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Some Comments on the Rhetorical Approach of THE SUIT

post #1 of 16
Thread Starter 
I debated for a long time whether to make such a post. A lot of reasons tell against the idea, not least the reluctance to engage in "the loathsome business of explaining a joke." However, I think the potential upside outweighs the downside of at least explaining a little of what I was trying to do with this book.

As the dust jacket notes and everyone here already knew, the book is a parody/pastiche of Machiavelli's Prince (and, to a much lesser extent, his Discourses and Florentine Histories). I wanted to ape Machiavelli's style as best I could, and not just his style, but his whole method of writing and reasoning. Thus I sought to parallel the structure and outline (or plan) of The Prince very closely - both the overall chapter-by-chapter plan and also the structure within chapters.

I sought to use Nick's methods, which were (broadly speaking) to draw "matter" from both written sources and personal experience and then use that "matter" to reason about the chosen subject (in his case politics, in my case clothing). In Nick's case, his "matter" was his reading of ancient history (and, to a lesser extent, philosophy) and his experience as an official in the Florentine Republic between 1498 and 1512. Or, as he puts it, "long experience of modern things and a continuous reading of ancient ones" (Prince, DL). In my case the "matter" can also be divided into "ancient" (1930s style for the most part) and "modern" (contemporary clothing), and also study (all the well known clothing books, plus more historical sources, like Apparel Arts issues) and experience (buying, wearing and observing clothes).

Like Nick, I try to use my "matter" to set up a sort of dialogue or conversation, in a mildly disguised treatise form. Nick often adjudicates between disputed authorities or sources (there is more of this in the Discourses than in The Prince). Similarly, I often refer to disputes or disagreements within the clothing literature, correct them when I can, state my opinion when I have one, or at least let the reader know that something that has been presented as settled fact elsewhere may not in fact be so settled.

Like Nick, I use examples to illustrate points in the argument. Like Nick, my examples are both "ancient" (30s, etc.) and "modern" (today, and a few years back). Like Nick, I vary the use of ancient and modern examples for an unspoken rhetorical purpose.

And like Nick, my examples "are not always apt nor always true." That's because, like Nick, I am not writing history, I am writing a treatise. As the great Harvey Mansfield wrote in his "Note on the Translation" of his edition to The Prince:


The Prince is not a history book. It was written, we believe, in 1513, and it was dedicated, we know, to Lorenzo de' Medici. But it was written for the future and addressed above all others to "˜whoever understands it' (Chapter 15). This does not mean that readers who want to understand The Prince can ignore Machiavelli's examples and merely make a list of his sensational assertions. On the contrary, those assertions are always modified, sometimes even contradicted, by the examples. But the examples will not serve as examples if the reader does not look carefully at the information Machiavelli gives him. He may miss the point if he allows this information to be superseded by the historical knowledge of our day."
I actually was much more free with certain "facts" in earlier drafts, in keeping with Machiavelli's approach. My editors at HarperCollins were not enthused about this and made me dial a good bit of it back. (However, had I not told them they almost certainly would not have noticed!) I note in passing that I also tried to copy or utilize many of Nick's other literary devices, including but no limited to: misquotations, misstatements regarding names or events, hasty generalizations, indefensible omissions, self-contradictions, contrived word usage frequency, numerical patterns, the progression from "first statements" on a given topic through second and third and fourth statements, etc. Many of my little tricks are admitted in the notes, something one cannot say about Nick.

Okay, one might reasonably ask, What's the point? Why did Machiavelli write this way? And why would anyone want to imitate it?

As to the first question, it's complicated. Knowing or wary readers will have guessed long ago that this particular way of interpreting Machiavelli is drawn from Leo Strauss, and in particular his 1958 book Thoughts on Machiavelli. I don't want to get into the whole Strauss controversy, except to say that I think he is right about Machiavelli, and a lot of other people think he is nuts. I am not going to try to persuade anyone, because it would take forever, would as likely fail as succeed, and it's really a side issue in any case. However, I think at least a few remarks are necessary.

Strauss argues, and I agree, that Machiavelli shares with classical writers the technique of writing for more than one audience. His books have "layers". There is a surface, and several levels underneath. Now, the vulgar caricature of Strauss's argument is that he claims the classics wrote this way because they (correctly) judged the great mass of people to be stupid and in need of protection from corrosive truths. If the people knew that there is no Zeus, society would explode into an orgy of violence. Or something like that.

Like all caricatures, there is a grain of truth here. For instance, Socrates and Plato almost certainly did not believe in Zeus or Athena, but they refrained from saying so outright. Fat lot of good that did Socrates, since he was executed for impiety in any case. But by being more circumspect, Plato avoided the same fate, and more importantly was able to leave behind a tremendous body of work that did not get banned, burned or censored. Thus, speaking broadly, it is fair (though not exhaustive) to say that the greatest works of classical philosophy have a more or less respectable and hortatory surface which conceals, to some extent, arguments that might either be subversive or get their authors into trouble or both.

Machiavelli, interestingly, turns this partly on its head, in that his concealed teaching is in many respects much more humane than his often sensationalistic and nasty surface. But then if you dig a few more layers down you discover that he had a lot of other things to hide as well. I also note that Machiavelli differs from the classics in that, whereas they tried to avoid being subversive, his intent was primarily subversive, or, to be more precise, revolutionary.

Okay, but if he wasn't worried about being subversive but wanted to be subversive, why hide anything? Because by hiding things, Nick (and the classics) forced readers to work and think. Their books are (to borrow a phrase from Allan Bloom) "philosophy kits." Rather than just stating outright a list of conclusions, the books are written in such a way as to make readers work through puzzles and problems and arguments and find the conclusions on their own. Anyone unable or unwilling to do the work, or just unaware that there is work to be done, will be gulled by the surface teaching into thinking he knows everything he needs to know, and has learned everything there is to learn from the book. But those who do the work will not only learn more, the very process or exercise of working through the problems will sharpen their minds and improve their ability to think and reason. Think of math as an analogy. You are given a book of equations. If it lists all the answers, all you need to do is read them and you will "know" the answers. But if you work through the equations yourself, you will know the answers much more thoroughly, and what's more, you will know how to do math. Which is more valuable? Which is more truly knowledge?

OK, so why would I want to write a clothing book in this way? Basically, to see if I could. That was the main reason. I love to read and study books like this, and it was an intellectual challenge for me to see if I could imitate this mode of writing on a small scale in a much-simplified form.

Beyond that, I did have modest hopes that the book's tricks and traps would serve a pedagogical function. On the surface, it appears to be a rule book. In fact, I call it as much in the dedication. Machiavelli similarly calls The Prince a rule book in his dedication. However, he takes it back later, as do I (more explicitly than Nick).

My book is different, however, in this sense. If any but the most capable and ferocious prince were to follow the advice of The Prince to the letter, he would probably be dead within six months. Some interpreters have even argued that Machiavelli meant The Prince as a trap to ensnare would-be tyrants and ensure their ruin. I don't think I would go that far, but I see their point. Conversely, if a reader were to follow the "rules" in my book to the absolute letter, he would be well turned out, I think, and never make any errors, I would assert. Now, he would not be the most dashing dude on the street, I agree. But that's part of the point. No one who merely followed rules blindly ever would. In this sense, my book is closer to the classics than to Nick: my surface is (or is meant to be) 100% respectable and safe.

(Though, as an aside, I will note that even my surface teaching is bolder than, say, Molloy's. Which brings me to another parallel with Nick. We each have our targets. In Nick's case they are "imagined principalities," by which he almost certainly means Plato's Republic and Augustine's City of God, among others. In my case, it is the "scientific approach" to dress, exemplified by Molloy. This is another instance of me flipping Nick's teaching on its head. He attacks the utopian classics in the name of science, I attack the over-rationalistic and dull Molloy in the name of sartorial excellence and adventurousness.)

Now, the most common specific criticism of the book I have read thus far boils down to: "How can he rule out ____?!? That's a classic!" Let's leave aside the question of whether all the things I am accused of ruling out I actually do rule out. I note that simply ruling something out, whatever shortcomings such advice may have, at least does not lead men into error or danger. The worst that will happen to a man who adheres to all of the rules and prohibitions is that he will be slightly more circumscribed and bland in what he wears than the man who does not. But he will not look bad or "incorrect," ever.

However, someone who is determined to follow all the rules in the book will run into problems. He will, as he tallies them all, notice inconsistencies and various problems in the argument. He will see that some rules conflict. He will see that I sometimes disparage the whole concept of rules. He will see that something condemned in one chapter is praised in a later chapter. He will notice that the examples don't always illustrate the teaching, but sometimes modify and even contradict it. Among other problems. He will presumably be puzzled by all this, and not know what to think or do.

Now, at this point, the reader has two choices. He can conclude that the author is a sloppy and careless fellow who could not get his story straight, and is therefore not to be trusted. Such a person, I would guess, really does need a reliable rule book, and he might just decide to look elsewhere. Or he can wonder whether there might be reasons behind the inconsistencies, and set about determining what those reasons might be. The process of working through those reasons is akin to the process I described of working through the puzzles in classical literature and in Machiavelli. And it is meant to have the same purpose. The reader is supposed to be gradually liberated from an over-reliance on rules and learn to think for himself. Thus, at bottom what the book is supposed to provide is an education in sartorial reasoning. It is both a "how to dress" book and a "how to think about dressing" book - a "sartorial kit," as it were. Each reader must decide for himself whether he thinks it succeeds.

A final word about the tone, which occasionally comes across as bullying certitude. It is, first and foremost, an imitation - as close as I could make it - of Machiavelli's style. Nietzsche famously described it thus:

"presenting the most serious matters in a boisterous allegressimo, perhaps not without a malicious artistic sense of the contrasts he risks"”long, difficult, hard, dangerous thoughts and the tempo of the gallop and the very best, most capricious humor."

I don't claim to have gotten it right, only to have tried and to have enjoyed trying. The style was meant to amuse, and to be transparently intended to amuse.
post #2 of 16
I am going to go buy the book tomorrow because of this. Although I am kind of disappointed in a way - it would have been fun to see if I would have figured it out on my own
post #3 of 16
I thought that the "Machiavellian" format of The Suit was both appropriate and enjoyable. It was a great read.
post #4 of 16
Thanks for the explanation. As a philosophy undergraduate major, MA & PhD in political science background, I often present my classes similar paradoxes with the hope they will take the challenge of figuring it out on their own--or debating it in class. I've never used "The Prince" in class, though I always do some Scotish Enlightment--my courses are heavily empirical (1 class period of normative theory and 29 of empirical theory). Maybe I need to read your book and reread "The Prince" together. Many students who do deal with the paradoxes often come by a semester or two later and express their appreciation for being challenged. I hope I will be similarly challenged when reading and thinking about "The Suit".
post #5 of 16
Oh no!

I just ritually burned my all printed silk ties from a certain French company because they were called "garish" and "awkward" in the book.

post #6 of 16
Nice write up, thank you. For what its worth, I like the style you took up with this.
post #7 of 16
Well, I'll tell you one thing - I don't agree with everything you said in the book, but I certainly enjoyed reading it. You had a way of being very sure of what you were saying without fumbling about or qualifying too many things and I like that style of writing (e.g., the difference between saying "I believe that you should not wear a black suit" and "you should not wear a black suit."). The book was money well spent IMHO.
post #8 of 16
i loved the book. i enjoyed the tone, the sarkasm...just fun to read. I am no expert with machiavelli (read parts of "the prince" in school), but you definitely acomplished to make "the suit" look and feel like "the prince". besides that the book is filled with sound advice. and i think in matters of taste and style one needs "opinion" and a clear statement. "the suit" is a statement. (i also think, it is one of the best books on male attire and i have a read a few...).

i just still wonder, if mr. elkan is the appropriate savior of american style. his taste for drugs and extravagant partys (not to mention sex partners) might be a bit to "special" for most americans to choose him as an style icon, don`t you think?

thanks for you book.

post #9 of 16

Thanks for the informative post. I just finished your book and I must say I found it genuinely enjoyable. It flows well, and I never felt the urge to flip ahead to later chapters. "It's all good."

Any thoughts on book #2?
post #10 of 16
Originally Posted by Maximillion
i just still wonder, if mr. elkan is the appropriate savior of american style. his taste for drugs and extravagant partys (not to mention sex partners) might be a bit to "special" for most americans to choose him as an style icon, don`t you think?

You're thinking of Lapo Elkan.

I believe Manton dedicated the book to his more responsible brother - John.
post #11 of 16
Originally Posted by kabert

Thanks for the informative post. I just finished your book and I must say I found it genuinely enjoyable. It flows well, and I never felt the urge to flip ahead to later chapters.
Did the butler do it? In the conservatory? With the brown shoe?
post #12 of 16
Originally Posted by RJman
Did the butler do it? In the conservatory? With the brown shoe?
Or with the black suit? Jon.
post #13 of 16
Originally Posted by imageWIS
Or with the black suit?


Actually it was on the staircase with the printed tie.

(late to the party I am).
post #14 of 16
ah okay. john elkan. but i guess lapko is the better dresser.

post #15 of 16
Originally Posted by Maximillion
ah okay. john elkan. but i guess lapko is the better dresser.


Perhaps - but only because he wears his grandfather's hand-me-downs.
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