A Most Dangerous Gift
Waiting for a flight to Philadelphia in Heathrow Terminal 4 recently, I engaged in my usual ritual: buying my children copies of the Beano and the Dandy comics, and some chocolate that tastes like real chocolate (seemingly illegal in the USA), and finding a present for my wife. A couple of years ago, I cracked the latter problem by discovering that she liked Gaultier perfume; but, having traveled so much, I have purchased it at a rate somewhat greater than her ability to use it and I was under instructions not to bring any more of the stuff home with me. Strange, that - I can't imagine ever thinking that, if the roles were reversed, my wife could ever buy me too much brandy or scotch or rock music. `Please, love, no more of that XO brandy; I've no more room in the drinks cabinet to keep yet another bottle.....' To quote John Wayne, That'll be the day. But there you go - men are from Mars, women really are from Venus.
Anyway, finding myself in the classic male crisis situation of having to buy something nice for my wife but having no clue as to what to get her, I put into action a tried-and-tested strategy: I planted myself firmly in the cosmetics section of the World Traveller Duty Free Shop and adopted a facial expression which was half confusion, half outright panic. This ruse never fails: within moments, I was approached by one of the ladies who works in the shop and who is, presumably, trained to spot the presence of any married Neanderthal such as myself who is facing the `wife gift dilemma.'
I explained my problem to her, how perfume would not cut it this time and how I desperately needed to find another form of spousal propitiation. She responded by asking a question cunningly designed, I believe, to diagnose the depths of my ignorance: `What kind of skin does she have?' she asked. `Well, it sort of covers her whole body and it's kind of, umm, whitish pink in colour. I guess. Is that any good as an answer?' I responded, looking hopefully at the lady for signs that this was the kind of information she needed.
Having thus established that she was dealing with an extreme case of male incompetence and insensitivity, the lady then asked about my wife's age. `Thirty-nine.' I answered. `Have you thought of anti-ageing cosmetics?' was the follow-up question. Anti-ageing cosmetics? `Do you think that's, err, wise? Wouldn't a gift like that have to be rather carefully stage-managed?' I asked somewhat hesitantly. I had visions of any box marked `anti-ageing' being as welcome a gift for my wife as one marked `emergency weight loss pills' or `excess facial hair remover.' `That's all right, sir, no need to worry' the lady reassured me, `We don't actually use that phrase on the packet. And such products actually start for those aged thirty-five.' Relief; problem solved; male ineptitude once again overcome by female omnicompetence.
On the flight back, I found myself reflecting on how the whole notion of an anti-ageing product is so typical of the Western world in which we live, a world which has made a veritable cult out of youth. Indeed, so many of our modern cultural fetishes speak so clearly of this obsession: fashion, sport, celebrity - all either pander to, or are in their very essence celebrations of, the young, the vibrant, the unwrinkly.
Why youth is to be so prized cannot, I suspect, be separated from such social (and, let's face it, economic) fetishes. Youth probably started its inexorable rise to importance with the development of production based economies in the early modern era where the ability to produce was crucial - a point which was a bit of a downer for women past the age of childbearing and thus no longer capable of the most obvious contribution to economic productivity. This is certainly a factor in the disproportionate focus on older women exhibited by that most medieval-looking of early modern of phenomena, the witch trial. Then, with the advent of consumption as the key factor driving Western economies, the opening up of easy credit, and the identification of youth and all things youthful as vast marketing opportunities, the triumph of the young and the beautiful was guaranteed. Even in societies that modernized without the obvious abandonment of feudal values, such as those in the Far East, youth is slowly coming into its own: on a recent trip to Korea I was struck by the awkward conflict between the typical Confucian veneration of age and the obviously booming - and somewhat anomalous - market for plastic surgery. Anyway, so much for the hard-nosed economic history of youth's importance.
Philosophically, however, we could look at the idolatry of youth in a different way. The obsession with youthfulness is perhaps as much a part of refusing to accept our limits, our mortality, as of anything else. Youth is exceptionally arrogant in its self-belief. Have you ever met an eighteen year old male who did not think, at least in practice, that he was going to live forever? I certainly believed as much at that age. And now, in my late thirties, I do my level best to recapture that feeling - keeping my weight down, running and cycling as much as I can, avidly examining race results to see how many teenagers and twentysomethings I managed to burn off in the last half a mile. Of course, keeping fit is somewhat Janus-faced in this regard: you stay healthy, but the law of diminishing returns with regard to training and results also makes you acutely aware that time is, slowly but surely, closing in on you.
Of course, you don't have to be a keep-fit fanatic to engage in the cult of youth. If you cannot be bothered with all that exercise palaver -- `a bit too much like hard work' - there are other ways of conning yourself into thinking that you are going to cheat the Grim Reaper. For example, I can always tell when I'm waiting at the airport in a line which contains a high proportion of Americans. Such lines usually contain an abnormally high proportion of older men sporting dreadful toupees, dye-jobs, and obvious hair-transplants. Not that Americans are peculiarly depraved when it comes to bad strategies with regard to hair; I suspect they simply have more money to indulge in such disasters and live in a culture where people are too afraid to state the obvious. Why, I ask myself, would someone who weighs 300 pounds and is obviously the wrong side of sixty bother wearing such a dreadful orange toupee? But there you go; it happens all too frequently; and the rest of us must learn to deal with it.
Yet there is an even more sinister side to the cult of youth than even the wearing of orange toupees. For all that youth and youthfulness are great marketing opportunities in contemporary Western society, for all that they represent a desire to avoid facing the reality of the progression of time and the inevitability of our own mortality, they are also inextricably linked with an obvious childishness or infantilism in society in general. As youth has become something which is aesthetically desirable, so the immature values of youth have become increasingly acceptable within adult society as a whole. Just look at the behaviour of the celebrities who play such a profound role in the world in which we live, combining lives of massive overindulgence and childishness (remember how Mariah Carey doesn't `do' stairs? What about Michael Jackson's Neverland Ranch? Or Tom Cruise's prancing around on the chat show sofa?) with ridiculously portentous pronouncements on all manner of adult issues, from abortion to world poverty, about which they really know next to nothing? These are people who have never developed beyond the teenage years; but, while most of us had to make do as teenagers with stealing traffic cones to wear at silly parties, snarling at our parents, and pontificating over a pint or two about how we could change the world, these people have whole TV programs worshipfully devoted to them. The values of the ridiculous and pampered teenage years transformed into the value-system of an entire self-absorbed culture. As youth sells, so, as a result, does immaturity. Hopefully, most of us grew out of teenage silliness; it was fun, but it was right that it came to an end. What is so worrying is that the marketing of youth seems to go hand-in-hand with the promotion of childishness as a way of life; and the societies which are most advanced in terms of their consumer economies are so often the societies where childishness in adult, public life is so prized. Whether it is the infantile black-and-white rhetoric of politicians speaking on complex and subtle issues, the trivialising immaturity of so much postmodern thought, or the constant need for entertainment even in classrooms and church, reversion to childishness seems the order of the day in the West.
Consumerism is often criticized for the way in which it exalts individual choice at the expense of all else, with the result that value becomes simply a function of the marketplace. Yet I would argue that it is not only the fact that consumerism has led to an exaltation of choices in themselves which makes it responsible for the reductionist notion of value; it is the fact that consumerism has actually made the wrong choice. In its identification of youth as the significant market product, it has backed immaturity over age, foolishness over wisdom, know-it-all arrogance over humble acknowledgment of limitations and mortality. And those societies - be they economic states or even local churches - which choose to build themselves on consumerism need to realize sooner rather than later that the easy-credit and self-centredness which lie at the heart of their philosophical project can only manifest themselves in childishness. Childish rhetoric, childish ambitions, childish achievements.
Anti-ageing products are not only risky gifts to buy for your wife; perhaps they are even more dangerous than that. Perhaps they also symbolize a society determined to reverse the aging - or should that be maturing? - process.