The holiday season is upon us and, as someone who moonlights in retail, I’m overwhelmed daily by the sense of coerced “gift giving” that permeates New York. For every commercial that promises a “December to remember” or assures us that “every kiss begins with Kay,” I tend to miss the attempted sentimentalism and just see companies demanding the hard cold cash I don’t have.
At college for the past four years I think we were immune to some of this guilt and social pressure. Holidays at Hamilton meant fasting through finals and Christmas themed parties (which were the same as other parties, only we had red and green solo cups). When our exams were over we came home, collapsed on our couches and ate and slept like the hungry, happy children we were.
While I’m not claiming that to be more any more an adult today than I was a year ago, I am seeing much more of the adult world. Namely, those four weeks between Thanksgiving and the New Year when all you hear is holiday music and everyone is collectively stressed about dealing with their families and end-of-the-year projects. And money. Dear God, the money. Was there ever a time when I thought about anything else? I can’t even make it through a chapter of Proust without checking my bank account and making a budget for the next day, which I proceed to break when I realize just how hopeless my financial situation is.
As a protagonist, Marcel is more anxious than stressed. His life, which consists mainly of vacations and dinners designed around his frail health, doesn’t exactly invite the kind of stress of, I don’t know, facing foreclosure or being fired. However, the novelist makes his reader privy to Marcel’s perpetual anxiety about love, be it romantic or familial (or some Freudian combination of the two).
And Marcel’s anxieties are perhaps so readable because, as trivial as they may seem on a macroscopic level, at their most basic level they are applicable to our own:
“It is sad,” La Bruyere tells us, “to love without an ample fortune.” There is nothing for it but to try to eradicate little by little our desire for that pleasure.
If I may modernize: It is sad, everyone seems to tell us, to do anything without money in the bank. If you don’t have a disposable income, as in, a light-your-cigarette-with-a-$100-bill income, you’re screwed, give up now, you won’t be able to live like a person, go home. But instead of this novel behaving as an echo chamber for my own financial woes, it instead subverts the expectation of material pleasure. Proust writes:
In my case, however, the material means had been forthcoming, but at the same moment, if not by logical effect, at any rate as a fortuitous consequence of that initial success, my pleasure had been snatched from me. As, for that matter, it seems as thought it must always be… If we succeed in overcoming the force of circumstances, nature at once shifts the battle ground, placing it within ourselves, and effects a gradual change in our hearts until they desire something other than what they are about to possess.
And so on. As Proust explains, “the possession of our happiness is wrested from us, or rather it is that very possession which nature, with diabolical cunning, uses to destroy our happiness.” Again, to modernize, we simply can’t be satisfied with what we possess, and, as far as I’m concerned, this renders possessions ultimately worthless. Isn’t that what Christmas is all about? So why should I be stressed about what I don’t have, because my desires right now will only be supplanted by desires for new things. So I’m finishing out 2012 trying to think about valuing the things that can’t be priced. And, as cheesy as all this is, it’s something I desperately need. I guess it means a lot more reading Proust and blogging, huh?
Image courtesy of Anthropologie, quotes from Within a Budding Grove (274)