Chin: Sense of Sprezzatura

by Clara Chin | 8/14/17 12:15am

This article was featured in the 2017 Freshman Issue.

In a four-hour lunch with a couple of friends, I told one of my friends that he seemed to master the projection of sprezzatura. He asked me what it was, and I explained that essentially, sprezzatura is cool. It is studied carelessness. Originating from an Italian text, it is the ability to effortlessly orient the self within societal rules, sometimes with the downside of hiding the true self. “Wow,” he exclaimed, briefly disrupting his apathetic disposition with an expression of amusement. “You’ve got me pegged.”

After giving it some thought, I came to realize that it is not just this friend who possesses this aesthetic. It is something that I have encountered in various peers at Dartmouth College, and even within myself, both for better and for worse. As a freshman, I assumed that all of my peers would be openly passionate about their intended major, whether it was biology, English, Spanish, economics or government. After about a term of freshman idealism, I soon realized that pure, unsullied passion was not the Dartmouth look. Instead, the Dartmouth look is one of effortless perfection (sometimes referred to as Duck Syndrome, where one looks calm above water but is frantically paddling below).

For some, a certain degree of ease lies in social and economic privilege. However, regardless of how easy life actually is, we’re all encouraged to perform disaffectedness and an ability to succeed (within the mainstream) effortlessly. Our collective identity sits idealistically and therefore rather uncomfortably between the stereotypes of the Ivy League and of the party school. So much so that a 1985 Aegis defined the Dartmouth Image as “serious students by day, and party animals by night,” the perfect mix of smart and cool.

We may be able to make fools out of ourselves by wearing flair or joking with friends, but our need to appear relaxed discourages us from making fools out of ourselves when it comes to issues of sincerity, such as putting in hard work for reasons other than grades and emotionally distancing ourselves from our work. To some extent, maintaining sprezzatura has been a productive experience. I have learned to look at my writing more objectively and take criticism without feeling offended. All of this has allowed me to develop a healthy amount of practicality.

On the other hand, I have found this pressure to perform sprezzatura an impediment on my creativity and morality. My natural impulse is to isolate myself in the library or the animation room all day, with only a small break to nibble on a baguette, in order to lose myself in the creative process. I will not always be efficient nor will my project necessarily be polished, but it will engage in innovative ideas and I will have taken risks that were beneficial to me in the process of developing my craft as a writer or artist.

Neither of these extremes are necessarily good, but it is important to consider the advantages and disadvantages of both. Success on paper and adhering to societal standards can be important, but so is devotion and sincerity. At Dartmouth, it can seem incredibly easy to have it all. All you really have to do is work hard enough and choose not to question norms of any kind. At Dartmouth, you will often be presented with a choice of consciousness or ignorance — do you choose to hang out with a selective group of friends and channel their exclusivity? Do you write a boring paper to get a good grade, or take risks in the writing process? Do you stay silent when someone says something problematic in order to be liked more? The answer often depends on the context.

I’ve realized that Dartmouth is a microcosm of the rest of the world. You cannot always expect to get praise for your passion, but that does not mean that you should refrain from being passionate. When you challenge the status quo or try to do more than what you are told, you will not necessarily get anywhere. But when you take risks, you are not asking for anything in return. You take risks for the pure love of what you do.

A freshman might expect to develop long-lasting friendships, a romantic relationship and a cultivation of passions that have been brewing since high school or even childhood. Instead, a freshman is met with one-term friendships that end as D-plans and class schedules change, short-lived pseudo-romances and pleasure from grades rather than passion. It was Amy Winehouse who lamented, “Oh what a mess we made … love is a losing game.” At Dartmouth College, and simply in life in general, we are encouraged to win. Instead, it is important to keep not only success in mind, but passion, with even a willingness to fail.