The thing about absurdity is it’s like a mirage. If you look at it the right way, it disappears.
There are a lot of things you can call thinking that don’t correspond to reality. You can go anywhere from inaccurate to insane. The world makes me attached to the word ridiculous. Ludicrous is popular with me too. But both of those sound like a clock, like clock hands going all the way around, and I don’t want that. Inane, I think is a bit too nasal. Absurd! That’s the word. Absurd!
So we all have things. (Let’s sing our way into luxury.)
Everybody has some thing. I feel confident with that statement.
(If I was out on a date with it, I’d feel especially confident, because I’d be a lot more interesting than it.)
We all have things, and many of us have the same things.
Us adults, us older folks, we have big things: we have cars, we have houses, we have land; some of us adults have land that we own. We have large clothes, we have bicycles, we have kayaks; we have recreational equipment. And we have intangible things, but this is about things tangible.
If you were to go back 100 years, people would be flabbergasted at some of the things that we have.
Also if you were to go to other parts of the world, you’ll find people who would be flabbergasted to see so many people own the things that so many of us own.
These things, then, are luxuries.
Although they are very commonplace around us, although many people have them– millions and millions of people have houses, millions and millions of people have cars, millions and millions of people have boats — there are millions and millions of people who would never consider owning these things a possibility. And so we can call them luxuries.
I think as modern people, we don’t really understand how luxury items work. We know how to buy them; that much we have been shown; that’s been made pretty easy for us. But we don’t know so much how to have them. Let me give an example.
Where does the lawn come from? It’s a good example, because it’s a pretty ridiculous, I mean, absurd thing. It’s a big empty expanse of grass for people who aren’t golfing. What for? Who was the first person to have a lawn? And who looked at one and said, Oh, what a great idea, I want one too?
The lawn comes from England, land of the landed gentry. It was a nice sign of status among this group, to own land they didn’t need to farm. A lawn says I have so much land that I can just let this land be, and just look at it. This is where flower gardening comes from too. For the folks in that weird little group known as he aristocracy, demonstrating how much money you had (by wasting it) was crucial for survival. You had to waste it in interesting ways or no one would give you any more.
So these folks would also have peacocks and tigers or anything on their lawn: anything to make themselves stand out, anything to be different and fashionable. When your income depends a lot on the favor of others, showing them a good time they’ve never seen before is paramount. That’s crazy, isn’t it? And we still do that too.
And we still have lawns. But one thing we forgot, one thing that was maybe taken for granted by this group, was that at the time of the lawn’s invention, nobody could afford a lawn unless they could afford at least one guy, and probably more like ten, to take care of it for them. Back then, these guys became a society of their own—the workers and artists who take the land of the landed gentry and make it stand out—and then this art comes to America. It’s an import we have. And it brings with it a lot of neat principles, about visual effect and emotion; it’s difficult to turn the very earth into art, to make those kinds of changes well; the effect is very powerful, as you know if you’ve ever been in one of those spaces. Or maybe you’ve made one or two yourself.
There’s a famous vocabulary that goes along with this art, a prime example of which being the word folly, which appears in a lot of discussion of English gardens and means stupid sculpture (or really, anything stupid that you would put in the middle of your garden for fun, to show that you are a fun person). Look, I put this ridiculous thing in my garden! Isn’t it ridiculous? I mean, absurd? <snorting sounds> And now, look at us here in America, now–as I drive home, I see a lot of people have them too.
But they didn’t understand that it was a joke.
And they are out trimming around the folly all weekend, doing manual labor to preserve what someone else’s sense of humor thought was a great joke several hundred years ago.
Back then, you would put a folly in your garden to make fun of someone you had a bad conversation with at a party the week before. Oh Sebastian, put a folly in the shape of a rabbit, because I made such fun of Jim’s teeth last night! The point of the whole thing was to show off not your gardening skills, but your thinking.* Maybe we thought so hard that we forgot that. But now, here we are imitating it, hundreds of years later, and we forgot the part about the servants– made ourselves the servants, ourselves.
And so you’ll meet people, and they are proud of their landscaping—oh, look what I did—and it’s hard not to laugh at them. Because what they think is a status symbol — my yard is nicer than your yard—is really a demonstration that they are happy to work like serfs for no pay, without even knowing why.** Honey, let’s get an even bigger yard!
So I’m driving around looking at follies. There are plenty: that guy has a some weird stone obelisk. There’s another one, a little ‘basket’ of flowers.
And a giant car. And a giant house. If you are a younger person, an event the odds of which go up everyday, you might not know that every room in a modern houses is much bigger that a similar room in a house built even forty years ago. If you try to buy modern furniture and put it in an older house, it won’t just not fit, it will look ludicrous, I mean, ridiculous, even if you can get it in through the roof. In this more recent past, fort years ago, perhaps people understood better how much more labor was involved in maintaining, cleaning —just having– a larger possession. A larger having.
Something else we forgot, I guess.
So we work like slaves to create the illusion of wealth—on credit, right? So I will work, unpaid, to create the illusion of wealth, having bought things with money that I paid additional money for. And the illusion itself is a joke that history has played on me. And that was a really great folly I passed right there: some flowers and an American flag.
People spend the weekends vacuuming out their giant cars, to make them pristine, vacuuming out their giant houses, to make them pristine; mowing their giant lawns, with tractors that they are then going to have to clean; in short, acting like servants because they have so much and no servants. Having forgotten that the people who were their original role models in having so much didn’t have it by themselves; they had it because they were oppressing people. But if we want to look like we have so much, we’ll just oppress ourselves, then. That works.
By the way, I should mention that we are imitating this same group when we keep animals such as dogs and horses as pets.
In Europe, far fewer people have lawns. And most houses are half or a quarter of the size of houses here. And people in Europe travel about four times as much, often for as much as a month out of every year.
It’s called cultural preservation, isn’t it? It’s also called doing what you want.
Do you think that’s because they were there, and they saw the original lawns? At least their great grandparents did?
I’m sorry, I have to cut this article short. I don’t have time to think. I have to take care of my crap.
*And your wit, in wasting your resources. This is what is known as class. (You’re welcome, Salman Rushdie.)
**Unless, of course, what they really want to be professional landscape architects, if they have a passion for designing with land. but I don’t think that passion is too common. I think a lot fewer people have it than don’t.
*** I appreciate your adding typos to my blog, only because God knows what else you’d be doing with your time.