‘Beauty, midnight, vision dies:
Let the winds of dawn that blow
Softly round your dreaming head
Such a day of sweetness show
Eye and knocking heart may bless,
Find the mortal world enough;’
W H Auden from ‘Lay your sleeping head, my love.’
‘Enough’ is a baffling and obstinate concept. Everyone knows what it is but no two people can agree on it’s measurement.
An example; the theatre of the absurd that our neighbours to the south are currently engaged with (the election) is a clear demonstration of how polarizing even trying to define what ‘enough’ can be. How many tax returns are ‘enough’; how much is ‘enough’ in regards to defense spending or healthcare or schools, roads, stimulus, taxes. What is ‘enough’ government engagement in everyday life, what constitutes ‘enough’ in regard to corporate participation in elections.
Everybody has an answer and all of them are different. Yet somehow we all have to square the circle, everyday, and reach some sort of operating consensus. And as difficult as defining what ‘enough’ is for groups and constituencies it’s counter-intuitively more difficult, I think, for individuals to define for themselves what is ‘enough.’ In groups people have a tendency to seek consensus. And while there are innumerable instances when that doesn’t occur the fact that nations and communities function at all speaks to our capacity to find commonality enough. On a personal level, when you’re talking about what is enough for ‘me’ as opposed to what is enough for ‘us’ that is a fish of an entirely different spectrum of crazy, self-contradicting, rainbow nonsense.
My beautiful wife Sarah and I are constantly in the process of figuring out where the ‘enough’ line is, especially regarding ‘stuff.’ I’m a minimalist at heart whereas Sarah enjoys the knick knackery– so of course the apartment looks like a well put together ‘Odds and Ends’ shop. I secretly have a soft spot for things like our Globe and our stuffed puffer fish from Cuba but I would be just as happy without. However, I would not be just as happy without Sarah so our apartment is far different than if I lived alone. Here is where the communal ‘enough’ comes into play. And don’t misunderstand– there would be a lot less unadorned space were Sarah to live on her own, so clearly I’m not the only one who has redefined what ‘enough’ means in our home.
But if you want to understand what I mean by an individual who has lost the capacity to gauge what ‘enough’ is, then please consider the timeless example of ‘The Donald’. For Trump there will never be enough money, notoriety, bad hair, statuesque blonds or banal television shows with his name on them. There will never be a moment where he’ll say to himself ‘time to stop’. As to why? I would hazard a guess that in the early morning hours, just before the Pompadour construction begins, he fears the negation of anonymity– that if he’s not constantly braying about something he’ll disappear like a wisp of lightweight, pointless fluff and probably have to hang in pointless fluff purgatory with Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity with Anne Coulter as the Professor. Digressions aside, the issue seems to be one of perspective. Or lack thereof.
The same is true with something as seemingly mundane as clothing choice or make-up or my personal pet snark–accessories. And what Auden’s poem is about, I think, is the idea that what we actually have access to, at this moment, whether it’s nature or people or even poetry– that can be enough. But it’s not easy, and it’s always tempting to posit the existence of something just out of reach that will somehow complete us. As if some alchemical combination of the right clothes and the right drapes and the right circumstance will lead to a sort of apotheosis. Now clearly Auden is talking about ‘God’ and I’m talking about Micheal Kors. But there is less space between the underlying desires than some might think.
Both represent a yearning for something ephemeral, an interaction with something you can’t see, touch or feel yet it somehow makes you more complete or fulfilled or even centred. If you think I’m engaging in hyperbole listen to the kind of reverent language used when a particular accessory goal is achieved. I often heard people express that they feel elevated or raised up or talk about a sense of completeness. It may well be a transitory state but it often reads as ecstatic. And as to it being brief– even religious ecstasy is usually a fleeting moment in time. Baptist churches in the States would lose half their memberships to heart related trauma if they maintained the intensity of their weekly services for more than a few hours.
Because it not the purse that matters– its the magical fairy dust that the elves at Gucci sprinkle on it that make it ‘special.’ And it’s that ephemeral additive, the magic of Gucci versus not-Gucci where the hucksters that sell religion and the hucksters that sell clothes find their particular sweet spot. Because while that Gucci may well be an excellent piece of stitched leather, the relationship between craftmanship and price is ghostly at best.
Now some people will say, if it makes you feel better where is the harm? If I feel happier with Gucci versus non-Gucci and I have the money what’s the damage? Bruce Philp also makes a powerful argument in his book ‘Consumer Republic’ that the name on the purse isn’t just a status announcement, it’s a guarantee of quality. He feels that the company has spent so much money, time and effort in creating the Mystique of Gucci that it’s in their best interests to make sure that you and everyone else who purchases their product remain happy extollers of Gucci’s many purse-virtues.
I have a tendency to agree with Bruce in general terms. But…
I think he over-estimates the rationality and enlightened self-interest of the entities in question. I also think that he under-estimates how vacant and empty many people’s lives are– how willing they are to believe whatever propaganda pushes their buttons, and how quickly they will latch on to anything, no matter how clearly counter-productive or even ridiculous (Scientology and Lululemon strike me as being uncomfortably close to one another in a lot of ways) they are. So when those two combine there is often a ludicrous misapprehension about certain ‘things’ and their ostensible value in our lives. And while that’s bad, sometimes, for us as individuals, I think that in the long run the real problem lies with something much more profound.
What damage is done by scratching any particular consumer itch?
Problem is these days all of us have far more effect than we seem comfortable even acknowledging. Given the information we have in front of us it seems clear that each choice we make, no matter how small and seemingly banal, has an effect in the world. That purse you covet, the car you drive, the computer I’m working on right now have significant and sometimes tragic histories. Knowing what you can about how and why the ‘thing’ that you covet came into being is the first step in answering the most difficult of questions.
Is it worth it?