Henry Fairlie on the Iffy Desirability of Being an American Consumer

Back in the 1980s, Henry Fairlie wrote in the New Republic something that I think speaks to our own era as we go through a recession and Americans seem to be tightening their belts and trying to pay down (rather than run up) their credit cards:

If TNR were to choose a Man or Woman of the Year for its cover, my nomination for 1988 would be the five nuns of the Discalced Carmelites of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel in Morris Township, New Jersey, who this fall barricaded themselves in their monastery in protest against the introduction of modern comforts to their cloistered life. The worldly distractions against which they revolted, all introduced by Mother Teresa Hewitt since she took over the monastery a year ago, include “television, newspapers, radio, snacks, and a high-tech lighting system in the chapel,” according to the Catholic journal Crisis. These nuns are the sanest people of whom I have read all year, joyful models for us in this season of universal gorging and gouging. They are simply saying that they do not wish to clutter  their lives. I never stroll through a shopping mall without observing that the display of goods includes almost none of the necessities of life. Shoes, we may think, are necessary; but then, of course, the Discalced Carmelites go unshod. The gross national product in America now feeds a gross national appetite for the conspicuous consumption of vanities. The “curse of plenty” against which Churchill warned is now a disease and daily distraction. The nuns are speaking to us. Perhaps it is the society as a whole that needs to take a vow of poverty.

No need of even shoes, huh?

The New Republic, in association with Yale University Press, just put out an anthology of Fairlie’s essays. Fairlie is long gone, but when he was alive his essays were always vigorous and cunning. If you were a New Republic subscriber in the 1980s (as I was), Fairlie was a compulsive read (someone you looked forward to and turned to first). You can have a look at his book here. (Yes, I perceive the irony of sending you over to a consumer site—Amazon—to have a look at the book of a person I just quoted as advocating anti-consumer behavior. But Fairlie would have also cast a suspicious and ironic eye on the Internet as a nervy distraction from a deeper life, and here we are.)

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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1 Response to Henry Fairlie on the Iffy Desirability of Being an American Consumer

  1. Pyotr Izutsu says:

    Thanks for the link. Clearly, almost 30 years later, that advice is still relevant. I also think the internet needs more scrutiny, and that we shouldn’t relie on it as an answer. Ironically, here we are. 😛

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