Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Decay and Decadence

Decay is everywhere, of course; it is part of the natural cycle of all that is material: stuff falls apart and then, in the course of time, it takes on new shape only, inevitably, to fall apart again. The process itself does not inspire any particular critical or moral meditation on my part: unalterable laws of physics just are. 

But what does interest me, insofar as I am myself a deteriorating hunk of matter, is the various attitudes and behaviors that humans adopt in the face of this universal law.

It seems to me that our views on decay tend to fall into three main categories:  1) decay should be embraced and celebrated as proof of our moral superiority to the material universe: the more dilapidated and wretched we are, the holier we are in some supernatural plane; we are proud of our deterioration; 2) decay should be acknowledged but fought against: selves and stuff should be maintained as much as possible in order to provide comfort and stability for as long as possible; we are neither proud nor ashamed of the inevitable, but we don't particularly like it; 3) decay should be ignored and denied: all signs of dissolution should be hidden or covered up or unacknowledged; everything must be sanitized and prettified; decay is shameful and must be "treated" with either paint or pharmaceuticals.

Attitude 1: Life is shit, but by God, we're just gonna live in it and love it.  Attitude 2: Let's clean up this shit and stop tracking it in.  Attitude 3: What's shit? I've never heard of it. We don't have it here.

There's actually a fourth attitude--in fact, it's an attitude toward an attitude--decadence (and camp).  This uber-attitude acknowledges that things are falling apart and says, well, fuck it then, let's have fun with it: dress it up a little, make your shabby shack even shabbier by hanging Thomas Kinkaid pics on walls; revel in your immobility by gilding your wheelchair with glitter; highlight your obesity by eating so much that you throw up at a Chinese buffet; call attention to your bodily deficiencies by inadequately disguising them beneath garish outfits and outrageous hairstyles; glorify your crumbling infrastructure by stringing tinsel and Christmas lights along ancient streetcar tracks. Obviously, San Francisco and New Orleans come to mind in this context--but almost any city in which people know they're both rotting and rotten will do.

Though I am definitely one such person, and though I frequently find decadence amusing, even perversely consoling, I am nonetheless most drawn to Attitude 2--if only because it seems less belligerently defiant and more intellectually viable than the others. I note, however, that Attitude 1 is very popular in religious societies, most especially in the Deep South, where people are inclined to regard decrepitude (in both body and possessions) as a badge of honor. And Attitude 3, of course, belongs to the fairytale world of cuteness and cleanliness--to Switzerland, to Singapore, to Beverly Hills and, unquestioningly, to all the eternally photogenic Disneylands of the world.

So what do I conclude from these extensive musings about falling apart? Not a great deal, really. What I should do now, I suppose--if I really want to distill some useful meaning from my reflections--is attempt to figure out WHY certain attitudes have come to dominate in certain cultures. But dang, I'm just too tired and run down to tackle that project right now. Frankly, I'm pooped. So further analysis will just have to wait until another day--sometime when I'm not feeling so damned decrepit!

Priority Access or Taken for a Ride?

I think of airport priority lanes as a metaphor for our rather pathetic human attempts to acquire elite status, i.e., salvation, by lavishing love, treasure and lifelong fealty upon a remote Sky Power that supposedly "cares" for those who abjectly serve Its inscrutable ends. In spiritual parlance, this divine favor is usually termed "grace," whereas in airport lingo, it is more prosaically called "priority access." Now priority access, like Dante's heaven and hell, contains within itself a number of hierarchical levels, each designated by the name of a precious metal or stone:  platinum, gold, diamond, emerald, ruby, sapphire, etc, and each entitling its members to privileges slightly different from those granted to members of the other tiers (an extra carry-on, say, or maybe 10 points of Delta Dividends). Nonetheless, and these piddly distinctions notwithstanding, in the great scheme of Airline Advantage Rewards, priority--any priority--is still priority--and the essential for all those who bear any elite status whatsoever is that they are all chosen, and they all therefore get to board first. 

Undoubtedly, it is this boarding process which most clearly demonstrates the incalculable value (or, as I will later suggest, inconsequence) of priority. We all know how it works. The Sky Power, having set up a little access sign in the gate area, rewards its Prioritized Chosen with the absolute coolest privilege It can, in Its omnipotence, imagine--the exclusive right to board the plane via the lane to the RIGHT OF THE SIGN. This is presumably such an honor that it must be qualified, in religious terms, as a sort of "rapture"--a direct and immediate translation into the heavenly chambers of the awaiting Boeing, a sort of bodily Assumption, whether or not one is a virgin.

Needless to say, of course, such ethereal access must necessarily be denied those travelers bearing no gold, platinum or gemstone boarding passes. Verily, verily, these unlucky infidels, assigned merely to a lowly "zone," can never, ever, be allowed to experience the exaltation of passing to the RIGHT of that sign. Instead, wretched unaffiliated any-carrier travelers, they are eternally condemned to pass--after all the rightwing Prioritized Chosen--to the LEFT OF THE SIGN. Oh, the shame and humiliation! The precious sheep having already entered the fold, they, the riffraff left behind, count as nothing but despicable leftwing goats.

And yet...wait, oh ye of too much over-eager faith. Let's think about this a bit.

Because, after all, isn't the distance to the plane exactly the same from either the right or the left of the sign? Hmm... And don't we all, sheep and goats alike, board the same plane? And don't we all leave at the same time? Don't we all journey to the same destination? Uh, well...yes, that's about right. Oh, I know that some of the rightwing Prioritized Chosen get free drinks; some get 4 inches more leg-room; some get microwaved chicken enchiladas even on ridiculously short flights. But in the end, grosso modo and in the final analysis, isn't this Life Journey for which we are all ticketed still roughly comparable for all--for both the rightwing prioritized and the leftwing unaffiliated? In short, I have to ask, is the payoff for a lifetime of submission, tithing and conforming to SkyPower restrictions really worth the cost? Well, perhaps--especially for those who love microwaved chicken...

But there's also the possibility that in our desperate quest for heavenly delights, we are just being jerked around--tricked by a Priority Access sign into thinking that the rightwingers will get a scepter (and the others the shaft), when in actual fact, all of us, on both sides of the sign--rightwingers and leftwingers alike--are just getting taken for a ride.