Tumbling in Albany, NY, USA
A. D. Lindsay, quoted in Dorothy L. Sayers, The Mind of the Maker.
For “Yes” and “No,” read “Democrat” and “Republican.”
One ends by agreeing with Erasmus that there is in mankind a natural propensity toward and an appetite for folly, a conclusion which has at least the advantage of explaining why it is so hard to accomplish sane tasks that require the co-operation of many, whereas it is easy to enlist hearts and minds for solemn foolishness, e.g., to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of The Twentieth Century Limited by dressing people up ‘in the costumes of those who first boarded the train.’
This example brings to mind the fact that there is also guff-in-action, whose technical name is Swash. This is luxury justified, reckless waste rationalized, the equivalent of a 21-gun salute. It makes the drudgery of business palatable and puts the high gloss on executive power. Its prime manifestation is Airport Life: the swasher is either going to or coming from the airport; it remains a mystery why hotels and convention halls have not sprung up around the signal towers of the land, to enable him and other professional swashers to gather permanently in a few strategic spots.
Swash begins with making distant reservations, canceling local engagements, knocking the breath out of family life and emulating the tornado. It requires, besides, what one supplier mysteriously calls ‘your Video wardrobe,’ some imported pigskin bags, a self-winding wrist watch, and a special style of eyeglasses which passes in a ten-year cycle from tortoiseshell to rimless hexagons. With equipment go meals and drinks, lavish tipping and the high art of self-interruption—that is, having every activity broken into by some message, date, or duty belonging to another. Locked-door conferences are unavailing: it takes a suite of eight or ten rooms to prevent full Swash from successful interruption. The amount of paper secreted and blackened by Swash is measured in gross tons. The remainder of the expense is recorded on the well-known swindle sheet, which adds to the tax-bitten executive salary the food, liquor, bellhops, ulcers, speed, and immaterial bliss of Swash.
Erasmus could not foresee this triumph and praise it. In his time, moreover, the assumption was that folly and superstition belonged to the uneducated mass. Now everybody has his share, including the debunkers. After the Great Depression, as many will remember, some confident technologists undertook, David-like, to give battle to the Goliath of guff. Under various corporate names they issued reports on the actual properties of products and machines and sought to educate the consumers. On many points their advice was revealing and practical. But alas! these reorganizers of our daily life soon fell victims to their own special kind of nonsense. Believing in tests more than in social reality, they would, with a straight face, urge a man never to buy a shirt without first seizing collar and tail and applying a steady pressure of sixty pounds. The free-lance writer was told to refuse all typewriter ribbons that did not measure so many feet in length and to verify this in situ. A woolen scarf must be put through the ordeal of a lighted match. As for the housewife, she was to surround herself with 100-pound bags of innumerable substances, from which to mix her own face and tooth powder, bath and Epsom salts, shampoo, ink, and vaginal douche. Jacques Barzun: God’s Country and Mine (Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1954), 290-292. (via shirtysleeves)