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!

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