Last Saturday saw the death of my aunt. It was not unexpected, as she was unwell and 92 years old. This post is not a eulogy to her, for which family matter I feel such a public place is not appropriate.
But she was one of several people who have figured in my life, some for longer than others, who in their own way epitomised sprezzatura.
I am thinking about that very indefinable ‘something’ that some people just seem to have, which makes it good to be in their company. The only catch-all word that I can arrive at that sums it up is ‘charisma’. I think that the notion of sprezzatura must also somehow be about living a charismatic life.
It needs to be said at the start that I doubt very much that this is something that can be consciously acquired. While attention can be drawn to things that I think are charismatic through the medium of a blog like this, I rather suspect that those people who have charisma actually don’t realise it – at least not in any focussed, intentional way. They won’t particularly know what it is that they do that gives them charisma, and I suspect that if they did, they would be well on the way to losing it. Anything as calculated as self-conscious charisma is by definition not what it sets out to be.
As Douglas Adams might have said, like flying (best done by knowing how to throw yourself at the ground and miss), charisma has to ‘just happen’.
What’s more infuriating, there doesn’t seem to be any recipe for it: those charismatic people whom I have known or met appeared to have little in common. They certainly gave no outward appearance of doing anything that the rest of us don’t – just being who we are. And yet there are some people whom it is somehow very affirmative – exciting even – to be around.
It is not as though they are even all outstandingly nice people. They have the same imperfections as everyone else, but somehow they seem to wear them differently. Some of those people behaved in not especially good ways at times, and they certainly have had their share of life’s set-backs – just like anyone else. Neither was it just the allure of privilege: some of the people I’m thinking of were neither wealthy nor especially educated. So it’s not a matter of living a charmed life. Yet, a bit like the way in which an item of clothing can somehow look better on one person than another even when the fit is equally good for both, some people somehow manage to ‘carry’ their lives more appealingly than others.
Perhaps a degree of self-belief comes into it – and yet I know that some of those people were privately quite insecure and uncertain of themselves; I suspect one or two would have been embarrassed if someone had told them they were charismatic. Yet that is not to suggest that they were putting on a charade. Personal manner might come into it too – and yet there is little in common between the people I am thinking of either: they ranged from the quite arrogant to the almost naively ‘nice’. It even seems possible to ‘grade’ people by degrees of this – and yet it is still not clear what the criteria are.
I met a few well-known people who even from a distance exuded something simply from their manner; in their cases they had become famous, and I guess their charisma had helped. Griff Rhys Jones has an entirely natural wicked laugh that just makes people crack up. Nelson Mandela instantly (if briefly) came across as a very charming man. Another who comes to mind (whom I never met) was Audrey Hepburn. Some people suggest Stephen Fry too. All very different people – and yet all possessed of something.
From time to time, one encounters people who are clearly highly talented in a particular field; it is not the case that charismatic people are particularly that either – nor that the highly talented are necessarily charismatic. And yet some people are somehow just good to be around.
The more obvious manifestations of this might come from a positivity of outlook and a particularly fair and optimistic temperament, and perhaps that most nebulous of things, personal style. It may somehow be to do with a sense of conviction or a determination always to do things ‘properly’:
It’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it – could be a good maxim.
But strangely, people often seem able to reach consensus about charismatic people, so it is not simply that they appeal to your own confirmation bias.
My aunt was one such person: she seemed to have inherited a large percentage of the family’s share of sunny temperament, and the fact that she remained optimistic and positive no matter what her own difficulties may have been part. When I was young, she was always fun to be with – being a primary school teacher probably helped. Perhaps imagination is key: I know her life was heavily inspired by her visits to Italy, particularly those of her young adulthood in the 1950s. She was inspired by things that also inspire me. But even this doesn’t explain how everyday life somehow gains a sense of occasion when one is with such people.
As for the rest of us, one thing is clear: there’s no point in trying to ‘have’ charisma; that can only end in failure. We can only make best use of what we have – which in itself takes effort (perhaps too much so) – and hope that a little sprezzatura will rub off.