14 July 2010

Pity the rich

Luxury, says Paul Theroux, is the enemy of observation [1]. The statement has the quality of aphorism — a thing said well has the ring of truth. But how true is it?

Unquestionably, luxury insulates the traveller, isolates her, cocoons her in comfort, and in doing so reduces access to the real world. The traveller in luxury might see the grim, hard world, but from a distance; he might hear it but only in small doses before he retreats to the refuge of quiet, plush hotel rooms and the interiors of gently throbbing tourist coaches with their views of the harsh and glaring world outside softened by tinted windows. The traveller in luxury must make a deliberate effort to eat the food of the masses rather than the treats of the elite; obnoxious smells and physical discomfort must surely be easier to bear when the sufferer knows they're only temporary and largely elective.

Still, luxury—at least anything short of an obscene amount— can't completely isolate a traveller from the actuality of the world through which she glides. Even a tiny exposure to that world must be enough to convey its reality to anyone prepared and willing to notice and imagine. Through the tinted windows of his air-conditioned coach a traveller looks out at evil, festering drains and mountains of rubbish; sees a woman washing a toddler in a basin of filthy water; sees a man squatting next to a wall, his hand over his face as he empties his bowels; sees others sleeping on the urine-stained footpath, each corpse-like and covered only by a thin, grimy blanket; the traveller sees these things, remembers the sounds and smells as he walked from his hotel to the bus and he must surely imagine what it must be like to live day after day like that, watching the big buses cruise by.

Perhaps, however, the traveller used to luxury finds these acts of observation and imagination too uncomfortable, too disturbing. Perhaps guilt suppresses thought—you are privileged, these observations say, and privilege is generally an accusation; the traveller, unable to deny her observations, turns away from their implications. Better not to think.

To be fair, Theroux's argument actually focuses on how luxury itself distracts: how the pleasures of comfort turn us away from paying attention to what's outside our luxurious cocoon. Perhaps he has a point, but he misses another: that luxury is relative and our capacity to become used to it is huge. A night in a vermin-infested hotel room on a hard bed would be luxury to one of the pavement-sleepers but a nightmare to a Remuera socialite [2], and after several weeks of buffet dining, the novelty of tropical fruits and croissants for breakfast can begin to wear thin (I imagine — not having experienced it myself). When we've become accustomed to these luxuries they no longer seem so luxurious: they become day to day life. Then, perhaps, our attention returns to the wider world.

Luxury may indeed be the enemy of observation, but luxury is also its own enemy. The danger is that, instead of allowing its novelty to dissipate, we try to hold on to it by seeking even more of it; we make it a goal — and one increasingly difficult to attain. Perhaps, ironically, the way to enjoy it more is not to seek it but to turn away from it and enter the harsh, all too common world in which luxuries, even if accessible only to those with a little wealth, are never far away (after months of bucket baths, a proper hot shower seems impossibly sumptuous — and that I can confirm). But to what kind of opulence can the habitual dweller in luxury turn?

Theroux goes on to explain how the rich — the acolytes of luxury — not only never listen but constantly complain about the cost of everything: "... indeed, the rich usually complained about being poor," he says [3]. Maybe he's right, but not in the sense he apparently intends. Maybe the rich really are poor; cut off from the real world and struggling to achieve ever greater levels of luxury which become increasingly hard to attain, maybe they shouldn't be envied, but pitied?

1.p. 17 in Theroux, P. (2008). Ghost Train to the Eastern Star. London, Penguin. 485 pp.
2. Remuera is an Auckland suburb populated largely by many of New Zealand's wealthiest people.
3. But if luxury is the enemy of observation and Theroux observed the rich in their natural habitat (i.e. luxury), to what extent can we trust his observations, given he was also in it at the time?
1.The Phool Mahal, the Palace of Flowers. One of the many opulent rooms in the Mehrangarh, the great fort and palace complex, at Jodhpur.
2. Stairway in the Mehrangarh.

Photos and original text © 2009 Pete McGregor


Relatively Retiring said...

I imagine that Luxury has to be competitive, that Wealth must involve constant vigilance, and within both must lurk the great fear of losing them.
I don't actually know. I rejoice in the freedom of needing and wanting very little, but appreciating much. Would I be the same person if I was rich? Much food for thought in your post, as ever.

Beautiful photographs - do they represent wealth, patronage, self-indulgence, sensibility, respect for craftsmanship or sheer acquisitiveness?

beadbabe49 said...

Yes, I can see you could pity them...but if they've got their boot on your neck, it would be more difficult, don't you think?

Bob McKerrow said...

Good provocative piece Pete. After a long, hard trip in the hills, I love luxury at the end. I often feel that those of us who have the time to write and think about luxury, know what luxury is. I have worked with many who dream of owning a bucket. During my travels for four years in Afghanistan, a bucket wash was a luxury, a hot shower unheard of. It's all relative. What's the difference between a bucket of gold and a poor person ? The only difference is the contents.

I am off to the West Coast tomorrow. Keep up the fine writing

Zhoen said...

Easy to feel poor when there is such a great fear of loss. When you have little, there is little to lose, and one knows one can survive it. The rich feel living at a lower level of comfort is a kind of death sentence, so they hold on to their riches more tightly and fearfully.

Avus said...

The dictionary defines "luxury" in a number of ways, running from a mild "comfort" to strong "extravagance". As you say, Pete, as such it is relative. To the bare footed beggar a pair of decrepit cast off sandals might be a luxury.
However, I think extreme wealth is something other. To be able to own or experience absolutely anything at the click of a finger. How soul destroying. In time how utterly boring. When a working man or woman wins the lottery they will sometimes say that they intend to carry on with their usual occupation and one can see why they do this - perhaps they have the right philosophy.Never having had great wealth it could overwhelm them (and sometimes does).
At the Greek oracle at Delphi was written "Μηδὲν ἄγαν" (mēdén ágan) - "nothing in excess". This was to be applied to all aspects of life and it does not seem a bad philosophy.

isabelita said...

This has become a volatile issue to my mind: "traveling." If a person travels for adventure, to experience the landscape, or what's left of it in many places, and leaves no trace, I think it's good. If a person travels for understanding, or to help somewhere, that also seems worthwhile. But when people are jetting and cruising around the world, expecting to be waited on hand and foot, behaving like greedy jerks, I find that disgusting.
Think about it: What would you think of fat rich people traipsing through your neighborhood, taking pictures of you as you go about your daily business? Yes, I know this is a very old story, there has been tourism for millenia, but increasingly it strikes me as being the ultimate in arrogance.
I have heard that in New Zealand, there is a concept taken from the Maoris which encourages people to be stewards of their lands. Would that the rest of the world did the same, controlled their populations and preserved their landscapes.

pohanginapete said...

Many thanks to all of you for those excellent, thoughtful comments. I'm delighted :)

RR, thank you. I concur with all those thoughts. As for what the photos might represent... probably all the aspects you mention, but I'm mindful what I've photographed comes from a culture and a time radically different from mine.

Beadbabe, very true. I'd find it very difficult indeed, but I find it even harder to see the boot on the necks of others, particularly the poor and powerless.

Thank you, Bob. I know well that feeling of luxury after a hard trip in the hills, and that's a great point you make about time for thinking and writing — for me, it's one of the greatest luxuries of all, along with time with friends. Enjoy the Coast, Bob.

And that's another excellent point, Zhoen — material wealth can so easily bring with it fear. I think one of the things I love about travelling is the feeling of having, at least temporarily, shed almost everything unnecessary; the sense of freedom I find exhilarating.

Avus, yes — I suspect I'd find extreme wealth soul destroying, in much the same way as the thought of perfect knowledge fills me with horror. However, I'm also tempted to say "Nothing in excess — including moderation", and I'm reminded of Blake's line, "The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom". Maybe one person's excess is another's sufficiency? Presumably, the trick is to remain grounded, to remain aware that one is merely human?

Isabelita, that thought — about how I'd feel if roles were reversed — never strayed far from my thoughts while I was travelling. I still think about it, often. Yet, having seen the kind of behaviour you describe — again, often — I wonder how many people give it much thought at all.
The concept you're thinking of is probably that of Kaitiakitanga. It's not my place to offer an interpretation, although "stewardship" or "guardianship" probably convey a fair amount of the meaning, but if we all adopted it, the world would surely have a bright future.

Lydia said...

Such breathtaking photos! There is an eight-year-old still living inside me that wants to see if my footsteps and chanting will echo in the first room, and who aches to slowly climb the stairs in the second shot while letting my fingers follow the winding smoothness of the handrail with special attention spent tracing the ornate design of the balusters. Whether I am traveling in high style with my mummy and father, who is there as an esteemed consulate, or whether it is my doom to sleep that night in the alley behind...ah, for you to decide.

pohanginapete said...

Lydia, thank you :^) Something seems not right about these rooms and stairways being no longer used for their original purposes — as if the life has been removed from them. Reminders of what was, not what is.

As I read your comment I could see the eight-year-old girl exploring, lost in her thoughts.

Don't Feed The Pixies said...

a bit of a side thought here - but are you aware of the pre Monty Python sketch: "The Four Yorkshiremen"?

The basic upshot is that they all continually try and outdo each other as to what a hard time they had growing up - "we lived in't shoe box in't middle o't road"


I guess really luxury is what you don't have. My idea of luxury would probably be very different to JK Rowling (who is apparently richer than the Queen) who probably takes her 3-4 castles for granted these days!

We live in houses that would be considered luxury to the people in Soweto - sometimes its good to remember how lucky we are

pohanginapete said...

Hungry pixie — exactly. One of the things travelling has done for me is to reinforce how lucky I am.

Also, I don't know if it was that sketch or some other, but I do remember something like it — one guy saying, "The rats! The rats in our house were a menace!", and the other replying, "In our house they were a delicacy."

Michael said...

The luxury isn't the problem, I don't think, it's the clinging, the grasping. Where would you go with a discussion about the absence/presence of compassion or contentment (rich or poor)?

pohanginapete said...

Very true, Michael. Plenty to think about there, but what springs to mind immediately is that the striving to hold onto the sense of luxury seems essentially, and perhaps necessarily, self-centred.

Patry Francis said...

STrangely, this reminds me of the worst days of my illness when I endured a different kind of poverty. I remember feeling a kind of solidarity with suffering beings all over the earth that I had never experienced before. The filters were gone. There was no difference between me and them. Of course, there never had been. But like your luxury travelers, I had been too insulated by my previous good fortune to see it.

As always, thank you for this, Pete--and for all the fine thoughtful posts I read here tonight.

pohanginapete said...

Patry, thank you. That's a good point — how extreme adversity confers such a different perspective. I like to believe that perspective's possible without the adversity, but while it's an encouraging thought, I'm less sure how true it is.

Good to hear from you, Patry.