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Lifestyles of the Rich and the Rest of Us: Rodeo Drive vs. the Garden : Hedonism: There are two kind of pleasures--kinetic and steady-state, Epicurus taught us. Some thoughts on materialism and happiness.

May 06, 1990|David Glidden | David Glidden is a professor of philosophy at the University of California, Riverside

RIVERSIDE — In Los Angeles the middle class is fleeing, heading inland, squeezed out between the rich and poor, leaving a city divided into zones by an economic apartheid.

"Community" and "compassion" were supposed to be watchwords for the '90s, from the Beat Generation and the Me Generation to the Caring Generation, next. But the only sense of community around Los Angeles today is gated. Compassion is an armed response. Those who can afford it send their kids to private schools and keep out of public places. The lifestyles of the rich and famous--once high objects of amusement in the films of the bourgeoisie by Luis Bunel, Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol--are taken very seriously these days. The moviegoer and consumer lost their sense of humor and became covetous, instead. It took some time for this to happen.

In my youth I was once invited to a dinner at an elegant chateau outside Paris. My hostess was an heiress who took pity on my ways. She proposed a pedagogic dinner party, where I might appreciate the manners of the upper classes, the different glasses that went with different wines. I was given procedural instructions, sotto voce, to take me through successive courses and assorted conversations on whatever topic might arise. The guest of honor was a man from Arizona who had made a killing on tomato futures and was buying up antiques in France, to show them off in Phoenix. After dinner he blew his nose on a lacy linen napkin. It all seemed pretty funny at the time. American dollars couldn't buy French taste or manners, not to mention happiness, in 1969.

A few years later, I was unemployed and living in Los Angeles during the glory days of Chablis and brie. I came into some unexpected cash and promptly spent it on my friends, who had been housing me and feeding me for free. I gave a luncheon at the Polo Lounge in the Beverly Hills Hotel, thanks to the lessons I had learned in Paris. We all were movie lovers and hoped to see Francois Truffaut, who was then in residence. His homage to Hollywood's manipulative imagination, "La Nuit Americaine," had recently appeared.

Later, when I had a job, I kept up the image of assorted movies that I'd seen, imitating the discrete charms of the bourgeoisie, dining pretentiously every few months or so at Le St. Germain, Le Restaurant or Le Bistro. They were au courant back then. There were also occasional purchases: a Cuisinart, a Finnish lamp, a double-breasted linen blazer, out-of-the-ordinary extravagances.

By the 1980s, a decade later, it cost a real fortune to imitate that sort of life again. It became pointlessly prohibitive, once prices rose up out of sight and new product lines emerged. What's more, the irony had died, just as the difference disappeared between real life and acting out cinematic fictions. Those who followed mannered movies ostentatiously displayed on the silver screen lost their sense of play and pretense and simply wanted to be rich. What was once a caricature of wealth became a role model.

Will the 1990s be all that different from the '80s? So far it doesn't seem so. A materialistic vision remains still frozen in the frame. The spending spree continues, judging from two recent movies, "Joe & the Volcano" and "Pretty Woman."

In the first, a lowly guy named Joe is given carte blanche on someone else's credit cards, buys a wardrobe in Manhattan, takes a voyage with an heiress and together they are saved by a matching set of fabulously expensive designer steamer trunks that float. In "Pretty Woman," a prostitute is made respectable by obscene amounts of money spent lavishly on Rodeo Drive. In the end she gets her man and all his moola, too.

In both films, scripted moralisms piously come and go, but the audience isn't fooled for a second. Their eye is on the goods. When the hooker and her hero jet off to San Francisco on a private jet, an audience in Riverside began to cheer. The irony was lost on them, as it was meant to be. It isn't just a movie anymore; it's commercial entertainment, the kind that makes the audience want to go right out and buy a Lotto ticket or steal a Porsche out of a parking lot.

The time is right to reconsider what hedonism means, by rereading, for example, what ancient Epicurus wrote, 2,400 years ago. He was one of the first philosophers to come right out and say it, that happiness is pleasure. But not all pleasures are the same.

The pleasures Epicurus found came in two distinct varieties. The first were pleasures of a steady-state, contentment it was said, not so much a yearning as a satisfied, peaceful state of mind. The second sort were circumstantial fancies, kinetic pleasures, responding to momentary needs or wants, yearnings that continually can change and yield only temporary satisfactions. Cheap thrills or expensive ones, depending on your means.

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