Skip the Ads

December 16, 2017

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Skip the Ads

By their adverts shall ye know them; such, at any rate, is my supposition whenever I arrive at any airport.

It did not surprise me greatly, when I arrived at Geneva Airport, that the advertisements on the way to the baggage reclaim should have been for expensive luxuries. Geneva, after all, is a bourgeois, indeed an haut bourgeois, city; and as I knew from previous visits, even restaurants for refugees there from the Horn of Africa are expensive by the standards of other places in the world.

Two of the advertisements, however, caught my attention. One appealed to rebellion, the other to daring. I do not associate Geneva with either, particularly, certainly not in its present-day incarnation; rather it is its extreme stability that attracts some and repels others. It is true that my hotel had security guards outside it with automatic weapons and I was asked to identify myself as I entered; but I gathered that a Syrian delegation of one criminal gang or other was staying there for negotiations with other Syrian criminal gangs who were staying elsewhere in the city. In a noble display of multicultural sensibility, all charcuterie had been removed from the breakfast buffet, lest the presence of pork offend the Syrian murderers, and replaced by something called turkey ham. Surely it should not have been called ham, but smoked turkey? The very word might have upset the delicate constitutions of the Syrians, in a way that no amount of bombardment, killing, torture, etc. could have done.

“In what kind of society can buying a watch count as an act of daring?”

What did the rebellion touted by the advertisement consist of or amount to? It consisted of a male model, no longer in the first flush of youth but obviously trying to look still young (perhaps, unknown to me, he was an aging rock star), who was tattooed to his fingertips and up to his collar. To me he looked both repellent and stupid, though not by nature unintelligent. Intelligence, however, makes stupidity and bad taste all the more appalling.

The appeal to rebellion was itself of interest and significance, for it assumed that rebelliousness was necessarily a good characteristic, irrespective of what was being rebelled against, in this case good sense and good taste. Such approval of rebellion as a good in itself is a profoundly adolescent attitude; which is to say, profoundly shallow, if I may be allowed a slight paradox. You can, after all, be shallow to the very fiber of your being, and this was an appeal to that deep shallowness.

While I am not against rebellion as such (there have been and presumably will always be many things worth rebelling against, such as idiocies become orthodoxies), in the absence of a proper object mere rebelliousness becomes unattractive, a manifestation of mere egotism. And yet at the same time, I was seized by a certain sadness by the advertisement, that we live in so safe and tame a society that defacing or abusing yourself in this hideous fashion, as so many millions of others now do or have done, counts as rebellion. How fragile must be a person’s sense of individuality that he feels obliged to mark himself out in this way! I count myself fortunate that I never felt any such obligation, and from my earliest recollection never had reason to doubt my own individuality, however unfortunate it might have been in some respects.

As to daring, how is one enjoined to dare in the passage leading to baggage reclaim in Geneva Airport? It seems by buying a certain kind of watch, no doubt very expensive but not to my eyes very elegant: a large stainless-steel apparatus that could no doubt also serve as a knuckle-duster, and that tells you to the nearest millionth of a second what time it is in Reykjavik.

The cult of expensive watches is to me entirely mysterious; but nothing, I suppose, is as mysterious to us as the enthusiasms of others. There are, I must admit, many more enthusiasts for expensive watches than for, say, 18th-century medical treatises, which are a minor enthusiasm of mine, and so I suppose I, and not the enthusiasts for timepieces worth the price of a small house, must count as the oddity.

But in what kind of society can buying a watch count as an act of daring? The only sense I can think of is the purchase of such a watch on credit by a person who cannot afford it. This would be daring but also foolhardy, at least if new watches are like new cars and lose a quarter of their value as you take them away. Even then, it is not very daring, if by daring we mean something that many others would not do.

The giving and taking of foolhardy credit, after all, has become the economic model of our times, upon which our economies depend for their growth and even survival, and households in some Western countries I could name have on average at least one expensive watch’s worth of credit-card debt. This doesn’t seem to deter their members from shopping and running up even more debt at weekends, however. Oscar Wilde once defined foxhunting as the unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable; contemporary shopping might be defined as the insolvent in pursuit of the unnecessary.

Not that I am myself exactly an ascetic in the matter of possessions. Without having intended or set out to do so, I seem to have accumulated a vast number of possessions, 99 percent of which I do not really need and probably never needed, and which now seem like a ball and chain to me. I have far too many plates, socks, mugs, pens, rubbers, saucepans, ties, knives and forks, glasses, shoes, ornaments, lamps, towels, pencil sharpeners, bowls, belts, wastepaper baskets, maps, chairs, cushions, sheets and pillows, pullovers, tablecloths, casserole dishes, scarves, hats, attaché cases, gloves, bottles of ink, rugs, adapter plugs, duvet covers, soap dishes, visiting cards, photograph albums, vases, old medical journals, hangers, spoons, jugs, buckets, and sports jackets, to name but a few of my superfluities. What a nightmare they will all be to my heirs and assigns!

That is one small consolation. At least they will regret that I ever died.

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