Culture: Essay

The Aura of Excess

Amrita Narayanan is a Goa-based psychotherapist and writer
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The other side of luxury

WHEN THE PHONE rings I am already pulling off the road to my usual coconut stand, a roughly hewn wooden cart, painted blue, parked in front of a rice paddy. Long-stemmed yellow wildflowers have sprung up, rudely but admirably amidst the traditional planting of the grain, and the late March sun is balmy and becoming of thirst. The caller introduces herself as the magazine coodinator, bearing an invitation for me to take a luxury vacation within the next couple of weeks and then write about it.

As soon as I park, six-fingered Kantha the coconut seller swiftly and wordlessly applies his sickle shaped koita to open tender coconuts for me. He keeps going, three times, until I have quenched my thirst. In the backdrop an Egret flies into the paddy and perches. I trace the rapid shape of a hill with my index finger to indicate to Kantha that I’ll pay him the next time as I have no money on me. Then I explain to the bemused coordinator that the contours of my life make it difficult to take a solo vacation on short notice. Were I to accept this luxury- from-without it would intrude upon my subjective experience of luxury among which I count working for myself and sleeping every night with my baby daughter who has not yet been parted from me for longer than 24 hours.

Using the term ‘luxury’ to describe the joys of working from home or drinking three coconuts in a row without having to even verbally ask for them, is not technically accurate. One may be grateful for such pleasures, even enjoy them greatly, but daily delights, like the invigorating thirst quenching, wordless ritual enacted with the help of six-fingered Kantha and the post-card quality paddy field backdrop, do not fall into a dictionary definition of luxury. That’s because, dictionary defined, chez Merriam Webster, luxury is an experience of refinement and elegance that is ‘excessive in expense’, a clause which immediately disqualifies my experience with Kantha who asks a mere Rs 30 per coconut.

Luxury does not mean as it is commonly used, a special something that you feel fortunate to have. It is by definition excessive, something that is unaffordable. If luxury is excessive in expense, it behooves us to consider our perspective on excess itself. ‘Nothing makes people more excessive than talking about excess,’ writes the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, ‘We tend to become extremely disapproving or unusually enthusiastic about the most recently reported celebrity orgy, or managing director’s pay raise.’ Like luxury, excess is associated with an ‘extravagant violation of law, decency and morality.’

During a conversation last year on the subject of luxury, my psychoanalyst remarked gravely, “Because you love luxury, you feel weak in the face of it, you find yourself an easy lay,” adding, “and it annoys you to think of yourself as an easy lay.” This was a perspicacious comment, because it was not only true, it honed in on the original old English meaning of the word luxury, as meaning lecherous or adulterous. Luxury was appropriated into English from French, where it in turns pulls from Latin where ‘luxuria’ means ‘extravagance, excess’. In French, the meaning of excess was attached to an excess of sex, specifically in illicit lust. One of the uses of luxury as adultery appears in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, published in 1623, where the experience of ‘luxury’ tells the reader that the female character, Hero, is no virgin, rather ‘she knows the heat of a luxurious bed. Her blush is guiltiness, not modesty.’ As the play ends, it turns out that Hero is not guilty of luxury; we have falsely accused her of excess and we can feel relief that we need no longer be unnecessarily worked up about it. Yet in taking the reader to a state of great anxiety about Hero’s tendency to luxury and then reassuring us that it was not necessary, that luxury was not in fact indulged, Shakespeare shows us how tempting it is to take a binary view both of luxury and adultery. Luxury, like adultery, might make us a little anxious.

Societies world-wide have in fact felt it important to convince people that the experience of luxury ought to produce a sort of guilt; the idea that the prized virtues of modesty and austerity might be effaced by luxury, is not only old English, it is also old Indian. One of the cornerstones of Vedic philosophy is the taboo on excess: the Rig Veda enjoins us to keep the aims of life, Dharma, Artha, Kama and Moksha in perfect balance as if we are supposed to know instinctively what this balance is. Among the Grand Recits of Indian literature, the Ramayana, written around 500-700 BCE, also hints at the great virtue of not having an attachment to luxury. If we are in tune with what society admires, than as readers we will idealise Rama’s capacity to leave behind the luxury of royal life and to go into exile, and we will admire Sita’s capacity to refrain from indulging the luxuries of Ravana’s palace; we will keep ourselves aware of the chaos that can result from a weakness for a golden bejewelled deer.

In more modern times, the notion that the love of luxury— and adultery—might be self destructive is also the subtext of the 1856 French novel Madame Bovary. Perhaps the first novel about sex and shopping for luxuries, Emma Bovary’s downfall is caused among other things by her love of luxurious items that are excessive in expense. As most readers know, the excessive expense of luxurious items, among other factors, causes Emma to eventually take her own life.

It is tempting to respond to the primes of society and to fall into simple fearful puritanism when it comes to luxury. We might feel punitive about luxury but, of course, only about the luxuries that are extravagant to us, not the ones that we can afford. Luxury makes us feel vulnerable, and as often when we are vulnerable we might be tempted to palm that vulnerability off on a specific group—say women—after which we can safely condemn it. Making links between women, weakness and luxury is a motif in life and literature as a way of avoiding the truth of how luxury’s capacity to create weak knees cuts across the genders. When Flaubert, the author of Madama Bovary, was asked if he modelled his heroine on the French women of the time who so clearly swooned for luxury goods, Flaubert is said to have famously responded “Madame Bovary, c’est moi,” suggesting that the character of Madame Bovary gave him a chance to embrace his own love of luxury and extravagance rather than it being a comment on the general aspirations of women at the time.

One of the cornerstones of Vedic philosophy is the taboo on excess: the Rig Veda enjoins us to keep the aims of life, Dharma, Artha, Kama and Moksha, in perfect balance

LUXURY’S BAD REPUTATION, as it were, began to recede by the end of the 19th century, redeemed notably by America. There, the Norwegian-American economist and cultural critic Thorstein Veblen wrote a whole satirical volume on the meaning of aspirations to luxury and leisure and exclusivity. Veblen echoes—though never names—Freud in his 1899 book, The Theory of the Leisure Class, where he compacts page after page of insight into the symbols of luxury. Veblen’s piercing insight was that luxury goods were ideal tokens of wealth when they were reflective of the owners’ capacity to waste large amounts of economic resources. For an example of Veblen’s still famous notion that our evaluation of luxury is always also an evaluation of the capacity to waste, consider that a luxury hotel would rather display a bottle of dhanwantram thailam from Kama Ayurveda (which sells it at Rs 1,040) than the same oil from Arya Vaidya Sala (which makes it for Kama Ayurveda but has sold it unbranded, at Rs 240, for years before we knew of Kama Ayurveda). The more we can afford to waste, said Veblen, the more we can claim access to luxury.

Veblen was clearly not immune to his own biases against luxury, the child of poor immigrant parents who grew up in rural Wisconsin, he chose to situate himself in response to luxury by imaginatively and brilliantly condemning it. If we were to become punitive about luxury, we should all be so lucky as to satirise it with such irony and humour.

What Veblen missed in his critique was an empathy for those who use luxury as a cure for what ails them. His contemporary, Freud, who is known today as ‘an intelligent hedonist’, was more compassionate: he knew that many who could, would use luxury to cure themselves of frustration. Well done luxury does not mean only elements of refinement, elegance and excess, it also offers an opportunity to regress psychologically to a childhood in which magic, beauty, enchantment and sensual gratification take centre-stage. A good dose of luxury might cure you of your nostalgia for a childhood you had or didn’t have by giving you back the critical elements of that childhood: time and space to be playful, surfeit of nature and beauty that you can appreciate, and drinks that combine the elements of bliss, beauty and intoxication reminiscent of feeding at mother’s breast. While Gandhi amongst others has demonstrated that one can use celibacy and austerity for the same purpose—as a self-cure for frustration—it is very understandable to see why those who could afford it might choose luxury as their self cure. For luxury as a self-cure seems to at least acknowledge that you yearn for a magical childhood, but austerity seems to protest that you could do without it.

In modern India, whether you choose luxury or its opposite austerity, as your cure for frustration has a regional bias. Chennai, for example, where I grew up, like Gujurat, has a long history of embracing austerity, and eschewing luxury and thereby denying the vulnerability to the eros of luxury. Delhi by contrast has reclaimed luxury as a kind of trauma-effacing aliveness, a sign of the triumph of an aesthetic that seems to deny the vulnerability of Delhi’s history and geography.

In his 2014 book Capital, Rana Dasgupta over and over re- describes luxury as the Delhi resident’s self-cure for a painful history and a past in which he was resourceless. Dasgupta’s book hints that from the ravages of India’s partition comes a culture of luxury and excess marked by isolationism. Ghosts of the past, he suggests, are laid to rest in Delhi with emerald lawns and erotic blue pools; safety from terrible histories is regained by an aesthetic of a five-star hotel. The New Delhi residents, writes Dasgupta, ‘are not drawn to that energy of streets, side-walks and bustle which was so heroic a part of great nineteenth and twentieth century cities. No: the Delhi rich like to wake up looking at empty, manicured lawns stretching away to walls topped with barbed wire.’

POSITIONS ON LUXURY are intimately linked with history, geography, family and culture, but if there is indeed the possibility of arriving at an intelligent hedonism here, perhaps it might be important to know about the tyranny of objective luxury as it is to be aware of the taboo that associates luxury with excess and adultery.

Objective luxury becomes tyrannical when it is pre-constructed, and when that pre-construction prevents us from thinking about what our preferences really are. On the subject of pre-constructed luxury, Lebanese-American statistician and thinker Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrote recently that the freedom to intimately know what our own preferences are is a rare and extraordinary privilege, one that comes more easily to the less affluent. Rich people, explains Taleb, are more vulnerable to losing control of their preferences, substituting preferences that are constructed by the market. Taleb’s examples of constructed preferences range from real-estate to restaurants: most people, he says, are happier in close quarters, in a real barrio-style neighbourhood where they can feel human warmth, but when they have big bucks they end up pressured to move into a humongous impersonal and silent mansion, far away from the neighbours. Likewise, says Taleb, many who might prefer a gourmet pizza and malbec wine at around $25 might instead find themselves eating at a Michelin star restaurant simply because they can afford it, not because they prefer it. Echoing—though never naming—Freud, Taleb also seems to be saying that when you can afford anything, unless we give pause to know what we really want, to make sure that we are really seeking what will cure our frustration, it is actually difficult to focus on what it is that you do prefer: you become more vulnerable to what’s on offer.

I was tempted to accept the luxury vacation on offer, but I knew that given its timing, it would enhance rather than cure the frustrations of the two people under consideration: me and my baby. Turns out that being close to mother, for a baby, is the ultimate luxury, and I happen to have the kind of life that while not strictly speaking luxurious, is still charmed in the way that allows the voices of young children to be, for now, equal in decibel to the voice of the market.