You have stumbled into the hushed, expensive interior of a high-end Midtown department store. The shoes in front of you are red patent leather 4½ -inch platforms of near perfect design, and, you know before you casually turn them over, vertiginous price.
You have read Adorno. You are able to think critically about your desire for the shoes. Furthermore, you have a healthy class-hatred for people who dress habitually in clothes from this store, and have a sense that it is wrong for things to cost this much in a world where people can’t afford a bowl of rice.
You do not, in some basic way, condone the store and its airs and gorgeousness and museum-like awe; in certain ways you think people are not supposed to look this curated, this lushly perfect; your aesthetic in fact inclines toward scruffiness, toward accident, toward carelessness, but you are unable to, say, walk out of the store.
You do not entirely believe that the shoes will transform you into someone else, or a better version of yourself. You are able to understand that you will just be you in the shoes, and there will be no magical solving of your problems, no special radiance cast off by the shoes. (Actually, you are a little unclear about the special radiance. You suspect that there might be some special radiance.)
You are aware that the women you admire most in the world would not be standing here, subtly condescended to by this particular salesman, exquisite and high level and nearly indistinguishable from compliment as that condescension is. You cannot for instance see Janet Malcolm or Susan Sontag wasting 40 minutes of their mental energy on these particular shoes.
The fierce and wonderful feminist critic Rebecca West wrote a series of articles critiquing women’s desire for what she called “elegance” in the New Republic in 1916. In the midst of her scathing self-examination she wrote, “I would waste on personal ends vitality that I should have conserved for my work.” She was talking about a particular purple satin dress. She was talking about the frivolous freelance articles that she would take on to pay for it, rather than focusing on reading and thinking and art.
Now safely ensconced in the next century, you could deliver a very neat and polished speech about how today’s women have the luxury of caring about shoes, and also pursuing their intellectual or professional goals. You would argue, very convincingly, that women can choose how much time to spend on their hair, their clothes, and that choice is the important thing. At the same time, you are aware that in this polished speech there is a little core of unresolved something. That you are, even at this very moment, with the lipstick-red patent leather shoes in your hand, wasting on personal ends vitality you could have conserved for your work, and you are equally aware that most of the men you know are not wasting the same amount of vitality in the shoe department, or getting highlights, or whatever the 21st-century New York equivalent of squandering your energy on “elegance” is, even if they are wasting a little more of that vitality than they used to. Rebecca West’s 100-year-old complaint against herself, against women, against the culture, is really not all wrong, or antiquated or irrelevant. Why, you might fruitfully ask yourself, are you here frittering away a Wednesday afternoon?
And then of course there is the fact that the shoes are perilously expensive. They are so perilously expensive that they catapult you into a different world from the one you normally inhabit; it feels as if you are suddenly dealing in Monopoly money, a foreign currency in a country you are about to leave, and are not entirely sure of the exchange rate anyway. The fact that there is no way you can possibly afford or justify the shoes frees you somehow, as if the person calmly holding the box of shoes—and even the box is especially pleasing—could not possibly be you, and anything she does would be the reckless act of a stranger.
This is what’s wrong with America, you are well aware, this culture of credit and fantasy, dangerously intermingled. This seductive, fundamentally consumerist, Great Gatsby idea that you can reinvent yourself with stuff.
Here are some of the things you have recently decided not to buy because they were “too expensive”: a winter scarf, a sandwich for lunch near your office, a subscription to the New York Review of Books, raspberries.
If you do walk out with the shoes—and maybe you don’t, maybe some impulse of sanity, or presage of guilt, prevents you before it is too late. But if you do, they work like a drug—the anxieties that were plaguing you before you enter the store have lifted. As you step out into traffic, the still and stagnant city is suddenly charged with possibility.
The parties you have scribbled in your calendar seem more glittery or interesting or fun, and you in the shoes, more daunting, more sylphlike, more free, more invulnerable. Another shopper has helpfully pointed out that the shoes are “unsubtle” but subtlety has never been your thing.
Here of course, the puritanical and even moderately sensible will point out that this feeling of escape, of anything being possible, is temporary, artificial, shallow, but that is neither the point, nor entirely true.
Do you want to be the kind of person who sacrifices, overreaches, for a pair of shoes, who imbues them with a romantic overlay that a material object cannot possibly sustain? Maybe you do.