by Raju Peddada
"One must be poor to know the luxury of giving."
(Swans - February 9, 2009) A recession is precisely the time to debate the subject of luxury. What is luxury? Is luxury associated only with crass consumerism, or does it have a wider swath? In times when necessities are becoming luxuries, the concept of luxury is being redefined not by the free markets but by the most unlikely source, the US government. Our government has stepped into the luxury business by buying out so-called blue-chip companies who should have gone out of business for their failed business models, bad management, and labor unions. The US economic metabolism has become slow, where our payments were not keeping pace with our consumption, therefore leading to financial constipation. Now the enema is being administered by our government. But, let us digress from our own cynicism and sarcasm and really look at the pursuit of pleasure in luxury, a misunderstood concept for what it really is in these trying times.
In a free and wealthy society everybody can indulge in their fetishes for good design and manufacture. America is where quarter-million-dollar Aston Martins to eighty-thousand-dollar Maseratis to two-thousand-dollar diamond-encrusted Zippo lighters sell without challenge. America is also the place where we are hocked up to the hilt with debt in the pursuit of hedonistic material luxury. "I gotta have this Prada bag!" even though it might take all of your first week's pay is of no concern. The promotion and the nurturing of this urge for instant gratification today is the smoke that permeates our debt-ridden society, to the tune of ten trillion dollars. A society nurtured on debt for satisfaction is the very milieu that would not understand the true concept of luxury. How do we define luxury? Etymologically, the word luxury originates from the Latin Luxus, signifying abundance, sensuality, splendor, and refinement. A society like ours has reached the apex of consumption with affluent segments indulging in the ultimate of everything from forty-thousand-square-foot mansions, to private landing strips to second and third vacation homes in exotic locales. It is the consumption of material exoticism that defines our hedonism here in the U.S. But the pursuit of pleasure and delight do not have to be associated with consumerism alone; it also can be a solecism of somebody who wants to experience intangible pleasures in the pursuit of happiness and contentment. I disagree with Thorstein Veblen's maxim of "Unproductive consumption of goods is honorable" from his classic Conspicuous Consumption as long as consumption is fostered by taking on debt, like today.
Democritus, the earliest philosopher to support hedonism, is known to have claimed that the supreme goal of life is "contentment" and "cheerfulness." By this token today's hedonism is mostly about unrestrained consumerism and discontentment that delineates all the intangible aspects of real pleasure. I believe that real pleasure is in contentment, in a comfort level reached by relinquishing rather than relentless consumption. The extent of consumerism dictates delight versus decadence, and unfortunately the latter seems to be the hallmark we as a society have reached. The contentment to consumption ratio has been skewed for the latter by the availability of credit to the avid pursuant, whose roll models are the celebrities of conspicuous consumption, who are splashed and recycled through the lightening fast electronic media today, to our dismay. This mindless consumption is also a symptom of buy-now-pay-later influence of the now-imploded credit markets. Consumption today is also a symptom of larger societal ills, like loneliness, strife, dysfunctions, and spending ills, all candidates for "the feel good buying," and has nothing to do with contentment, utility, or giving.
Two schools of thought emerged in ancient times (fourth & third centuries BC). Cyrenaicism fathered by Aristippus of Cyrene, of the Socratic pedagogy maintained that pleasure was supremely good. He found physical gratifications more desirable than mental pleasures and promoted instant gratification as opposed to deferring for long term gain, philosophically opposite to the Epicureans. Epicureanism proponents identified pleasure with tranquility and emphasized curtailing desire over the instant pursuit of pleasure. Epicurus claimed that real pleasure embodies simplicity, moderate existence spent with kith and kin in the attainment of intellectual and intangible delights. I am also inclined to think this way, even though I am a purveyor of ultra luxurious objects for the home.
I will passionately defend my ideas on objects that transcend their material manifestation and provide a spiritual and intellectual contentment, a release that is a luxury to be had. How can you put a value on something like the luxury of handling books, especially the early 18th century William Caxton edition of Paradise Lost by Milton, the Federalist Papers first hard bound edition from first decade of the 19th century when most signatories were still alive, or Thomas Hardy's signed Tess copy, which is very rare? The mere holding of a book that has been handled by the author or the luxury of turning the pages of such a book that has survived almost eight generations of handling or looking at the first faded print of a young Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlin from Mathew Brady's glass plate after that "minor" incident on the Little Round Top is inexplicable luxury. I infinitely envy the museum curators, restorers, archaeologists, and historians who have the real privilege of handling objects that have transcended their material configuration and have arrived to the state of a myth, legend, or a relic in history. The real luxury is the ability to see beyond the obvious in the mummy of Rameses the Great, and the things that unfolded in his reign, the luxury of imagination needed to experience history in moving images at the Cairo Museum is what real unquantifiable luxury is all about. It's about the experience as much as the object itself.
To me luxury is not about mindless and inconsequential consumption and the decadence unfortunately associated with it, it is about dreams and pursuit of dreams into viable ideas and businesses. Luxury in the consumptive context encapsulates our myths, legends, mysteries, and fantasies involving the sophisticated buyer with acute discerning abilities and the manufactory who invests passionately in time, processes, and ideas to sell this customer objects that make for spiritual, emotional, and intellectual contentment. Legendary luxury purveyor Coco Chanel wrote, "Some people thought luxury is the opposite of poverty. It is not, it is the opposite of vulgarity." The pursuit of luxury cannot be measured by price tags alone that can be vulgar at times. It also happens to be a life-long pursuit of individuals who develop discriminating taste for the unusual, the asymmetrical, and the authentic, investing heavily with emotions, intellect, and time like Ralph Lauren in his car collection or I with my collection of books. Also, appreciation of luxury always does not equate with wanton materialism as this attitude infers a complete neglect of life's intellectual and spiritual goals.
Imagine a world without Cartier, Patek Philippe, Rolex, Stradivarius, Steinway & Sons, Herman-Miller of Holland MI, Pietro Beretta, Rolls Royce, Ghirardelli, Hermes, Louis Vuitton, Poltrona Frau, Gucci, Prada, Alessi, and a plethora of other passionate purveyors whose excellence in their processes and products has elevated and defined the crest of consumption values associated with luxury. All these aforementioned manufacturers have furthered the concept of luxury with the investment of time. The true connoisseur understands that the enjoyment of quality is less a lapse of discipline than the exercise of it. The price and the quality are always proportionate to the time invested in the making of a product. Brett Anderson's insightful editorial in Robb Report years ago claimed that Cartier's creations have more to do with the passionate design than with the carats of their diamonds. Beauty in luxury is a value experienced when perception is not guided by a practical need, but purely by an aesthetic impulse. In his book, Selling Dreams -- a marketing classic -- Gian Luigi Longinotti-Buitoni said that, "We cherish luxury infinitely because it makes us feel great and comfortable with ourselves in the act of ownership and in our taste." Coco Chanel also once said that, "Luxury must be comfortable, otherwise it is not a luxury."
Time is the most dominant dimension of luxury. I strongly believe that the ethereal, transcendental, indispensable, and pivotal constituent of luxury, whether it is for the tangible or the intangible, is time. Time is a luxury; to have time is a luxury. Contrary to what people think, luxury is entirely an intangible -- a state of mind, as time defines luxury in myriad mysterious ways. It is the time that creates beauty with its compression in nature- and the man-made. Time is indeed the element that presides over the transformation from ordinary to extraordinary, as in history, nature and man-made. See the time taken in the natural creation of pearls, precious stones, marble, granite, natural beauty of the landscape, old trees (The Angel Tree is an insightful tome on the pursuit and purchase of the oldest living olive tree by a French man), tusks, furs and fossils to name a few. And the innocuous and ignored aging in nature as expounded by the Zen philosophy; the ineffable beauty of decay and age in nature, the authentic asymmetry and the interaction of the constituents of nature. Time processes nature to create timelessness, the metamorphosis from finite to infinite. Time indeed is a luxury we cannot afford, time is money and giving it is the ultimate luxury.
Luxury is not glitter but giving. Luxury is restraint not ostentation. Luxury is also dangerous if indulged irresponsibly. I remember a quote by Ed Young: "On the soft bed of luxury most kingdoms have expired." Luxury is fluid and organic in its ability to provide total inundation in literature. Can you imagine our lives without the luxury of escaping regularly in our literature? It is indeed a great luxury for us to sit back and travel in the fantasies created by others. History is another luxury that our cultures and societies pursue with passion in their museums with gargantuan private endowments. There is something about historical objects that gets nations engaged in possession litigation. The only explanation for this is the object in question has transformed to become a symbol -- symbol of existence, culture, lives, and collective experiences that coagulated into this one item over time -- again, time is the binder that projects the object as a symbol of our existence and consciousness. Today, even death has become a luxury in our culture as eternity's door is knocked by all the ceremonies to honor it, and eternity is nothing but timelessness, which is luxury.
What is the most precious gift we can give somebody? What is the most precious aspect of our lives? The time we have on this earth and what we do with it. Time is the most elusive as well as allusive luxury in the world. It cannot be had back. You can buy and sell it for a price if you have what they want. Your time, not toys, is what your children want. It is the best gift you can give them and your parents convalescing in nursing homes. Time spent with children extends your life through your children and this is the ultimate luxury -- to live through your progeny into infinity. How many people can grasp that in a rush to go to the mall? The luxury of time with folks you love will cement the bonds. In relationships time spent together generates memories and an attachment that becomes rewarding. Time spent with kids is an investment that will return many fold. Time is an investment, it is the ultimate luxury we have at our disposal as this quote by Leontyne Price encapsulates: "The ultimate of being successful is the luxury of giving yourself the time to do what you want to do." If you have free time you have attained the ultimate luxury of life. I believe that luxury is defined and ordained by time.
We are missing the point if we think that luxury is all about consumerism. I beg to differ with the dictionaries and the theorists of the world. I think that real luxury is time itself, and is not the domain of the rich and famous as some would claim. I would even further the notion that the rich and the famous are deprived of that luxury despite their glittering milieu, and desperately need the luxury of time for their children and their personal lives. Real luxury, if one can comprehend, does not subvert. It is actually assimilatory and is overtly inclusive. Real luxury is enjoyed and exercised by giving your time to your children and for other great external and internal causes in times like these. Everyday, I also enjoy the luxury of being in the company of Marcel Proust, Italo Calvino, Jose Saramago, Ernest Hemingway, Philip Roth, Miguel Cervantes, Nikolai Gogol, Joseph Conrad...and my two indefatigable and irrepressible sons, Raju and Atman.
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