which can fuel such a passion – ‘clotheshorse’ implies an actual absence of such philosophy, while ‘dandy’ is too militantly contested by those who would claim exclusive use of the title. I shed ‘fop’ of its historical connotations, then, and adopt it as a catch-all. I trust the reader shall keep this in mind.

Recently, an open question was raised, and I was forced to consider: does there exist such a thing as a Taoist fop? Can the cultivation of beauty be beneficial to the cultivation of wisdom? Can material appearances be one’s staff on the path of truth? Can, like those Orientalist nineteenth-century painters, we bring together the traditions of two cultures and create something new, meaningful and good? In hope of answering these questions, I shall pursue the principles of Tao and hold them as a quizzing-glass to view the foppish life.

The foundation of Tao is the recognition of the natural order of the universe, which one must align one’s will to or beset oneself with disharmonious, destructive and self-defeating actions. The Taoist fop, then, is not the fop of the Nietzschean will, the thundering ego who will suffer no restraint. The Taoist fop must be foremost an appreciator, and only then a shaper, of charm. The practice of this alignment with the natural way is wu wei; non-action. This could be described as passive achievement, action without force. The Taoist fop must embody yin, must follow the way of water, which flows according to the guidance of the landscape but in doing so reshapes the world, carving cliffs and forests and mountains, such as wood and fire and metal and stone would never achieve without the greatest exertion.

How can a fop apply these teachings? To my eye, the immediate comparison is with the concept of spezzatura, or the mastery of artifice so great that the illusion of naturalness is created. A fop might embrace spezzatura to create the impression of possessing inherent traits which they actually do not, but which their fellows consider desirable. This illusion might even be faultless, but therein lies its flaw: the more the world is convinced that the presented face is the true one, the more it will act accordingly, conflicting with the fop’s true nature. If, instead, the fop heeds the Tao and lets their nature be as it is, following its guidance in their appearance, they will be able to exist as a lily on a stream, flowing effortlessly through the world, displaying their true selves without fear of the disharmonious wills of others. The Tao is an eternal, harmonious thing, and so the self is coterminous with, and thus a microcosm of, the universe: know oneself and one knows nature, and vice versa. When nature ornates herself with orchids and marigolds, with stormclouds and wind-patterns in sand, with birdcalls and voluminous silences, is it not right and fitting to do the same to oneself?

To the fop who seeks to find great truths in the nature of the world or of the self, then, Taoist practice seems near ideal. Do Taoist ethics continue to offer further guidance to the Seeker? The Tao Te Ching sets out the Three Jewels, or virtues. The first is compassion, love and kindness. The second is frugality, moderation and wastelessness. The third is modesty and humility. These may alienate some fops; that is only fair, if such a life is not in their natures. Let us first, though, examine them beyond their first appearances. The virtue of compassion should only alienate those fops who would that their will dictate the nature of the world, and not the reverse – and they have been recognised as following a different path all along. Compassion and love are, among other qualities, the recognition of beauty in others, and this has been the basis of so much great art that it should serve as every fop’s guiding lamplight. Frugality may seem anathema to the enjoyment of finery, but consider that foppery is not the same as opulence. To turn a popular phrase on its head, if you fling enough jewels, some of them are sure to stick, but the result may be mediocre and the waste terrible. If a certain appearance is truly good and meaningful – if it is the true reflection of the Tao – then it is worth cultivating it with care and patience, and the wastelessness which shall follow shall allow many others to do the same. The final jewel, humility, may confound those fops who are most proud of their work, but simple perspective is all that is required: the truth that one expresses is the truth of oneself and one’s relation to the universe, not necessarily the truth of everyone. Each must find their own Tao, and the Tao that one can express is not the eternal Tao.

It seems, then, that an affirmation is in order: the fop who would find and treasure the true way of things, to carry it through their entire self and bear it through the world like a torch, the Tao may be an inspiration. If you have had thoughts or experiences with Taoism or other philosophical systems, please write to me and share.


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Commentary upon “l’Amour de l’Armoire: The Tao of the Fop”

  1. Melanthios was heard to remark,

    Upon the 30th of April, 2007 at 5:43 am,

    I am so unbelievably awestruck and…honoured…that I inspired you so much. This article is beautiful.


  2. Sir Frederick Chook was heard to remark,

    Upon the 30th of April, 2007 at 1:00 pm,

    Oh, I’m very glad you enjoyed it! I’m far from an expert, but I’ve been pondering over Taoism and similar for a while… if you have any input..!


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