Context is a wonderful thing. Mae West was speaking in the context of the Hays Code, Prohibition, and the general backlash against freedom of expression of all kinds, but especially those involving sex, alcohol and recreational drugs. It was in the same context that H. L. Mencken defined Puritanism as “[t]he haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” I am not, I think, alone in detecting similar tendencies in our own time.
And yet the line still has to be drawn somewhere. We live in an age of ludicrous excess. There is a widespread disbelief in the existence of limits, with the result that many people push a good thing too far – whether that be weight loss, cosmetic surgery, tattooing, or even driving fast. We see this trend even in a body so far removed from the zeitgeist as the British Conservative Party, whose leader has lately been trying to see how long it is possible to carry on as Prime Minister well past the point at which all of his predecessors have thrown in the towel. (At the time of writing he has notionally resigned but is still in office.)
As the gap between rich and poor widens ever more drastically, the purchase by someone or other of a cask of whisky for £16 million (that’s well over US$19 million at today’s exchange rate) barely rates a filler paragraph in the newspaper. I like a dram as much as the next person, but that strikes me as a ludicrous amount of money. According to the article, and I have no reason to doubt it, the distillery that made it changed hands for less than half of that in 1997, in a deal that included all of its stock.
The extravagance of the rich and clueless has become a major spectator sport. A vast amount of space on social media, if something so vacuous can be said to occupy space, is given over to it. Of course this sort of thing has happened before; the extravagance of some of the Roman emperors, even if exaggerated by their enemies, was pretty staggering. But in their case they had competent people actually running things while they were tucking into flamingo brains. I am not at all sure we still do.
But even amongst those of us who are not buying gold-plated Lamborghinis the tendency to go too far is everywhere. At least in the UK, contemporary drinking culture has become focussed on getting as drunk as possible as quickly as possible. When I was young and foolish, I would go out on the weekend and get drunk, but getting drunk wasn’t the main purpose of the evening, as it now seems to have become. Of course there is an element of desperation to this, as there was back in the eighteenth century when gin was known as “the quickest way out of Manchester.”
Fashion seems to be going the same way, though. Now fashion has always had an element of the ridiculous about it; the serious fashionista risks looking like a prat, and that bravado is part of the appeal for some people. These days, though, it extends to surgical procedures. The late Pete Burns was an early adopter of this, but it doesn’t seem to have put people off. There is a very successful TV series in which two cosmetic surgeons either attempt to fix previous surgeries or try to talk people out of having even more extreme things done to them. This series has been running since 2014.
Where cosmetic surgery differs from regular fashion is that it is so inflexible. If you are wearing a stupid hat, it is the work of a moment to replace it with a less stupid hat. If you have had your breasts augmented to be the size of basketballs then you have a problem when a smaller bust becomes the thing (as it did in the 1920s, for instance). Even if that doesn’t happen, you have problems in any case, because human bodies can’t really cope with such things.
All of this would be mere froth if it didn’t point to a wider issue with our collective psyche (and by “our” I mean the inmates of industrial civilisation). That issue, it seems to me, is a pathological disregard for limits of all kinds. “To infinity, and beyond!” is our motto, however fatuous that is, and we must all admire the Emperor’s new clothes, not least because they’re new.
I would be less bothered by this if it was confined to body piercings and wallpaper at £840 a roll (that’s over US$1,000). Unfortunately we think it applies to the laws of physics as well. Once upon a time, a campaign group was founded with the goal of restricting atmospheric CO2 levels to 350 ppm; we have now reached 419 ppm with no sign of slowing down much, even given the dip in emissions associated with the Covid-19 lockdowns. Again, there was much trumpeting of the alleged international agreement to limit global temperature rise to an extra 2° C compared to pre-industrial levels. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you how well that’s going.
Limits, schmimits. It’s not as if we don’t know what causes all this. We’ve known in some detail what this trajectory looks like since 1972. But we’re special. None of this applies to us.
Until it does, of course.
Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.