Saturday, 3 November 2012

Paradoxical Materialism

"The stinking rich will always be with us,” I said. “It’s in the Bible.”

“I thought it was the poor who will always be with us,” said the other guy. “Jeez, how long is it going to take this idiot to let us in? All he has to do is push a button.”

“Not so easy,” I said. “There must be a hundred buttons to choose from in that digital fortress.”

We were sitting in the other guy’s car looking at the big sliding gate, waiting for Cupcaked to work out the difference between his arse and his elbow.

“It’s in both the New and Old Testicle,” I went on, “So every exploiter of labour, whether Christian or Jew, feels perfectly justified in paying his workers a pittance, while amassing as much personal wealth as he possibly can. God gave him permission. Ah, at last!”

While the gate got out of our way, the other guy started up, engaged gear, and then stalled the engine. We began to roll back towards the street and there was a long blast from a passing vehicle.

“Nice driving,” I said. “You nearly managed to put a dent in the newest and biggest Merc in the country.”

Cupcake met us in the driveway and indicated where we should park. He seemed pleased to see us.

“I need to show you around,” he said, leading the way towards the house. “You see this?” pointing to the big pond with water feature at the centre of the circular drive. “It’s full of koi, 2k apiece. Two thousand rand for one fucking fish!”  And he spat on the water in disgust. A fish immediately surfaced and made short work of the insult.

We skirted a bed of dwarf cypresses and followed him across an expanse of meticulously raked gravel.

“This is supposed to be a Zen garden,” he said, dragging his feet and then trampling a bonsai oak. We arrived at the front door and stepped inside the grand residence.

Modern, airy, full of light.

“You see what I mean?” said Cupcake, as if we knew what he had been ranting about in his head. “Marble throughout, even on the terraces. Rosa Aurora imported from Portugal”

“Cold in winter,” said the other guy, trying to be helpful.

“Underfloor heating!” snapped Cupcake. “This is the fucking atrium. His Highness likes to lie here a lot.” There were some very comfortable looking recliners. “Looking out to sea by day, and up at the fiery firmament at night, glass of single malt in hand.”

“Single malt?” I said. “Sounds promising.”

Cupcake gave me a hostile look and said, “This is what I mean. This place starts corrupting you the moment you step inside.”

He led the way to a sitting room with a fireplace.

“You see that mantelpiece and the surround? Granite. Stolen from the Acropolis, or the Parthenon, or somewhere. This is the sound system.” He opened the door of a cabinet to reveal electronic equipment. “Speakers in every room. The place is wired so your remote works anywhere in the house. What do you want to listen to? Graceland?Now let me show you the fucking summer lounge.”

The summer lounge also served as the dining room.

“You see these art works everywhere? Very classy, you think. This guy must be a connoisseur. Such good taste. Like fuck! All this cunt does is sign the cheques. The architect designs the house, the design company furnishes it, down to last detail, and the landscape guru sorts out the garden. This is how it works. And check this thing.”

We were heading for the kitchen and in a corner of some interim space stood an old fashioned jukebox.

“This is a genuine imitation jukebox from the 1950s. Art deco crap. You put your dime in, the mechanical arm selects a 7-single, and you’re listening to Fats Domino or Little Richard, crystal clear because it’s all digital and not really the real thing.”

We breezed through the designer kitchen and out to the breakfast nook, which was a kind of glass-walled rondavel jutting out into the garden.

“Now let me show you the master bedroom and hot tub spa,” said Cupcake.

“Don’t bother,” I said. “We’ve got the picture.”

We went and stood on the main terrace and looked out over about a thousand hectares of lawn to the lagoon and the sea in the distance.

“You see those tall palms next to the swimming pool?” said Cupcake. “They were brought in by helicopter. And the pool is kept heated twelve months of the year, even though he is hardly ever in residence.”

“Very nice,” I said. “Now how about offering us some of that famous whisky?”

We made ourselves comfortable in the atrium and were soon joined by Cupcake bearing a tray loaded with a bottle of single malt, ice, Sparletta and glasses.

“This is the life,’ I said.

“Yah,” said the other guy. “This isn’t work. Only a fool would complain about a job like this.” He was looking at Cupcake. “What’s your problem?”

“Problem?” said Cupcake. “This house is my problem, mate. This house is a beautiful woman without a vagina. You know what I mean?”

We looked out at the distant strip of blue sea, with the line of white breakers in front and the blue sky at the back, and thought about it.

“Sorry, I don’t get it,” said the other guy.

“Not a bad metaphor,” I said, savouring the subtle blend of highland peat and sheep’s piss infused in water from a bonny brook. “To fall in love with the beautiful exterior, only to discover that one can never get at the honey pot inside must leave one feeling desolate, man, desolate.”

“Okay, now I see,” said the other guy. “You’re not content with living in luxury if you don’t also possess the fortune that makes it possible.”

“Oh, for Christ’s sake!” said Cupcake. “That’s not what I mean at all. What I mean is that all this is initially seductive, but it’s superficial and largely worthless. I’ve been housesitting the place for three weeks now, and it’s making me suicidal. It’s like living in an empty waiting room, it’s so impersonal and cold. And it doesn’t make the owner happy, either. You should see him. He’s 50, fat, got an ulcer, and just had a triple bypass. He’s divorced and his kids only contact him when they want more money. And you should see his neighbour up the road. One of the richest men in South Africa and a real miserable looking bastard who wouldn’t piss on you if you were on fire.”

“Hey,” I said, “That must be the old dude we nearly crashed into. Does he look like a malevolent toad? Like he’s got no chin he’s so obese?’

“That’s him,’ Sid Cupcake.

“So would you prefer to be looking after some poky two-roomed apartment in a dilapidated block in a rundown part of the city?” asked the other guy. “Where the entrance smells of dustbins and broken plumbing, and there’s a screaming baby next door, and dope fiends overhead trying to kill each other?”

“No, I wouldn’t,’ said Cupcake. “But that’s not what I’m getting at. Look, for the first week or so I couldn’t believe my luck and I was beginning to think that this way of life was what one should aspire to. But then I started to feel uneasy and restless. There was something wrong. It took another three days of worrying about it before I suddenly realised what it was about. The materialism paradox.”

“Too much value attached to the goodies money can buy?” I said. “Tell that to a man who lives in a shack.”

“Why is it a paradox?” asked the other guy.

“Because,’ said Cupcake, “I realised that the millionaire who owns this mansion is, on a certain level, far less of a materialist than I am. Or the man in the shack.

“How so?’

“Look,” said Cupcake, “Let’s take my old Corolla, for example. It’s a crappy old car and it gives me a lot of grief, but I can’t afford an upgrade. When it performs, I’m grateful; and when it misbehaves, I curse and threaten it. I have fond memories of having sex in the back seat, and every dent in the bodywork has a story to tell. You see, I have a relationship with that car. Now take the millionaire. He has a sports car and an SUV standing in the garage. They are hardly ever driven and their owner looks upon them with a total lack of sentiment. He sees them for what they are: disposable commodities that come with a price tag. He values them for the advertising hype about performance, craftsmanship and elegant styling, but only because it confers status. And it’s the same with everything else. This house, the contents, the garden, the fish – they have value for him only because he can afford them and put them on display. He doesn’t relate to the material world the way we do.”

“Well,” I said, “I suppose you could be onto something there. It’s a different way of looking at it. But surely you’re not suggesting this millionaire has a superior value system to yours?”

“Of course not,” said Cupcake. “What I’m saying is that he has become detached from the material objects he possesses. What he values most is the prestige associated with conspicuous consumption. He judges his own success not by how much he enjoys the fruits of his wealth but by the respect, admiration and envy his wealth is able to command. That’s why people like him are driven to make more and more money. There’s always someone able to behave more ostentatiously than you, though, so satisfaction is forever fleeting. I can see what it’s about and it fills me with feelings of meaninglessness and futility. I can’t take this sinecure any longer.”

“Hey, take it easy, man,” said the other guy, getting up to fill the glasses. Cupcake was showing signs of psychological distress, and on the point of becoming seriously distraught. “Keep a grip on the here-and-now. Hold on to the reality of genuine materialism, not that other kak. Here, drink this. This thousand-bucks whisky tastes better with lemonade and gives you more of a kick.”

“Yah,’ I said. “Just because this scumbag materialist has lost his soul down the toilet doesn’t mean we can’t try an wake the dead in his marble-floored mausoleum. We could start with a pool party. Tomorrow.”

“A topless pool party sounds cool,’ said the other guy. “With a venue like this a whole new world of possibilities could open up. What sports car did you say this creep has got in the garage?”

The flicker of interest in Cupcake’s eyes was encouraging. It meant that futility and meaninglessness hadn’t gained the upper hand just yet.

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