Renouncing the New Decadence
Last night A and I hung out with our good friends who have a 2nd home across the street, which they usually rent out. When they are not here, they live in the West Village, where they own a well-known restaurant and guesthouse, both of which are lovely and successful. While E and I sat around and yapped, and the kids played, her husband V was on the phone with the restaurant staff talking them through putting a tap on a keg of beer. E told me about all the funny, skiddish, decent celebrities that have been coming in lately, and about the obnoxious customers who yell, “Look! There’s Harvey Keitel!” at which time Mr. Keitel orders his goulash to go.
These are people who know about food, about service, and style.
Every time we come over, V has a nice bottle of red for us to share. And plenty of snacks and food, like lasagne last night, or baked chicken, last time they were here. And some homemade sweet thing, which is sometimes missing salt or sugar or is burned, but always, always delightful. Or they come to our house for garlicky dahl with rice, much of which ends up on the floor (kids). E ‘s feet were hurting last night, because she has been waiting tables at the restaurant. Because times are tough. And V washes dishes sometimes, and has been getting his Ph.D in English Lit ever since I have known him. Things take a long time!
These people are normal. Which is why I adore them.
So E and I were having our favorite conversations—about clogs, longing, friendship; old loves who never leave our hearts; secrets of the soul, as E. said, that sometimes need to stay there: secret and in the soul.
And then somehow I found a way into my favorite topic these days: how much I, a food-loving woman, have gotten so turned off of “good” food, as it is known in the city. I ranted about all the gimmicks restaurants try on—the homespun, the erudite, the working-class, the cozy, the serene, the bright, the dark, the fancy, the grubby. The gimmick-less “just good food” tavern. Yeah, right. Behind every “just a burger” joint I see, I smell a business plan, branding, socially-coded outfits, a longing for connection, and a dream of unity. I can’t stand it anymore, I said. I would rather go to Riciardella’s.
E., mellowness incarnate, said, “I know. It’s really decadent, isn’t it?”
Decadent. Wow. Interesting word, I said, out loud, I believe. Decadent.
When I say the word, I think of my Antioch days of reading Marxist theory and how stirred and good (and also confused, aware of the circumstance of my education), I felt when I read Mao talking about The Decadence of the West, and how I agreed with him. We are decadent, spoiled, indulged! I so wanted (craved) certainty, clarity, righteousness. And I thought I would look pretty cute in braids. And I loved denouncing people with whom I disagreed. Working on a farm? Ah, details.
Anyway. It’s not that my fundamental fundamentalism has disappeared, but now I have a more useful way of trying to understand that gravitational pull toward knowing, knowing as I do, that knowing is dangerous.
Knowing, in a certain way, is a total turn away from what it is that truly, quietly—and I have to listen hard to hear it—calls me. And that is reality, things as they are. This muggy day and all my feelings about it; the hummingbird outside the window; the ways I can help people; the habits I can break that will help me help people—being in my chair. That is what really interests me, even though, the decadence calls. Not Mao’s version of it, ego-impassioned as it was, and not even necessarily the foodies’ version of it, who may very well seek to nourish with their high-concept grub, even with their perfectly set table and all of its expectant airs.
But the decadence of wanting to be somewhere else, someone else, and using the world to try to fill in my dream of a life—now that’s decadence worth renouncing. And I don’t want to spend our hard-earned cash on a meal that I am eating in the hopes that it will make me feel like a different person in a different life. Sensory pleasure…hey, I am all for it, but at what cost, and why?
I know I sound kind of crazy, like geez, relax, lady. And, hey, maybe I’m just depressed, and feeling that thing of “less interest in activities that once produced pleasure.” Could be!
This is a big topic for me these days. So I am going to wrap up for now. The good news is that even though I am not feeling very inspired, in ways that I have in the past, to cook, to present, to make pretty, after tasting some of the peaches at the farm stand down the road, I remembered I am not the only person in the house, and there’s a kid here who deserves to be fed with love and beauty. So I made some shortcakes for her to eat when she comes home. And I have some cream. And I am on my way to pick up a bag of perfectly ripe fruit.