Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Permissable Pleasures

Our new elite of bobos have constructed new social codes that characteristically synthesize bourgeois self-control and bohemian emancipation. Now we have a new set of standards to distinguish permissible pleasures from impermissible ones. We have new social codes to regulate the senses.

To get a firsthand glimpse of these new codes, go down to your local park in the summertime. You’ll see women jogging or running in sports bras and skin-tight spandex pants. Imagine if the Puritans could get a load of this! Women running around in their underwear in public. They’d pull out the tracts on Sodom and Gomorrah. Even a cosmopolitan historian such as Edward Gibbon would take a first glance at these women and begin speculating about the decline of empires. But look at the bra joggers more closely. It’s not wanton hedonism you see on their faces. They’re not exposing themselves for the sake of exhibitionism. Any erotic effect of their near nudity is counteracted by their expressions of grim determination. They are working out. They are working. They’re building their muscles. They’re setting goals and striving to achieve them. You never see them smile. On the contrary, some of them seem to be suffering. These near-naked young women are self-discipline personified—no pain, no gain— and the reason they are practically naked, they will tell you, is that this sort of clothing is most practical, most useful for strenuous exercise. What we see at the park is near nudity, but somehow it’s nudity in the service of achievement. Dionysius, the god of abandon, has been reconciled with Prometheus, the god of work.

The Bobos take a utilitarian view of pleasure. Any sensual pleasure that can be edifying or life-enhancing is celebrated. On the other hand, any pleasure that is counterproductive or dangerous is judged harshly. So exercise is celebrated, but smoking is now considered a worse sin than at least 5 of the 10 commandments. Coffee becomes the beverage of the age because it stimulates mental acuity, while booze is out of favor because it dulls the judgment. You can go to the beach near naked in a skimpy bathing suit and that is normal, but if you neglect to put on sun block to protect against skin cancer people are astonished. It is admirable to eat healthy, but we use the word guilt more often in connection with unhealthy foods— high fat, high sodium, or high calorie—than in any other context. Contemplative pleasures like taking a long bath are admired, but dangerous pleasures like speeding on a motorcycle are disdained, and driving without a seatbelt is positively immoral. Sports that are aerobic, like cross-country skiing and Rollerblading, thrive, while sports that do little to improve cardiovascular health, like pool, bowling, and Ping-Pong, are low class. Even an afternoon spent playing with the kids is thought to be “a good thing” because we are invariably helping the little ones improve some set of skills (watch the Bobo parents taking part in their kids’ “play”) or at least we are building better relationships or self-esteem (“Good job! Good for you!”).

We Bobos have taken the bourgeois imperative to strive and succeed, and we have married it to the bohemian impulse to experience new sensations. The result is a set of social regulations constructed to encourage pleasures that are physically, spiritually, and intellectually useful while stigmatizing ones that are useless or harmful. In this way the Protestant Work Ethic has been replaced by the Bobo Play Ethic, which is equally demanding. Everything we do must serve the Life Mission, which is cultivation, progress, and self-improvement.

It’s perfectly fitting that the two leisure-time institutions that have thrived during the Bobo age are health clubs and museums. Both places offer sensual satisfactions in uplifting settings. At health clubs you can enjoy the pleasure of an ennobling muscle burn—you get off the Stairmaster, exhausted and sweaty after 35 minutes of pure exertion, and admire your virtuous self in the floor- to-ceiling mirrors. Meanwhile, at museums you can luxuriate in a sensual cornucopia, enjoying the colors and forms of the paint and materials, while being edified by informative Acoustiguides, scholarly texts on the walls, and the wonderful bookshop downstairs. Health clubs and museums have become the chapels and cathedrals of our age, the former serving to improve the body, the latter the mind.

It’s also fitting that we Bobos have taken the ultimate symbol of Dionysian release, the party, and merged it with work. A couple of years ago in the New Yorker, James Atlas published an essay called “The Fall of Fun,” which pretty accurately captured the transformation of the literary party scene and shed light on educated-class parties as a whole.

Next to the writers, poets, and essayists of earlier decades, Atlas argued, today’s creative types are a pretty tame bunch. He recalled that the literary giants he admired during his student days at Harvard drank and caroused with abandon. “My gurus were the famously hard-drinking literati of an earlier epoch: a shaky hung- over Robert Lowell chain-smoking mentholated Trues at a seminar table in the Quincy House basement; a drunken Norman Mailer brandishing a bottle of whiskey and baiting the crows in Sanders Theatre; Allen Ginsberg toking up at a Signet Society dinner and chanting his poems to the hypnotic accompaniment of a harmonium. Postwar poetry was a hymn of excess.”

These were artists living the bohemian way. Atlas described the booze-filled gatherings of the old literati, the smoky parties, the embarrassing scenes, the bitter feuds, and the ensuing divorces. Even the diaries of austere Edmund Wilson are filled with adultery and lewd drunkenness; Edmund found himself one day doing a threesome on a couch. Many of these people, in fact, caroused themselves to an early grave. Delmore Schwartz died at fifty- two; John Berryman killed himself at fifty-seven; Shirley Jackson died at forty-five; Robert Lowell died at sixty, relatively old for his group.

But nowadays people who drink and carouse that way are likely to be greeted with medical diagnoses—alcoholism, drug addiction, depression. Even in what used to be the bohemian quarters, as James Atlas eloquently testifies, the days of booze and brawling are over. Now parties tend to be work parties; a glass or two of white wine, a little networking with editors and agents, and then it’s home to the kids. Almost nobody drinks at lunch anymore. People don’t gather around kitchen tables staying up nights imbibing and talking. Everybody is healthier, more orderly, and more success oriented.

The same pattern has been acted out in other circles. Journalists used to be smoking, drinking vulgarians. Now, next to the writers, poets and essayists of earlier as the older reporters never stop reminding us, the campaign buses are filled with mild college grads sipping bottied water. Nobody gets drunk at journalist parties, and anybody who did would be regarded as a loser. Academic social life, the articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education tell us, is drier and tamer than it was two decades ago. Even Hollywood, which should be the epicenter of hedonism, is overrun by health consciousness, career consciousness, and (relative) moderation. More Bobos pass out business cards at parties than pass out under the table.

When it comes to alcohol consumption more generally, we are probably living through the most abstemious era since Prohibition, maybe in American history. In our age all the old terms are fading away—sours, slings, high- balls, fizzes, nightcaps—despite a little self-conscious nostalgia at the cigar and martini bars. On cable I recently stumbled across an old episode of Match Game ‘73. Six celebrities were asked to complete the phrase “half,“ and the contestant had to guess how they had filled in the blank. He guessed “half-drunk.” That was a good answer because four of the six celebrities chose either “half-drunk” or “half-crocked.” Today if the same Match Game question were asked, the most common answer might be “half-and-half.”

One of the reasons the old bohemians were so wild and free was that they were rebelling against square bourgeois mores. But once the bourgeoisie assimilated the liberated culture of the 1960s, there was not much left to rebel against. Once bohemian symbols were absorbed into the mainstream, they lost some of their countercultural panache. The novels of Henry Miller seemed cool when they offended middle-class librarians, but they don’t seem so daring now. Nude performance art may have been a thrilling statement once, but it lost its cachet when it became titillation for the tourist trade. When drugs were discovered by disco kids from Queens and yuppies from Wall Street in the seventies and eighties, naturally they seemed less like mind-expanding tools and more like grubby playthings. Living for pleasure no longer makes the same rebellious cultural statement it once did.

Moreover, playtime in the earlier decades seemed more like release. People were stuck in boring jobs, so wanted a little revelry at night. Creative types felt themselves stuck in a boring society, so wanted to up-end the rules. But for Bobos work is not boring. It’s challenging and interesting. So maybe it’s not surprising they should make play more like work. Bobos are reconcilers, after all, so maybe it is inevitable they would strive to blur their duties with their pleasures, making the former more enjoyable and the latter more tame.

- David Brooks

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