Humour by Rehana Munir: The fine art of vanity
Just released from Covid quarantine, I had no trouble deciding on my first outdoor adventure. My inner socialite led me straight to the salon. This virus strikes not just at the cells in your blood; it can hit at your vanity in unexpected ways. I’ve long wanted to leave uncoloured the plentiful greys that confer an unearned aura of wisdom on me. Turns out, the pandemic is not the time to give up this filtered reality. And for this, I judge myself, which is not as satisfying as judging others, but will do for a change.
Better vain than insincere
It’s a strange beast, vanity; it afflicts almost everyone, but only some of us are able to revel in it. The self-obsessed superhero usually comes with its own sidekick, false modesty. How unbearable it is to hear someone downplay their gifts in words that reek of deceit: “Oh, it’s just something I rustled up” they say when you compliment them on a sublime six-course meal featuring feats of molecular gastronomy. “It’s really nothing” they insist when you commend them on a lightening quick sprint followed by an aria in C major while crafting an origami flamingo. It is these talent denialists who shake my faith in humanity. Far better to be vain than insincere, I say. The blatantly pompous leave you feeling clearly superior. The falsely modest merely leave you with a vague sense of unease.
Pompousness can be elevated to high art, especially when the source of vanity has a sense of humour about it. At the bottom of the ladder is your insufferable boss—a garish picture of self-satisfaction, a leaky pipe of unsolicited wisdom. At the pinnacle is the Dowager Countess of Grantham from Downton Abbey, played by Maggie Smith at her snobbish best. “Don’t be defeatist, dear, it’s very middle class.” Even the most fervent Marxist cannot supress a giggle at such withering utterances.
The comedy of manners, perfected by Jane Austen over two hundred years ago, is a masterclass in vanity and its victims. Its cast of aristocratic characters includes scheming spinsters and sneering squires conducting their highborn affairs with utmost regard for appearance and little else. Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (published in book form in 1848) gave us the feisty social climber Becky Sharp, exposing the hypocrisy of well-bred gents. Bridgerton, a millennial exploration of social class on Netflix, meanwhile, was a period novel on absinthe. Vanity has a long and rich history, exemplified by Shelley’s chilling sonnet about the ruined statue of an arrogant king, excerpted below:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
But vanity is not always blue-blooded; it can equally infiltrate the life of the average human. From Farhan Akhtar’s singing to Rupi Kaur’s poetry, there’s ample evidence of self-importance getting the better of regular people, too.
Identify the snob
“You’re so vain, you probably think this song is about you” sang an unimpressed Carly Simon in the 1972 single that topped the US charts with its scathing humour about a self-obsessed lover. She is quoted as saying the song’s lyrics were inspired by a male guest at a party: he walked in like he was “walking onto a yacht”—words that found their way into her song. But for years she was quizzed about the identity of the song’s subject. Music royalty like Mick Jagger, David Bowie and Cat Stevens were lined up as suspects, but she exonerated them all. However, if the subject was really all that vain, wouldn’t he have outed himself if only to bask in some gossipy attention? Just one of the questions I’ve filed away under the ‘Pop Music/true identity’ section of my overcrowded brain.
The unabashed selfie has all but robbed the embarrassment that vanity used to once command. I find myself taking one every time I’m in an auto while also viewing myself through the judging eyes of the driver. Time to channel my “walking onto a yacht” swag and silence my inner critic like the unflappable Lady Grantham.
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From HT Brunch, October 3, 2021
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