by Geoff Olson
Just after receiving her Academy Award for best actress this past March, Sandra Bullock discovered her husband, Jesse James, had been cheating on her with multiple partners. The scandal was like a weird mix of Harlequin romance and an Outer Limits episode, with a dash of monster truck show. A Hollywood starlet weds a guy named after a western gunslinger and steals the crown of America’s sweetheart from Julia Roberts, only to discover her man’s cheating heart splattered across the national media. Worse yet, the principal target of hubbie’s horndog hobbyism turns out to be a heavily tattooed stripper and model named Michelle “Bombshell” McGee, whose life story reads like a bad-trip inversion of Bullock’s.
McGee had gone from being an Ohio honour student to an over-inked, west coast skank, plying her trade in the magwheel-and-leather social circle attached to Jesse James’ motorcycle customization business. At first, the bike calendar shots of the stripper in Nazi garb seemed like show-and-tell distractions, playing to the domination-and-control issues of an arrested male audience. But it turned out Bombshell McGee was the real deal. Bloggers unearthed a photo of her young son next to a family refrigerator decorated with fridge magnets spelling out “White Power.” The online celebrity trackers pointed out that Michelle had a W tattooed on one calf and a P on the other, which cemented her status as a skinhead wank fetish.
The tabloids had discovered the checkout-stand Holy Grail. On one side, the Oscar-winning darling of Middle America – a fixture of unchallenging, uncomplicated Hollywood films. On the other, a centrefold girl for a Mad Max subculture fixated on chrome, racism, sadomasochism and gothic porn. It didn’t take much to inflate the scandal into a steel-cage death match between a Hollywood Madonna and a homewrecking ho, at least until Bullock took the high road and scraped Jesse James off her red-carpet pump. The whole sorry episode must have taught Bullock the risks of mating outside the Hollywood power complex and playing the odds with a more down-home brand of decadence.
Sophistication’s twisted sister
The French actress Catherine Deneuve once marvelled at the paradox of American Puritanism, and how a nation that was once prepared to impeach its president for a sex act in the Oval Office is also the world’s biggest producer of hard-core pornography. In the late nineties, the Starr Commission Report parsed Bill Clinton’s high crimes against family values with the unbreakable focus of a kid clutching a flashlight and a copy of Hustler. The document was dirty in a way that Saving Ryan’s Privates, Schindler’s Lust, and Das Booty never could be.
Decadence is a tricky word. I got thinking about it recently, after a friend emailed me about an article in a local paper featuring the porn star “Mz. Scream,” who stated that adult entertainment is “almost an essential service.” My friend referred to another item in the same paper, which noted how a “roaring 20s-era party rages with decadent fun” over at a Vancouver community centre. “My, my. Hasn’t the human race evolved,” he concluded.
I replied that I’ve got nothing against any kind of fun between consenting adults, as long as it doesn’t hurt small animals. I added that decadence has multiple definitions: according to the Oxford dictionary, the primary meaning is “moral or cultural decline, especially after a peak or culmination of achievement.” The secondary meaning is “luxuriant self-indulgence,” which, for most of us, means anything from a third scoop of Häagen-Dazs ice cream to a lost weekend in Las Vegas. In its stronger form, decadence is sophistication’s twisted sister – a tattooed train wreck eclipsing a silver screen starlet.
As for the mainstreaming of adult porn as something cute but countercultural – which seemed to be the point of the article on Mz. Scream – I could see it falling under either definition of decadence, or both. But it’s all in the eye of the beholder. For some, legalized adult entertainment is the best test case for free speech. For others, it’s part of the coarsening of cultural discourse, a decades-long, slippery slope from risqué auto calendars down into the sewers of celebrity sex tapes, bondage bars and chat roulette.
There’s a gradient from literary erotica to violent, abusive porn, fuelling arguments about how much adult entertainment damages women and where to draw the line. In any case, one person’s touchstone of moral decline and civic desensitization is someone else’s cultural landmark, whether it’s a new reality television show or a rubber fetish night.
Personally, I’m more concerned with the less obvious, spiritual forms of pornography. How are children transformed in a culture of celebrity, in which relationships are commodified and too many adults know the cost of everything but the value of nothing?
Disordering the senses, Ozzy style
According to the Norton Dictionary of Modern Thought, decadence was an offshoot of the 19th century symbolist and aesthetic movements, “arising from the bohemian protest against bourgeois society in France from the 1840s onward.” French writer Gustave Flaubert, defending what some considered bad habits, insisted “the poet makes himself a seer by a long, intensive and reasoned disordering of the senses.” He might have meant a night out at the Folies Bergère and a few shots of absinthe, for all I know.
Regardless, 19th century tips on thinking outside the box probably aren’t relevant for 20th century writers past the age of forty. With my sensitivity to sugar and caffeine, “disordering my senses” usually means having a cup of hot chocolate after eight PM. I’m not what you’d call an expert on living on the edge. Without inflating my nasal spray addiction into a life-shattering chemical dependency, or fictionalizing myself doing sambuca shots out of Bombshell McGee’s pierced navel, my catalogue of hardcore adventures would make for a pretty slim read.
That being said, my autobiography as a budget sensualist would likely impress a reader from Haiti, Darfur or North Korea. Three square meals a day? A computer with a high-speed Internet connection? Shelter that doesn’t leak, crumble or blow away? Cheap medicine? Unimaginable luxury!
In spite of all my First World blessings, I draw a blank when I try to imagine the sense-disordering lifestyle of certain celebrities – for example, rock star and future Smithsonian museum specimen Ozzy Osbourne. In one eighties anecdote that doesn’t involve biting off the head of a live bat, the rock singer was partying by an LA poolside with the accurately named Motley Crue, when he asked Nikki Sixx for line of coke. The Crue bassist had no blow, so in a bid to out-gross the infamously degenerate band, Ozzy produced a straw and leaned down to the ground to snort up a line of ants. “He put the straw to his nose and, with his bare white ass peeking out from under the dress like a sliced honeydew, sent the entire line of ants tickling up his nose with a single, monstrous snort,” observed Sixx in the Motley Cure tell-all, The Dirt. “From that moment on, we knew there was always someone who was sicker and more disgusting than we were.”
For a more entertaining rock n’ roll deathstyle, I prefer the fictional performer in Douglas Adams’ 1980 novel The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. Hotblack Desiato is leader of the rock band Disaster Area, billed as the loudest band in the universe. Fans must listen from a distance of at least 37 miles away, safely sequestered in a concrete bunker. Desiato doesn’t say much in the book, since he’s only marginally alive. In fact, he once spent a year completely dead, “for tax reasons.”
Creativity, madness and wretched excess have more than a nodding acquaintance. Hence the notion that rock music is a degenerate form of shamanism. In primitive societies, the shaman is the tribal healer. He dresses in colourful garb and initiates visionary episodes through fasting, extended isolation or drugs. His trance-induced chanting and singing is part of a psychospiritual operation, intended to heal a sick tribal member. In contrast, an arena-filling rock musician performs a cathartic routine before a community of fans, amplifying and extending his or her voice through hi-tech wizardry. Shamanism has evolved (or devolved, if you prefer) into showmanship.
For rockers and the rest of us, the road of excess is more likely to lead to rehab, rather than to the palace of wisdom – but the wreckage along the way sometimes includes some great music and art. On a larger scale, corporate excess usually heads toward either Chapter 11 or a government bailout – while spinning off new material for inflamed bloggers and journalists. At the national level, the road to excess is often an eight-lane expressway to all kinds of bad craziness, including war – something that’s always good for Tom Hanks films and other forms of business.
Gambling dens and gushers
If the example of Ancient Rome still holds, the two principal definitions of decadence, “moral and cultural decline” and “luxurious self-indulgence” are close relations. The over-consumption and self-absorption promoted by monopoly capitalism foreshadow depression, and not just in the economic sense. The recent US housing market scam, with NINJA loans (No Income, No Job, No Assets) sliced and diced into Ponzi-scheme derivatives, was no historical anomaly, but just another talked-up bubble. Generational boom and bust cycles are always in the cards, through overproduction and surplus labour.
“If allowed to run free of the social system, capitalism will attempt to corrupt and undermine democracy, which is after all not a natural state,” wrote Canadian author John Ralston Saul. That is a slight variation of the Marxist definition of decadence, in which the inner contradictions of capital were expected to lead to its demise, summed up in the line “a capitalist is a man who will sell you the rope to hang him with.”
Your consciousness is conditioned by your times and the personal is the political, as activists like to say. Leonard Cohen’s scathing song about decadence, The Future, traces the arc of power games from the bedroom to the boardroom, by putting sexual domination and untruth side by side with cultural/ecological collapse: “Give me absolute control over every living soul /And lie beside me, baby, that’s an order! /Give me crack and anal sex /Take the only tree that’s left and stuff it up the hole in your culture.”
But you don’t have to recall Leonard Cohen’s lyrics, or follow Marxist-Leninist boilerplate, to see something both sick and sickening with late-era capitalism, with its rabid privatization of profits and socialization of losses. I see it just outside my own door in Vancouver. With British Columbia boasting the highest rate of child poverty in Canada, and the public education system going begging for dollars, what else could anyone peg Vancouver’s upcoming half-billion dollar casino/stadium with a retractable roof, other than balls-to-the-wall, damn-the-social-contract ‘decadent’?
“Look at the history of civilization, the history of economics, even biblical history, and you will see what it means when a state begins to finance itself by encouraging people to gamble,” observes Ralston Saul. Some may claim it’s the right of democratic citizens to freely gamble, but it’s another matter entirely when the governments “set out to use the tools of the public good to corrupt citizens.” Some of the gaming revenue, generated from those most likely to be seduced, goes into government coffers – yet experts have found solid links between gambling and depression and suicide. Ergo, government-supported gambling makes for a public policy Mobius strip, in which the revenues for gaming are used to undo some of the damage done by rolling the bones.
A Vegas-style casino in Vancouver’s downtown core is the public policy equivalent of a children’s hospital with a McDonald’s or Chuck E. Cheese on its premises. You’d think the brains at the BC Legislature would recognize this essential truth, but our provincial capital has a long history of welcoming gamblers. Victoria was once one of the far-off outposts of the British Empire where upper-crust families sent their delinquent relatives. When a son’s gambling, drinking and whoring habits created image problems for the clan, the “remittance man” was given a stipend and booted halfway across the world to dry out at the Queen’s coastal namesake.
Yet compared to our neighbours to the south, we’re pikers when it comes to full-on, raid-the-public-purse decadence. After BP’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, reporters discovered that employees of the Minerals Management Service, the US body tasked with inspecting oil industry megaprojects, were being bought off by sexual favours and cocaine. And if that’s not Ozzy enough, the Gulf gusher is expected to flow freely into August, making the White House resemble a subsidiary of Big Oil, led by a figurehead president who might as well be an automobile hood ornament. We’re obviously not talking about a sustainable way of life here.
Readers hardly need me to multiply examples of cultural decadence and its negative return on investment. Rather, I’m interested in how the ending of a culture implies the beginning of a new one. And if we pay attention, we can already see the first green shoots emerging through the asphalt.
Impermanence and how the light gets in
Consider Detroit. Once America’s car-making capital, the Michigan burg has spent the last two decades on a downward trajectory, along with many other cities in America’s deindustrialized rustbelt. Entire city blocks are empty in Detroit and trees have erupted through the roofs of vacant homes in abandoned neighbourhoods. Pheasants and deer wander among the rusting towers and ruined factories as nature reclaims this former industrial dynamo.
The film Red State Road Trip 2 highlights the upside of this collapse: after years of urban flight, people are returning to Detroit and buying up fire-sale properties. Since there are no longer any regional or national chain supermarkets in the city, the residents are ensuring their own food supply through urban agriculture. Huge gardens have sprung up in abandoned lots; people are growing grapes, blackberries, asparagus, currants, and more. Every fall, honey is gathered from urban growers’ beehives.
“I think Detroit could be the first 21st century, green, sustainable city in the United States,” says Craig Wilkins, director of the Detroit Community Design Centre. “All the elements are here. We have over 40,000 vacant lots in Detroit alone.” Years ago, the Michigan city emerged in a shower of welding sparks as the automotive Oz of America’s fossil-fuel age. Now, after its long decline, Detroit could blossom into a showcase for the post-oil, small-footprint economies of the near future.
Decadence and decay may foreshadow final events, but they are also transitory states, by definition. A Canadian public figure with rather decadent personal habits once said to me, “History has always been about how men build and destroy, build and destroy, build and destroy. And women always get to clean up the mess.” It’s certainly true that things have been building up and breaking down since the time of Agamemnon – or even further back, since the first amoeba. Evolution is impossible without living things dying and/or being consumed by other living things. There is no eating without killing, no growth without decay. Creation and destruction are two sides of the same coin, like back and front or light and darkness. No one gets out of this life alive – but that doesn’t mean we should glory in a kick-ass, what’s-in-it-for-me philosophy, or meekly follow smooth-talking psychopaths off the corporate cliff.
Living in a dualistic realm, where Murphy’s Law rides shotgun for the Second Law of Thermodynamics is maddening and saddening in equal parts – but as Leonard Cohen once wrote, everything has a crack in it, and that’s how the light gets in.
After a talk with a relative who recently suffered a heart attack, I emailed him a letter of appreciation for our connection over the years. Like me, his record of personal decadence is a bit spotty – a bit too much Boston cream pie and Snickers bars, mostly. His reply included a wise observation on how best to conduct oneself in an uncertain world, full of chaos and craziness:
“Life is a long series of close calls and, eventually, one of them is just a little too close to ignore. We all tend to operate under the assumption that we’re in a permanent state of existence here on Earth. The reality, though, is that nothing in this universe is permanent. We’re all just participants in an eternal, cosmic dance. All we can do is dance on, with love and compassion in our hearts for the fellow beings who share the dance with us.”
Common Ground Special Events presents Geoff Olson Live! September 15, Vancouver Public Library, 7:30pm Tickets 604-733-2215www.geoffolson.com
photo montage: Peter Baranovsky
source photos: man in box © Mhryciw / rocker © Moori / Vegas © Modi1980 / legs © Avant-g | Dreamstime.com