“Hipsters,” a friend complained to me recently, are too “decadent.” My friend is a highly intelligent young man, and makes many valuable points. But he was, on this occasion, completely wrong. Hipsters aren’t decadent enough. As a society we are becoming ever less decadent, because we are becoming more self-obsessed.
Decadence isn’t silly self-indulgence. It isn’t low risk. It’s revelry, total rebellion, a dark act of worship. It is glorying in surviving struggle or conflict. As such, decadence secretly acknowledges and yet openly defies death and decay. It puts men among the gods. Historically, it is tied to war, fighting, power, masculinity, and comradeship.
Decadence comes before battle in the form of oratory that inspires the troops. And, after, in the form of celebration and intoxication — which, let’s be honest, has, historically, often involved looting and pillaging (and, no, I’m not endorsing that).
It is in the psyche of the warrior, in different ways. The Norse warriors believed that they would go to a heaven (Valhalla) where they would spend all day fighting and all night feasting, waited on by beautiful maidens. The Samurai applied cosmetics to their faces before committing ritual suicide, to look beautiful after death, and because death could itself be beautiful. More recently, during World War II, British troops were entertained, in between battles, by highly campy “concert parties.”
A few weeks ago, Facebook updated its gender options for profiles. Instead of “male” or female” users can now enter in their gender, and, start typing, and you’ll find several out of more than 50 appear — Bigender, Two Spirit, Transgender Male, Transgender Female, Transgender Person, etc., etc.
You may view Facebook’s many new genders as a political victory, a hard-won civil right. (Sexual and other minorities have been, and sometimes still are, treated appallingly by society, and in no way do I want to minimize that.) But what struck me is the close identification, today, of “radical politics” and consumerism.
Increasingly, it seems to me, modern politics urges us to fight for the right for new market segments. If you’re not sure what market segmentation is, BusinessDictionary dot com defines it as “The process of defining and subdividing a large homogenous market into clearly identifiable segments having similar needs, wants, or demand characteristics” — characteristics that are, incidentally, often based around gender, ethnicity, religion, income (class), and so on. Sound familiar?
Both through politics and consumerism, we are being offered a life free of angst, and a lifestyle accepted by the mainstream, catered for by various large companies with an assortment of products, from cosmetic surgery, through health insurance, to an array of different types of sugary, “ethical” coffees. Everything is a “brand.”
While its natural to want to be embraced by the mainstream — and while I certainly don’t want to see people discriminated against, or considered to be somehow less than other people, just because they are different — the problem is that great insights into how to live, great art, great achievements, etc., come from being consciously outside of it, by doing and being something different. We don’t need more insiders. We need more outsiders.
Let me just say this: I’m one hundred percent happy for Caitlyn Jenner to be “the new normal,” but the new normal is the new boring. Simply, one can’t be normal and edgy, normal and shocking, normal and different, or normal and interesting. That’s just a fact.
The close relationship — sometimes viewed as positive and sometimes as negative — between especially progressivism and consumerism has been observed by the heavy hitters of the Left. The late Christopher Hitchens liked to describe himself as “a socialist living in a time when capitalism is more revolutionary.” And cultural citic and self-described “communist” Slavoj Zizek has pointed out how capitalism can consume anti-capitalism, producing, for example, “Cherry Guevara” ice cream.
In reality, capitalism and anti-capitalism — at least of the sort we see in the mainstream — absorb, and need, each other. Capitalism needs the branding of anti-capitalism to show that it is human, modern, cool, and concerned with the right social issues. And anti-capitalism needs the advertising, product placement, and middle class lifestyles that comes with capitalism. Hence, in regard to both, we find, for example, the Levi’s jeans ad that used the imagery of anti-capitalist demonstrators and rioters.
Politics, the Primordial, and Spirituality
The need for acceptance — by the mainstream, by Levi’s, by “the market,” by Christians, by everyone — creeps into spirituality, of course. Take the ultimate outsiders: Satanists. They, apparently, no longer want to become supermen for whom the rules are things to be crushed. They simply want equality because they suffer crippling social stigma, and are “afraid”. If the Christians have done it, the Satanists want to follow their lead.
Likewise, neo-pagans, instead of throwing themselves to wild, astral abandonment or forging themselves into crazed, Berserker-like warriors, are demanding reparations from the Church. (To reiterate the point I made at the beginning, decadence is being drained from Western culture.)
Even if we don’t recognize it, our fight for political and consumer segmentation is a fight against our deep, primordial, inner being that often conflicts with our “socially-constructed” identities.
We might want to appear more spiritual, more beautiful, cooler, edgier, etc. But it is essential for us to live life in such a way that we can go beyond ourselves, not so that we can become more of what we would like to be, but to abandon ourselves and become one with that spirit that seems to be behind natural law, behind the violence and beauty of nature, of life and death, etc.
Trevor Leggett recalls the story of a Zen Buddhist and archery teacher in his Zen and The Ways. One of his students was a Cabinet Minister, and another was the wife of a lowly greengrocer. A Journalist came to interview the teacher, and suggested he move out of the countryside, to the city, so that he could find more prestigious students like the Minister. The teacher castigated him, saying, “it’s not a question of being the greengrocer’s wife, or being a Cabinet Minister, but of not being the greengrocer’s wife, or not being a Cabinet Minister.” Only then could the students enter the “Buddha-nature” that they really are.
The question that he higher man or woman has to ask is not what market segments or socio-political categories do I fit into? Or what products, retail outlets, or political party makes me feel good? But who am I when I’m alone? Who am I in the face of danger? Who am I in the face of death? Who and what will matter to me in the moment of death, and how can I focus more on those in life?
Only people who can ask and answer those questions — and, as such, who determine to build their lives in the face of their intuitions, standing outside of and resisting the allure of the temporary — can be truly decadent.