Friday, January 14, 2011

A Thousand Useless Luxuries



My wife recently taxied her great-niece to one of those manicurist/pedicurist places to have her nails done prior to the Middle School formal dance. I would have to say that my wife-- eminently practical and not given to financial foolishness--is a bit proud of the fact that she has never been to a manicurist, much less a pedicurist. She takes great care with her nails, mind you, but at home, and for free, and not in some salon. Two Christmases ago, our sister-in-law gave us each a gift certificate to one of these places, assuring us that we would "love it." The wife was more diplomatic than I was, as I just looked at the card, totally baffled and wondering why anyone who supposedly knew me would think I would do such a thing. The certificate remains in a drawer somewhere, I suppose. But anyway, this was my wife's first visit to one of those salon/spas, and she came back a bit wide-eyed about it all. It reminds me of the time we were in Natchez and she and my mother-in-law visited the riverboat casino--not to gamble, of course, but to "see."

That night, I listened as she told me about the experience. She felt a bit out-of-place, dressed in her after-school-car-line-duty clothes. The patrons of the salon were being pampered--which is apparently a large part of what we are all about these days--their nails and/or feet were being attended to and glasses of wine or champagne were making the rounds. Amid the buzz of conversation, the talk was all about "appointments"--stuff of this nature, or the hairdresser, or the gym, or with their trainer, or the tanning salon, or meeting with the landscaper, or this, that or the other. My wife found it all pretty boring stuff, busy lives full of emptiness. We both commented on how our economy depends on this very sort of thing, and the perilous fragility of such a superficial society. She works at a school and I measure people's land, and teach a bit on the side. We have some rental properties which provide needed housing, and a washateria. All of this is pretty basic stuff, nothing frou-frou, but providing simple needs. I think we will stick with that.

It also put me in mind of the passage from Mark Twain, as follows:

Our civilization is wonderful, in certain spectacular and meretricious ways; wonderful in scientific marvels and inventive miracles; wonderful in material inflation, which it calls advancement, progress, and other pet names; wonderful in its spying-out of the deep secrets of Nature and its vanquishment of her stubborn laws; wonderful in its extraordinary financial and commercial achievements; wonderful in its hunger for money, and in its indifference as to how it is acquired; wonderful in the hitherto undreamed-of magnitude of its private fortunes and the prodigal fashion in which they are given away to institutions devoted to the public culture; wonderful in its exhibitions of poverty...transportation systems, in manufactures, in systems of communication, in news-gathering, book-publishing, journalism; in protecting labor; in oppressing labor; in herding the national parties and keeping the sheep docile and usable; in closing the public service against brains and character; in electing purchasable legislatures, blatherskite Congresses, and city governments which rob the town and sell municipal protection to gamblers, thieves, prostitutes, and professional seducers for cash. It is a civilization which has destroyed the simplicity and repose of life; replaced its contentment, its poetry, its soft romance-dreams and visions with the money-fever, sordid ideals, vulgar ambitions, and the sleep which does not refresh; it has invented a thousand useless luxuries, and turned them into necessities(emphasis mine); it has created a thousand vicious appetites and satisfies none of them; it has dethroned God and set up a shekel in His place. (h/t to David.)

5 comments:

Bill M said...

People who know Twain only from badly-adapted children's versions of "Tom Sawyer" have no idea how cuttingly insightful he could be.

Sobering stuff here. What do we do about it?

John said...

Bill M,
You want solutions? All I can do it point to the problems-ha! Seriously though, I suppose being able to recognize this in ourselves, our lives and society in general is a step in the right direction. And then, every chance we get, to step back and away from it, and by so doing, perhaps we can salvage something for ourselves and families.

Bill M said...

Well, my question was mostly rhetorical... :)

I agree with your take on it, though.

s-p said...

Tough call. The older I get the more I want to "downsize", but what to actually give up?... that will be the real test.

Apophatically Speaking said...

For one thing, I try to stop looking for new stuff, turning down advertisements' hooks and lures about how I need this, that, and the other in order to be happy, cool and complete. They play on my passions, they know me well. Many appeals are quite nifty, psychologically quite genius, appealing to how things appear, how I think I am perceived by others, and other such mind games. Perception and looks seem to get me. A slick looking car, cool looking jacket etc.

This awakening process is a small start, hopefully I can keep it up and be consistent and continue to look through the various schemes.