“An Unlived Life Is Not Worth Examining”
Are we all so far gone down the road of luxury and obsession, and obsession with luxury, that there’s just no more hope for us?
No, actually we’re not, because even though (as I hope I’ve managed to suggest) our culture’s compulsive re-positing of what luxury is, and who has it, and why, indicates that the project of the criticism of luxury has perhaps failed to bear self-consistent fruit through to these modern times, it doesn’t necessarily follow that luxuriousness has, so to speak, won our hearts and minds by default. Because there’s been no comparison, no evaluation: luxury hasn’t “won”, because even though it’s ever-present, it’s also ever-detested. And therefore, the fact that it’s survived to become (arguably) the distinguishing characteristic of our whole way of life can only be put down to its having made itself so ubiquitous as to become invisible.
However. It can’t fool all of the people all of the time, either.
Fall in love, have a child, live through a natural disaster, or even just go fishing…and luxury’s grip on you is loosened. Turn off that cell phone: luxury immediately recedes. The shadow of the ladder of public time and historical detail fades out, to be replaced by the indefeasible experience of what it is like to live, and have a life, in the world just as it is. And unconnected to anything else, or at least not connected in a mandatory way. Because just as soon as the essential freedom of personal time can’t be shut out anymore, by the increasingly abstract dragon-chasing of social busyness and social scalability of action and intention, then confusions evaporate, and cogency once again assumes its natural state of ascendancy over cool. Solitude becomes attractive, once it can’t be avoided any longer; iconographies become intelligible again, once the need for them to be constantly repurposed — inverted, I should say — evaporates into mist.
Grand claims, I guess.
“Get out of the rat race”, is that all I’m saying?
Well, don’t forget that the rat race, like New York, is kind of a state of mind, too. And therefore it can be escaped, in much the same way that freedom can be escaped, by something like a mild exertion of will.
I’ll sum it up for you just like the Taoists would: one must do nothing.
Do nothing. At some point or other. Somehow, someway, put yourself in a place where it’s possible (not to say necessary) to live through some small period of time that is unoccupied and undirected by any abstract social concerns that lie without the circle of your immediate, physical horizon. Take a holiday. Go fishing. Have a baby. Throw your phone in the sea. You don’t die, you know. You don’t lose your house, or your livelihood. Not that there’s no reason why (as my friend told me) we fear and abhor this vacuum, this silence, this freedom as we do. There is a reason, in fact.
The reason is: this is the cure for our luxurious malaise. And it’s as simple as that. We don’t want to be cured.
Precisely because we can be, so easily.
Fishing: when I was wont to take a writing holiday, I would tell everyone I was going away to write. But, that wasn’t as simplistically true as I made it sound. I could write without going on holiday, after all, couldn’t I? So why was I running away? What was I trying to excuse myself from, or for?
I would get to the cabin, and lie on the couch for a solid week. Not even reading: only getting up to go for a swim, or eat a huckleberry. Bored with myself. I didn’t go so far as to change the radio station. I left my bag by the door. I hid my watch in a drawer. I gave up on every plan. Surrendered to opportunity cost. Flaked.
And then about a week later, as it usually so happened, I would have about nine or ten ideas come at me all of a sudden…whereupon I’d excitedly spring for the paper and the pen I’d packed, crack a beer, and paste all my thoughts down in a frenzy. Well, that was kind of the plan, I suppose. But also it wasn’t the plan, if you see what I mean, because I’d already bailed on the plan totally, and without said bailing the plan would’ve failed in any case, and so what odds? And no, it wasn’t just the mundane self-trickery of time-management seminars or mnemonic devices (“Uncle Sy makes me sigh, because of that time he touched me inappropriately”), but something different, instead. Something much more concrete. Unoccupied time, of course. I’ll tell you, once you’ve spent a few afternoons in a row having nothing more to concern yourself with than skipping stones on a beach — and this is not some utopian dream of idleness, I’m talking about like four lousy days, f’r Chrisssake, four days out of a year — well, a certain amount of human excellence is bound to make its way to you. Falseness just peels right off of you, and falls to the ground. It’s inevitable. It’s natural. And it’s timely, no matter how long it takes to happen. Because it is personal time, and personal history.
And because after all, you might choose to stay, mightn’t you.
People do things like that all the time, you know. They change their lives on a whim. They make grand gestures. Why, I’ve heard that sometimes they even shave their heads.
Hey, you might choose to do that, too, if you had the time to think about it.
So, yeah, the fear of freedom: it ain’t exactly a big secret, though the starving children in Africa still don’t suspect it. Because there remains, always, what you might do, if only you wished to. Which is why the luxurious navel-gazing, the inverted drive to make oneself falser and falser, has such a hold in these days of ours: because when we never get to do what we want to do, we can never be sure what we would do. We become mysteries to ourselves, strange alien creatures with strange alien motivations, and strange alien decision procedures. Of course if we ever let that guard of ours down, if we ever remagnetized ourselves to reality, we’d discover that we’re not really so mysterious at all. We’re quite simple, really, and uncomplicated. But living in the world of falsity tends to blind us to the fact that we have nothing to fear from ourselves, and so…
And so yes, absolutely: well, didn’t you ever wonder how that alienation stuff actually worked, I mean the nuts and bolts of it? You take the kid off the farm, and change his name, perhaps give him some superpowers, and suddenly he doesn’t know who the hell he’s supposed to be anymore, but why? Why doesn’t he know? Why can’t he figure it out?
Well, but obviously he could, that’s the thing. But it’s just that the price of publicity is distraction, and one gets used to paying it. And then one day one finds one wants to pay it, even when it isn’t being solicited.
And so there’s your luxury in a nutshell. And your moral, or message, or conflict of modernity, all neatly wrapped up for you.
And slipped in with your superhero comics.
Subject to future editing, of course. Because I’m not sure I’ve said everything I meant to…
But, oh well. Apparently not every idle moment is productive of human excellence…
Hey, whaddaya gonna do.