I hadn’t run into this…

I hadn't run into this word before, sprezzatura. I've needed that word for a long time. "Sprezzatura is an Italian word originating from Castigliones The Book of the Courtier, where it is defined by the author as 'a certain nonchalance, so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it.' (Wikipedia) I found it via a blog entry talking about study groups in law school, about how even in a deeply-competitive environment, there's a value to generously helping your compatriots, because it makes you look even better. You're so good, you can afford to be generous.

On some deep level, I'm tremendously invested in sprezzatura. In my childhood, I internalized the drive to be the best -- I blame my Asian parents, mostly, who, when I brought home an A- would ask, Why isn't it an A? But even worse, I not only want to be the best -- I want it to look effortless. I don't want to display the grinding work that it often takes to get the job done -- the getting up at 4 a.m. the day of the party so that there's time to cook all the curries and clean the house and put out flowers before everyone arrives. The flowers are important, because they epitomize that sort of easy grace. They say, life is relaxed and elegant and casually effortless. I want the guests to arrive and enjoy themselves and not think about all the work that went into preparing for the party -- and some of that is genuine hospitality. I don't want them to feel bad for me, because that might take away from their pleasure. But some of it is sprezzatura. It's good to be great, but it's even better to be effortlessly fabulous.

I don't do this on purpose. I don't know when I absorbed this idea of sprezzatura, but it's become an integral part of my psyche, an automatic element of how I do things, so that I actually have to remind myself to show my work sometimes. Let people see the sweat and tears. I've been working on that, because I think sprezzatura is actually potentially really damaging, especially to other women, who look at someone who seems to be doing it all, effortlessly, and wonder why their own lives are such a mess. Wonder why they can't balance a full-time job, and childcare, and partner care, and exercise and eating right and creative outlets and and and... Why can't they do it all, when she can, and she makes it looks so easy. Sprezzatura sets impossible standards, and in a sense, it's anti-feminist to uphold those images.

And yet. I do love it, that grace. That brightness that is actually effortless, rather than just appearing to be so. Perfect balancing, beautiful moments. And so I strive for it, and then find myself committing sprezzatura again in the striving. And people come up to me and ask how I manage to do it all. Ask whether anything ever upsets me. Admiring, but angry too. Quietly raging, at me, at themselves.

These days, I just keep trying to expose the work under the beauty. I'm glad you liked the fish curry -- I couldn't help myself, I got up an hour earlier to get it done, and now I'm exhausted. That was just stupid. Or, I cheated and used a pre-made sauce for the base -- let me show it to you. Exposing the hard labor (or the clever workarounds) that are necessary to trying to do it all, for the sake of family, of profession, of self, of community. I believe that labor offers a different kind of grace.

Also, it can be a good reality check. Because these days, people look at the work in what I'm doing and tell me I'm crazy, and that I'm going to give myself an ulcer, and that I should just relax a little already, before I work myself into an early grave. Which, you know, would kind of defeat the whole appearing effortless thing. When enough people tell me that, sometimes I listen. :-)

5 thoughts on “I hadn’t run into this…”

  1. Catherine Shaffer

    Interesting! Then there’s the other extreme, someone who is making a big deal of all of the work they put into everything and how utterly exhausted they are all the time etc. etc. Is there a word for that? I learned that it’s necessary to get by in the corporate world, where everything is perception and no one judges you on your actual productivity or accomplishments–only how hard you *seem* to be workinig. Sprezzatura would be deadly there.

  2. So interesting! I agree entirely about the problems with making women’s work look effortless. Your description of sprezzatura made me think more of certain types of athletics, where “she makes it look easy” is a kind of praise of effort, where we know that “looking easy” is actually more work.

    But I’m struck by your descriptions of the work: “that was stupid,” “I cheated.” I wonder if there’s a way to value the work without taking it for granted? You don’t want to say, “I’m such a good host, I got up at 4am!” And yet, it’s still not quite praising the work?

    Don’t quite have an answer to my own question, I guess!

  3. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    Catherine, yes — that seems like the other side of the same coin. Both the martyr and the sprezzaturist (?) are aiming for the same goal, increased social standing. Which method is likelier to work probably depends on the prevailing work culture.

    JessieSS, hmm… I think I meant “that was stupid” not so much as a self-deprecating move, but an actual realization, something that might perhaps lead to *not* getting up at 4 a.m. for the next party? Because, as much as I love the shining grace, I think it may be that the real answer to this problem is to simply do less. Be content to be humble, and don’t try to make it exceptional and perfect. Especially don’t try to outdo everyone else!

    I have a feeling there’s a zen koan somewhere that expresses this. 🙂

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