Phantom Head-Shaver Part 3


“An Unlived Life Is Not Worth Examining”


And now, finally, down to it.

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.


9 responses to “Phantom Head-Shaver Part 3

  1. Okay, I just went and read through all three parts consecutively, and here are some more reactions.

    That was the genius of early Marvel, back in the Sixties: not to simply re-make the monsters into heroes, but to make monstrosity and heroism part of each other. And now that I think of it, that’s the one thing I liked about Tim Burton’s Batman Returns…

    It’s one of the many things I didn’t like about Batman Returns. Can we not just let heroism be heroism and go from there? Not that I insist on stapling monstrosity to villainy. And then again, I’m a big fan of the Wild Cards novels, in which you get heroism and villainy, and monstrosity and… what’s the opposite of monstrosity? Whatever it is… but the two sets of oppositions are independent of each other. This is because Wild Cards, like Heroes, was trying to have superpowers without the conventions of the superhero genre. But my point is that many of the monstrous Jokers in the Wild Cards series were perfectly decent fellows, or even heroic ones, and that was all cool. But I still can’t sign off on Batman Returns.

    The ’80s-movie thing… what about all those Eurotrash villains, like the guy in Beverly Hills Cop, or Alan Rickman in Die Hard, and all the others, who had perfectly healthy heads of hair?

    Now, V, on the other hand, definitely had some toupee moments.

    I haven’t addressed the goatee nearly enough, if one of you would be so kind as to pick it up in the comments that’d be great

    Not much to say about the goatee, but… are you familiar with the Evil Overlord List? It’s a list of all the things not to do once you become an Evil Overlord. Like, “If I manage to take the hero captive, I won’t explain my plans to him and I won’t give him a sporting chance. I’ll just kill him immediately.” You get the idea. One of the items on the list is, “I will not grow a goatee. Nowadays they don’t make you look menacing; they just make you look like a disaffected member of Generation X.”

    everyone knows that High History isn’t all the history there is, even though it’s more precious than diamonds. There’s also the personal history of individuals out on time’s metaphorical sea, just catching what they can and then coming home.

    Yes, true, but – and this is certainly an aside – the interaction of the two types of history can make things really interesting. This is one of the big lessons I’ve learned from all that generational stuff I’m into. Whenever I’m reading some kind of personal-history thing, it adds a lot of resonance to know the high-historical context, and vice versa.

    Who doesn’t enjoy noticing that Freddie and Daphne always take off down one tunnel in Scooby-Doo, while the lesbian, the asexual guy, and the dog go off down the other?

    This gets said a lot, but unless my memory is playing me false it was much more common for Velma to go off with Fred and Daphne, with Shag and Scoob on their own. Am I the only one who remembers it this way?

    it concerned itself mainly with that venerable, yet evergreen topic known in literary (and of course, philosophical) circles as the criticism of luxury.

    It was at this point that I clued into where you were going with all this. Well, more or less, anyway. Because luxury is the opposite of austerity, and austerity is represented by baldness, so to the extent that baldness is a villainous feature, then the villain must be a threat to our luxuries, which might seem like a small thing until you consider doing without any luxuries at all (you know, food that tastes good is a luxury. Being free of fleas and lice is a luxury. Friends are a luxury). But now the criticism of luxury has made baldness and austerity more admirable to us. Anyway, that was what clicked together in my mind at that stage of your post.

    On the other, you’ve got your Bruce Willis action hero, blowing up sneering, scrupulously-coiffed Eurotrash. At least, they seem, to the eye of recollection, as though they were scrupulously-coiffed when we saw them last. Of course they weren’t, really: they were ascetics, too. But, Eurotrash ascetics — and so, inevitably, monsters of vanity when it came down to it, their asceticism only standing in for the moral emptiness they embrace, rather than for the dogged attempt to somehow reject it, that we see glistening off of old Bruce’s pate.

    Oh, so you do get to this; I forgot. Okay. But the villains in Die Hard weren’t ascetic; they were only pretending to be. They wanted to steal millions of dollars! And I don’t think they were planning on being austere about how they spent it. Now, the villains in Die Hard II, they were (weren’t they?) more idealistic. And with cropped military hair, except the leader, who was totally bald.

    This new baldness is a bit of a swerve, if you think about it, because hasn’t it come right back around to betokening the luxury it started by rejecting?

    I’m tempted to blame this on the Boom, again, but it would take too much research for me to do it properly.

  2. Oh!


    But, doesn’t Velma go off with Freddie and Daphne just to keep them from having sex?

    Ha. Anyway, you know, I think I’m going to contradict you, Matthew: I don’t at all think that eating good food is a luxury — after all, it takes a massive industrial infrastructure to make and distribute bad food, doesn’t it? — but even if it were a luxury, it still wouldn’t be “luxury”, if you see what I mean.

    But that’s what trips us up, in the West. We go to a restaurant and order something delicious, and think it must therefore be all hoity-toity. In fact, most of our fine dining experiences (and I don’t say all, but most) are about enjoying the most popular food in the world: which is peasant food, basically. Onion soup with brandy, linguine puttanesca, chicken mole, oysters on the half-shell, roast lamb…that’s the common stuff, the real stuff. The rarefied stuff is more like: Chicken McNuggets, stuffed-crust pizza, Coca-Cola, gummy fruit, Ding Dongs, ribwiches from the 7-11. These are the modern equivalents of lark’s tongues in aspic, surreal food, almost Dali-esque food…only we don’t see it.

    Meanwhile, you see people starving on TV, that’s true: but the opposite of luxury shouldn’t simply be poverty, should it?

    Oops, coffee time! Gotta go! More later.

  3. No, I think Velma goes off with Fred and Daphne because Shaggy and Scooby are expendable.

    As for the food… nourishing food is not a luxury. It’s a necessity. Tasty food is a luxury. And if (as culinary history has shown us over and over) poor people can turn supercheap ingredients into tasty food, that’s a tribute to human ingenuity.

  4. Ha! Again, I have to disagree with you, Matthew: I think it actually takes work to make nourishing food non-tasty. Potatoes, snap peas, sashimi, oatmeal, pineapple, corn bread, venison steak, rice…all very tasty indeed.

    Admittedly, some of these need a little salt…

    I think I’m going to get into the Batman Returns thing in another post. But for the record, I really didn’t (and still don’t) like Batman Returns…but I think it does hit a certain mark with the whole “Bruce Wayne = Crazy” thing, that isn’t nearly as annoying as the mark most other people hit with that.

    Oh no, you’re about to slam me with some obvious refutation to the “nutritious = tasty” thing that I’ve stupidly overlooked, aren’t you.


  5. No, not really a refutation. But: those foods had to be domesticated before they were edible at all, for one thing. I’m thinking of cornbread in particular. It took centuries of prehistoric work before corn was a really feasible crop in the Americas. And other foods (like venison) wasn’t always available to poor people at all. Still a luxury, is what I’m saying.

    And, where the ingenuity comes in… if we think of things like bird’s-nest soup and spare ribs and lobster and chicken wings as… what, as something you’d want to order in a good restaurant… it’s because of the efforts of poor people who took ingredients that most people disdained and figured out how to make it good food, and the only reason they did it is because they couldn’t get anything else.

  6. Not much to add here, only to present as evidence of baldnessphobia from a very young age, the notoriously slapheaded villain Polluto, who is, to the delight of my infants, regularly slapped down by the hirsuite Tommy Zoom.

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