“Bankers’ nieces seek perfection”, sneered Dylan in an otherwise rare ode to romantic love, “expecting all the gifts that wise men bring.” He’d clearly been mugging up on his Maslow.
What’s more, once our needs at one level are met, satisfying those at the next is less an option than an existential imperative. Homo sapiens sapiens – doubly wise in that we know that we know – has evolved these past 140,000 years as a problem solver. Confronted with nothing but blue skies, our raison d’etre takes a hammering. Without a problem we have a problem.
Which sheds light on the tendency, of those who seem to have things pretty much sewn up on life’s basics, to reach for the Heidegger, traipse off to India to get Enlightened, strive for better orgasms or spend years in therapy. A few will even see fit to give their vaginas a steam-bath:
The real golden ticket here is the Mugwort V-Steam: You sit on what is essentially a mini-throne, and a combination of infrared and mugwort steam cleanses your uterus, et al. … It is an energetic release – not just a steam douche – that balances female hormone levels. Gwyneth Paltrow, quoted in US Magazine
Laugh if you like but, beyond pointing out – in the unlikely event you hadn’t already grasped this – that Gwynneth’s twaddle can be as dangerous as it is daft, I don’t knock the impulse itself; this easily mocked striving for the sunlit uplands of a wise and joyous liberation we just know can be ours if we only do more yoga, cultivate mindfulness, breathe proper, eat organic, polish the aura, dance like no one is watching and FFS get ourselves off to therapy for work on that toxic relationship with M & D.
I can’t knock it; being myself one of the millions of Western baby-boomers whose entire life experience has been of welfare and prosperity, rule of law, and war as a thing confined to far-off places (with Derry for all practical purposes as distant as Danang). These being Maslow’s ideal conditions, generously extended by Beveridge to working class Brit kids like me, in which to cultivate the desire to self actualise.
I did the seventies full on. Acid? Check. Hippie commune? Check. Exploring my sexuality .. nude encounter groups .. macrobiotics, wholefoods, veganism .. Afghanistan, India .. co-counselling .. workers’ co-op .. meditation .. spiritual guru? Checkity-check. Seen it, done it, got the t-shirt.
No regrets either. A flicker from time to time of embarrassed recall, naturally, but nothing more serious or lasting. Some of the stunts I pulled were daft, mortifyingly self indulgent and in one or two cases downright dangerous. One or two others crossed lines I’m not proud of crossing but, those apart, I’m glad of my ridiculous excesses. Born in privileged times, I grabbed like a kid in a sweetshop the goodies on offer. Why do otherwise? Least of all out of puritanism; a self indulgence in a class of its own and of little use to those shut out of the candy store by material circumstance, and in any case – Maslow again – more focused on that bakery down the street and ringed by armed guards.
That said, a time comes – in my case at the disgracefully late age of fifty – when we realise that, to borrow from the Jack Nicholson/Helen Hunt movie, this is As Good As It Gets. We may still meditate, take care over what we eat, salute the sun with verve and panache or even pop the odd hallucinogen. But we’re no longer haunted by that sense of a vastly better way of being; a somewhere-over-the-rainbow we’ll one day reach by such roads. Call it cynicism if you must. I call it freedom. Nicholson, as the misanthropic and OCD ridden Melvin Udall, was even more cheesed off than usual when he hurled the question – what if this is as good as it gets? – into a shrink’s waiting room. Me, I find blessed relief in concluding that in all likelihood the answer is yes: this likely is as good as it gets so why not Just Get On With It. Farewell preposterous hope – and all your attendant hysterics.
Now let’s turn – since Gwyneth’s not your common or garden space cadet but a movie star to boot – to celebrity endorsement. She put in a good showing, aided by great cast and glittering Stoppard script, as bard’s bedmate in Shakespeare in Love. I also know that a bedmate in what she, bless her, takes to be real life was Coldplay’s Chris Martin. That’s it though: sum total of my knowledge on matters Paltrow tilI I learned the other day, one Graun piece leading to another, that when not flushing coffee through her colon – coffee she doesn’t drink, you understand – she’s big on the virtues of steam of mugwort to the pitsy-patsy. (Surprisingly, medical experts are less enamoured but what would they know?) My follow up studies uncovered warnings of a truth similarly lost on the medical profession – that by wearing a bra, sisters, you’re just asking for cancer – and a lifestyle mag promoting her company Goop and offering jade eggs for your yoni at $66 a pop.
Celebrity endorsement works. Don’t take my word on this. Just leave room for the probability that when such corporate giants as Nike, Coca Cola, Chevrolet and McDonalds hand over big bucks for Michael Jordan’s name on their products, they know what they’re doing.
Of course, we’ll be hard put to get anyone to admit or even realise they chose their sneakers on the basis that what’s good for MJ is good for them. Celebrity endorsement, like advertising and propaganda in general, works in the twilight zones of cognition, not the full glare of conscious reasoning.
Of itself that doesn’t make the equation irrational, mind. The Jordan brand will take a hit if the sneakers fall apart after three months and that’s a consideration, second only to size of Nike’s cheques, MJ will have weighed before hopping into bed with a company which will in turn have deep screened for skeletons in the Jordan closet. But such a calculation, if it features at all in the purchasing decision, is by no means the most important. In sales and advertising it’s an article of faith, from plushest Madison Avenue boardroom to lowliest call centre, that the game they’re in is the sale not of products and services, but dreams.
But we’ve moved on from dreams. Now I’m interested in our underestimation of the role played by unconscious thought in life’s nitty-gritty warp and weft. I’m not talking Oedipus or Electra – nothing so darkly exciting – but how, to free up conscious awareness for higher order tasks, we hand over responsibility for mundane decision making to lower order logic gates and switches; cogs and wheels in the mind’s basement, long forgotten and in the main no more the servants of conscious will than are digestion or cell renewal.
The corollary of that underestimation is overestimation of the role played by conscious reason – an overestimation that leads us to another. In an age where the profit motive drives unstinting research on newer and better techniques for influencing the thoughts and deeds of the masses, we respond with indignation to any suggestion that our thoughts may not, after all, be our own. Does propaganda work? Sure it does, but not on me! My opinions – coolest sneakers … which party can be trusted with The Economy … which bad guy in the global south must be Taken Out Now – are independently arrived at by my meticulous study and entirely rational processing of comprehensive, relevant and accurate information from unimpeachable sources.
Yeah, right. If the billions spent on celebrity endorsement aren’t enough to correct so quaint a belief, we might do a lot worse than look to the findings, much replicated, of Asch, Milgram and Zimbardo. We might also read the hypothetical but depressingly plausible scenario laid out in OffGuardian, just days before most Westerners sat down to a slap up Xmas dinner.
That’s not to say everyone in the market for sneakers will opt for a pair of Michael Jordans. Still less that women are queuing up in droves for vapour of mugwort taken down under. But if, for reasons filed earlier under Promise of Perfection, we are of a mind to take our self actualisation to the next level, the MJs and Gwyneths of this world will surely be there for us.