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Eighteenth-Century Studies 39.2 (2006) 273-278
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Luxury and Idleness Moralized
When the English novelist Martin Amis had his lower jaw rebuilt and his teeth replaced a few years ago, he assumed that the $30, 000 he had spent on his brand-new teeth was his own business. What he didn't anticipate was that the cost of his new teeth—along with a divorce and a new literary agent—would [End Page 273] soon become everyone's business. For months the British press canvassed Amis's friends and fellow-writers for opinions about his extravagant spending on oral surgery. It didn't help that the dental work was seen as part of a campaign to become an American-style, transatlantic celebrity. To his surprise, the surgery was not treated as a medical necessity, but as a case of excess, ostentation, even self-indulgence. A.S. Byatt was only more blunt than the rest when she complained about subsidizing Amis's "greed simply because he has a divorce to pay for and has just had all his teeth redone." It seems that by fixing his teeth Amis had violated some tacit moral-cultural boundary-line. Consequently, Amis's brand-new teeth were treated as a luxury purchase, tantamount to other, equally dubious forms of celebrity self-enhancement like breast implants, liposuction, or rhinoplasties.
We can draw a few lessons from this episode. The first is that the act of distinguishing between necessities and luxuries inevitably draws us into the discursive realm of the moral, meaning moral description, moral discussion, moral argument, and ultimately, moral judgment, though this dimension may remain tacit much of the time. This is because the boundary between necessities and luxuries emerges from a more general set of moral values and attitudes regarding the proper relation of needs to desires. The normative significance of these boundary-lines makes them readily contestable, even controversial at certain times. Though the OED blandly defines modern luxury as "something which conduces to enjoyment or comfort in addition to what are accounted the necessaries of life," the term's heavily moralized though largely obsolete associations of "lasciviousness" or "indulgence" remain ready to reappear during the polemics that generally accompany normative crises. But how do the current, primarily descriptive meanings of luxury (as in "luxury cruise," "luxury trade," etc.) relate to older, more prescriptive deployments of the term? And why do these older, moralistic associations appear only intermittently in contemporary usage?
One possible answer to these questions can be found in Maxine Berg and Elizabeth Eger's excellent new collection of essays, Luxury in the Eighteenth Century. In their "Introduction" and in the contributors' essays about the "Debates" inspired by luxury, we find a subtle historical argument that describes how the concept of luxury emerged from inherited moral and religious discourses, to become an integral part of our understanding of modernity. As Berg and Eger explain, luxury was a crucial bridging concept between the early modern and modern periods in Europe, articulating a moral framework that linked together "questions of individual and national virtue, economic expansion and canons of taste, definitions of the self and the social redistribution of wealth" (7). This notional framework provided Europeans with a cluster of explanatory and legitimating concepts that enabled them to negotiate the enormous material changes taking place in their experiences of leisure, work, and domestic life, changes that occurred at both the largest and smallest scales of economic existence. Berg and Eger sketch out just a few of the most important shifts during this time: "a newly experienced and perceived world economy brought greater access to Asian consumer societies and to the exotic foods and raw materials of the New World. This new trade in luxuries was to stimulate innovation in technologies, products, marketing strategies and commercial and financial institutions. Asian consumer...