other people

Other lamps, other minds – some reflections on modern interior design

Lampa Arnolfinich

A recent visit to a dentist put me in a state of shock; not on account of the drilling, which was hardly a pin-prick, but on account of the waiting room. Entering it, I found myself in a hostile space, barren, barf-colored, lined with pseudo-carpet with intentionally woven holes and pseudo-wood painted a clearly artificial color, with square, extremely uncomfortable chairs with sinking seats and back supports which ended just in the place calculated to give no support yet jab the kidneys painfully. In the WC, I discovered a square toilet seat: thank God, I did not have to sit on it because I would not know how to without jabbing my knees. On the wall of the waiting room there was a (flat panel) TV which there was no way to turn off or down. In other words, the waiting room seemed designed on the McDonald’s principle — McDonald’s seats are famously uncomfortable so as not invite guests to linger — (secret motto: “shovel them in and shovel them out”). Except, I wondered, here it made no sense. The amount of time I spent in this waiting room did not depend on me in the least — but on how (in)efficiently the office booked me. To punish me for their delays and to try to drive me away while I waited seemed counterproductive (it would only lose them business).

To distract myself from the colors and surfaces, I picked up a glossy magazine. It happened to be Elle Decor – French edition – an the designs which I saw in it — all of them of a kind with the one in the midst of which I was sitting — opened my eyes. The designer of my waiting room did not consciously aim for discomfort, he just wanted to be with-it/modern/fashionable/trendy and in order to achieve this goal he followed the general principles of modern/with-it/trendy design, which are: 1) shock and surprise with unusual shapes and colors 2) pay no attention to comfort or ease of use or practicality of application 3) use the cheapest materials and cheapest manufacturing methods (inject it or stamp it is best) as long as they are “modern” 4) reject any natural materials 5) use as many sharp edges as possible (get it?  “edges” make you “edgy”). My discomfort was merely the price paid for the designer achieving his with-it-ness, it was a kind of… collateral damage. Prices of the items featured in the magazine illustrated the other price paid for the designer’s with-it-ness: money. An aluminum, black and white, zigzaggy lamp by designer X, the magazine informed me, cost EUR1,190.  I looked up and saw something equally cheap and ill-proportioned on the ceiling of my waiting room and was no more in doubt:  serious money was spent here in order to make me feel uncomfortable.

Only the day before I had bought two old bronze lamps for EUR400. One was late 19th century French, the other early 20th century Dutch. Both were shaped with a miraculously calming sense of proportion, a deeply satisfying fitness to their purpose (e.g. lighting), and executed to perfection by master craftsmen who’d spent years mastering their manual skills. Thus, in paying for my lamps I paid in part for good materials (bronze) and good workmanship (craft).  But what do buyers of Lamp X pay for? Not good materials, certainly, as plastic comes in only one grade; nor for good craftsmanship (it’s machine bent). Ergo, it would appear that they paid instead for… well, the designer’s lifestyle – to finance his fast cars and numerous girlfriends. Lamp X, like every single item in my dentist’s waiting room, has that economic structure: uselessness, cheapness of material and process + a high mark-up for the marketer.  Economically, these things made a lot less sense from the point of view of the buyer than my lamps – but a lot more sense from the point of view of the seller!  (The seller is in fact bilking the buyers).

Of course, in buying my lamps I also acquired something else:  pleasure.  For years to come, every time I wake up in the morning and look up I will experience the calming pleasure of looking at a beautifully proportioned object.  Does the modern buyer buying an edgy product – Lamp X, square toilet, uncomfortable, unstable chair – get pleasure out of it?

This is the crucial point of this post. 

I suppose there are three schools of thinking about it:

1) Yes, they like it.  It makes them feel comfortable to sit in odd positions, be jabbed in the kidneys, be jerked by ambient TV noise, and look at odd-shaped lamps made out of bent aluminum and plastic. 

2)  They don’t care either way.  They don’t notice the ugliness and discomfort.  They can work 16-hour days, sleep standing on the subway, and work undisturbed by the throbbing rhythm of techno.  They install in their bedrooms and living rooms whatever comes to hand, whatever is in the shop.

3)  Yes, they experience pleasure, but it is qualitatively different from mine: it is not the pleasure of interacting with a well-made, well-proportioned, purpose-fit object; but a pleasure of a different sort:  the pleasure of owning something edgy and with-it, perhaps?  Meaning, perhaps, of owning something famous and popular, owning something, in other words, because others know it?  It is a kind of pleasure by substitution, a vicarious pleasure:  enjoying oneself through the eyes of others?  (Yes, it is a Gucci bag, you did notice, did you not?)

Whether you accept the former or the latter theory,  you are in fact adopting the other mind theory which you have seen here before – that the modern consumer is a genetically different animal from me (us?), evolved over millenia in the nether reaches of the social structure where radically different life meant radically different selection pressures, and only recently come to the fore as a result of the economic revolution of the last 100 years or so. Not enough time for evolution to take place:  they bring with them to the affluent decision-making process genetic inclinations unsuited to the task.

Regarding aesthetic dim-sightedness

Writes Rebecca Willis:

Back in the days when I wrote about hotels for a living, the man I was eventually to marry sometimes joined me on my travels. And a curious thing would happen as we crossed the latest hip-hotel lobby: a thought would flash across my mind—”what a hideous lamp”, for instance—and a micro-second later he would say: “I love that lamp, I wonder where it’s from?” It could be a sofa, a painting, a fabric, a paint colour: whatever, I soon learnt to wait for the inverse echo of my reaction. It was the first inkling that we might not be totally compatible in the taste department.

Rebecca Willis is no dummy. It takes well demonstrated brains even to write for The Economist; presumably more better brains to reach the associate editorship of The More Intelligent Life (as the title clearly states). Yet, for what is probably the most important decision in her life – the choice of life partner – she was prepared to compromise her tastes: she went ahead and… married him.

It’s not clear from the article how she makes that work. Is her husband allowed to express his tastes at home, forcing Rebecca to live with wall colors she hates, night-lights and bathroom towels which make her go YUCK? Or have the two decided for the functional neutrality in the house, living permanently in some sort of hotel-lcum-trainstation-like off-white/stainless steel dullity which does nothing for the eye? Since neither decision means living in a home which does not provide the comfort of pleasure, can either decision truly be said to be intelligent life, let alone more intelligent?

As Rebecca observes, plenty of people make the same decision – opt for a life with a person whose tastes they do not share, with, presumably the same consequence: in other words, they do violence to their own tastes for the sake of a relationship. Personally, I could never ever do this: I feel too strongly about my tastes; their violation offends me too much and their satisfaction is too rewarding to countenance giving them up. I could never have my living room wall-papered in a way I did not care for: I spend too much time there. The wallpaper I do have gives me a sense of pleasure and contentment, it turns my living room into an oasis of pleasure in an otherwise pretty ugly world.

Yet, it would appear, other people do not think that way: they are perfectly willing to compromise their wallpaper (and aesthetic pleasure in general) for other values (Sex? Companionship? The increased purchasing power of double income?). Perhaps their tastes aren’t especially strong i.e. aesthetic appreciation does not actually give them any meaningful/detectable pleasure. This would explain why they can go on writing the sort of garbage they write about art – because if not entirely aesthetically blind they are, at a minimum, aesthetically dim-sighted. If so, here is the central reason why one cannot discuss art with some/most people. If they do not possess a strong aesthetic sense themselves, I can never explain to them what I mean anymore than a bat could explain to them echolocation.

The destruction of Lisbon

A German diver in Palawan told me in 1993 that tourism was like cancer:  “it destroys everything in its path”.  As we talked, about 50 meters away, workers were installing the empteenth stilted cottage on the seashore that season; like all the others, this cottage, too, lacked any sort of arrangement for sewage disposal.

Tourism certainly destroyed every sea-side location where I have lived in the last two decades, turning each from a quaint little town where humble life rolled on leisurely into an unlivable monstrosity, a shopping mall on the sea, a busy belching traffic nightmare in season, a dead eyesore off. For 15 years, between 1995 and 2010 my life was a cat-and-mouse chase, a dog-fight, a running battle — with me trying to find an unspoiled place to live in and tourism following within a few years; first a cottage at a time, but eventually the full hog, with full blown articles in the press world-over that X was now The Place To Go.

Eventually, I threw in the towel on sea-side towns and decided to duck the wave by going in the opposite direction, into the city.

But if you think that tourism only destroys beaches in third world countries and we in the first world are safe, think again. 

My new city — an European Capital — has now been officially made The New Place To Go To, a phenomenon stoked by fake advertisements paid for the by government (the adverts feature doctored photos of Lisbon making it look more Paris). (A former ad executive, I never cease to wonder how effective advertising is, how it works, how people trust it.  Don’t they know TV lies?  Do they know anything?)

Yesterday I walked down Rua Augusta to appraise the season’s damage.  It exceeded my worst fears.  What was once a traditional premium shopping street, and, in recent years, due to crisis, became somewhat romantically down-at-heel, has been completely transformed, in a mere three months, into a tourist drag.  Gone are jewelers selling Portuguese hand-crafted jewelry, gone are leather-goods shops selling Portuguese shoes and handbags, gone are Portuguese eateries serving stufado and cafetarias serving salgados and afternoon tea.  They have all been replaced by ice-cream McParlors and frozen pizza places and outdoor tables serving industrial snacks and canned drinks and playing vaguely ethnic world music:  all according to the formula which works world over:  familiar (the hell with new and exotic, who ever said tourism was about discovering or learning?), low price but high margin (a 3 euro key-chain offers a 300% markup for the vendor).

Rua Augusta now looks the way the main street of San Giminiano already looked in 2005 – lined up and down both sides of it with tourist-pandering junk-outlets.  Back in 2005 I walked up that main drag because I had to — some paintings I had to see were in a church at the top of it; but to my amazement I watched people sit in those sidewalk cafes of that street, taking in “the atmosphere”.

Atmosphere?  What atmosphere?  You can get the same “atmosphere” at your local mall.  Why fly six thousand miles to get the same on another continent?

Why write?

To please Andrew —————-


Her last letter to me ended with the usual exhortation for me to please write.  You do it so well, she said, it is all so interesting, you tell us all those things we ignoramuses don’t know.  [Tricky words from a university professor, published novelist, and someone rather famous in her own country — especially when such words are addressed to someone entirely unknown, anonymous, and without credentials].

Ah, yes, well, thank you.   I guess all those years of traveling and reading, of living an odd lifestyle in all sorts of odd places where other people who share my interests do not usually go, let alone live, have not been entirely in vain…  why, given the gift of the lifestyle, of the first-hand experience, it would have been proof of utter imbecility of me if I did not make at least some independent observations…  so perhaps I did figure out a thing or two which may not have occurred to others, not because those others are dim, but because these things simply could not have occurred to them — because there haven’t been there, they haven’t seen what I have seen.  So perhaps I do have something to say, however insignificant it may be.

But I don’t seem able to explain it — no one seems to understand what I think I am trying to explain…  or even notice that it just might be any way important.  Or care.  The fault must be entirely mine, of course — if a speaker isn’t getting through to a crowd, it isn’t the crowd’s fault — but the truth is that I am no longer worried about it… it doesn’t seem to matter to me anymore if anyone does understand.  Or care.

I do write, of course — like you, I have been writing all my life.  I have been writing as an aid in thinking — I don’t seem to understand what I think until I see what I write —  but I have never cared to be published, for some odd reason I have never been ambitious that way. It just doesn’t seem such a big deal to me to be on a book shelf or to be mentioned in a newspaper or in a book review.  (I was once a fashion model; my mother kept all the magazines and calendars in which I featured, but I trashed them all the moment I received them. If anything, I was embarrassed by them).

It is true that at one point I did publish a successful blog and that when I did it, at the time, I did go out of my way to promote it.  But I didn’t do it for fame or to shine or to exist (some people seem to exist only to the extent that they exist in other people’s minds, but I have always felt secure in the knowledge that I exist, even on five-day solitary hikes in the mountains):  I did it because I imagined that the internet, then young, offered a way for like minds to meet, to find each other, to talk.  In the end I am not sure that I succeeded in proving that:  I am not sure I really found any “like” minds…  I know I found plenty enough “unlike” minds.  I have met others, too, who have been gentle and generous — like you — but, I repeat, even in those cases I don’t think I have met any “like” minds.

If anything, talking to people on that blog about art and literature I have discovered what I have been discovering all my life, that I don’t really understand other people.  A scientist-philosopher once published a huge hit of a paper in which he argued that we (“we, cognitive scientists”, that is) could never understand what it was like to be a bat on account of the animal’s unique sensory system (echolocation).  Be that as it may, I find that I cannot imagine what it is like to be other people!

I have spent the last two years reading memoirs and letters of many prominent thinkers and I have discovered that their likes and dislikes, their desires and ambitions and fears were all very odd to me — as was the way they reasoned about them.  I am sure the feeling is mutual and this disparity, this gulf, is one reason perhaps why I seem unable to explain myself; and the conviction of the vastness of this gulf, now stronger then ever, is the main reason why I no longer try to explain.  I mean…  if by some miracle I managed to convince someone that the theory of art he has learned in art 101 and which everyone seems to accept and which fuels all the furious production and all the auction house bidding and all the museum building and going… if I convinced someone that there was something fundamentally wrong with that theory…  that it was only a plausibly sounding falsehood…  and, if response to all my argument, a light lit up in their heads saying “aha!”, would they really understand that which I am trying to say?  Or would they understand something completely different and would I have any clue as to what they got out of the conversation?

And — why should I worry about that at all?


On Chivalry and Mental Health (in the matter of Cervantes and Dostoevski)

Lesser’s book on rereading (Nothing remains the same) is a failed book.  It was written to a scientifically identified market demand for a 250 page product, but the author having had only enough material for 50, she was obliged to add 200 pages of “words, words, words” (as they say in Scandinavia); and the publisher — to print, and sell under false pretenses.  It would be shameful if the practice were not so common.  In a world of “made books” (just look at Amazon) to criticize this one would be unfairly to single out.  (Fie).

But even a failed book, can sometimes help one see better what he thinks.


Like all modern commentators, Lesser misses the point of Don Quixote.  It is true that Cervantes and various figures in his novel keep harping about the bad bad bad romances of knight-errantry and how Don Quixote is supposed to be an attack on them (see the introductory material to Volume 2), but the truth is that the topic of the book is not romances of chivalry but chivalry itself; and that all those characters criticizing the romances of chivalry must in fact be understood the way anyone criticizing anything must usually be understood — as in fact attacking something else altogether, something to attack which directly would be unseemly; and therefore attacking it indirectly, tarring it, as it were, by association; they are all attacking the notion of chivalry.

My grandmother understood chivalry the way Digby did:  as a kind of moral code of conduct.  (Chivalry is only a name for that general spirit or state of mind which disposes men to heroic actions, and keeps them conversant with all that is beautiful and sublime in the intellectual and moral world, etc.)

And this is how she passed it on to me. To her, and therefore to me, chivalry has been a living philosophy of life, a valid code of conduct:  to be truthful, gallant, and courageous, to keep promises, to stand up for the weak and against injustice, to give a fair fight to one’s opponents — have all seemed to me worthy precepts of conduct.  To Wendy Lesser, like to everyone else in modern West today it seems, chivalry is a quaint archival curio; something akin to the Eleusinian Mysteries, perhaps; only…  worse: unlike the Mysteries, chivalry is rendered malodorous by its association with the hateful evil political system of the past. (Droit de seigneur and all that, even if no such thing has ever existed.  I will probably never write that overdue essay about the evil droit de seigneur about which everyone has heard and which everyone quotes as the most aggregious excess of the ancien regime but which has never ever existed except “over there” — to Baumarchais in evil Spain; to Spaniards — in Tsarist Russia, etc.) Political commitments require Lesser and everyone else to ridicule chivalry because they require her to hate and ridicule everything aristocratic.  Her reading of Don Quixote it inevitable; she learned it in school, in Civics 101, at the impressionable age of 12 or 14.

Lesser does note that “chivalry has costs” — but in her mind they are costs to others; she fails to see that the person most endangered by its commitment to a selfless ideal is in fact the knight himself — the person obliged to practice heroic rectitude and self-sacrifice — which seems to have been de Saavedra’s central point:  that chivalry is an attractive ideal which it is unwise to adopt; and wiser still to give up, my dear Lord-Knights.  Though, of course, so very sad to do so.  (“Last year’s nests have no chicks,” says Don Quixote when he comes to his senses and — everyone cries).


In discussing Dostoevski, Lesser describes all the things that irritate her in his novels: such as that they are all about some sort of a nasty injustice which goes on unopposed; or that they are an endless processions of characters throwing tantrums and telling others all sorts of nasty things about themselves and each other. This is of course why I invariably throw Dostoevski away in exasperation (disgust?) — but why Lesser, it turns out… likes them! She openly confesses to liking these features — and the resultant feeling of irritation! So, here we have it: my puzzlement over Dostoevski’s popularity has been resolved: it is not that his admirers don’t see what I see; it is that they see it and — like it! (To each his own, I suppose.  Some like crumbs in their bed so why not hangnails?)

Lesser does not note that which is my strongest reason to dislike Dostoevski: that all his characters also appear to be sick, depraved, twisted, and perverted — racked by self-doubt, envy, hate, chemical dependency, fear, resentment, epilepsy, and remorse — which I have fancifully taken on as proof that there is something congenitally rotten with the “deep” Russian soul (“over there”) and a ready-made explanation why all my attempts at acquaintance with Russians (and Mainland Chinese) always seem end up in some sort of horrendous humiliation.

But Lesser’s omission is very meaningful here: that she does not notice suggests that to her these characters appear… normal— not Russian (“over there”) but — at home, i.e. that they are similar enough to people she knows — Americans and Britishers and so forth. Which seems odd because I don’t know many such people either among the Anglos or — any race. But perhaps I do not know such people because a) I am careful to avoid such people once I have formed a suspicion about their character (i.e. I not giving them a chance to (dis)prove themselves); and b) I am willing to not notice minor signs of mental disturbance in people I know slightly but am not obliged to learn better (i.e. I lipstick the pig).  I happily assume the race is better than it really is as a kind of… willful self-deception. 

While in fact, Lesser confirms by silence, things are very bad indeed and Dostoevski tells it like it is.  Lesser’s acceptance of Dostoevski’s heroes as ordinary men allows me to understand better the real reason why I have chosen to live unnoticed, in internal exile, away from men.

It also explains why the lessons of Civics 101 would be so eagerly embraced and chivalry so openly ridiculed. Every Dostoevskian person will be relieved to be given a reason (“evil immoral past”) to refuse a moral code which demands of him or her to be what s/he can never be. If Dostoevski’s right, than the code of chivalry can be expected to have a lot of natural enemies.

It’s no accident The Idiot contains many references to Don Quixote.