About a decade or so ago, a Brit theater import came to New York called Shopping and Fucking, which I thought was a great concept. The Times could not print the title of the play, so with those sensitivities in mind, I am entitling this piece, "Shopping and Screwing," but I'm sure you can guess what I mean.
We are now in the middle of the Christmas onslaught -- which kind of kills me with its own sadness: Why does this beautiful, nostalgic (OK, maybe phoney nostalgic, but even phony nostalgia has its place) time that reaches back somehow into the childhood of every man, woman, dog, and cat, have to be about shopping mania?
I hate it; I won't go near Macy's. But it does give me a lot to think about, and write about.
One of the main questions of course is why do we shop, and why do we shop so intensely now with a ferocity once reserved for some kind of crisis -- war maybe? (Pictures of people being crushed to death mobbing a Black Friday Walmart don't help.)
It can't possibly be out of generosity, or a misplaced sense of it. Most of the people on our X-mas list would probably be happy just having a little more access to us. (Except kids of course: I'm not that dumb.) But shopping of late has become not simply a metaphor for fucking (as in -- you establish interest with the thing; then intimacy with it; you make a lunge -- wallet emerges stark naked -- then it's yours!), but a genuine substitute for sexual congress the way that, in the nineteenth century, demonstrations of piety actually once did. All those pious, sexually-neutered young men you read about in Masterpiece Theatre-period novels, forever genuflecting before their High Church altars, those Gerard Manley Hopkins-types forever on their knees worshiping the naked-Christ deity... they're now shopping.
Shlepping big-name shopping bags. Believing in their fevered-brains that everything they buy will make them more "desirable" -- that is, pious in our 21st century commerce-as-religion hymnal. But, as we all know -- how often do you really get laid before, after, or during shopping?
Never. (I know.)
In my futurist novel Carnal Sacraments (Belhue Press, 2007), set in Germany and India in the year 2075, marketers of the great, relentlessly P.C., egalitarian future are forever on the lookout for the "release element" in a product: that thing that most simulates the all-desired, explosive power of orgasm. You're supposed to kvell, quiver, and blow all your cookies over some bathroom cleaner. Touching the bottle should be masturbatory -- with your clothes on of course, in a supermarket. It sho' don't mean a thing if it ain't got that... blast-off zing.
Ah, fiction, why does life always beat you to it?
I thought that while reading a great piece by Eric Wilson in last Thursday's Times' Style section called "No. 279 Puts On Its Game Face," about H&M, where the get-outta-my-way pursuit of what I called in Carnal Sacraments "cash register carnage" is everything. Those dear Swedes from H&M, dedicated to the full-out gluttony of merchandising frenzy, have made moving the schmattas at their stores past a science and into the celestial spheres of Faith. Every shop is a temple where the faithful come, participate in the deep rituals, and leave Full-Handed. The actual objects of their devotion -- an endless repetitious stream of rags at "discount" prices -- are purely secondary to the orgasmic moment of lining up at the register and acquiring same.
H&M opened 42 stores in North American in 2012; it makes $1.4 billion a year in the U.S. where it has established a firm beachhead as the McDonald's of apparel. You don't get the dollar meal, you get the $5 shirt. I keep wondering who's making these $5 shirts, and what are they being paid in those sweat shops in the jungles, but why let details bother you? What's important is that when you want to go and out buy clothes, you can. Even on a Walmart salary, you can afford style at H&M!
And it is style, I gotta admit it: I bought a couple of polos at H&M in Germany a few years ago, and like them a lot. I find the pickings in the NY stores less interesting, and am always amazed that in the New York stores the sales help (called "advisers") are never around when you need them, but compared, say, to the blasé eye-candy at Abercrombie and Fitch, they are ecclesiastic models of faith, hope, and charity.
H&M follows a practice of sonic-speed merchandise rotation: If you don't pick it up, ten minutes later it won't be there. This breeds the proper element of abject insecurity in shoppers, making the H & M environment a merchant's dream. It's like ejaculating sperm out into the waiting world. Get 'em quick, because you never can tell where the next "supply" will come from, what's in it, what it'll look like, and who else'll try to grab it. This brings out the true adolescent angst within everyone: remember when you had to have to something or else you were going to die? Well, H&M understands this -- and exploits it to perfecto. This produces the true Spirit of Christmas not just at the Holy Season, but every day of the year: It's not only Shop Till You Drop, but Shop Till You Reach that Post (fake) Coitus Shimmer momentarily satisfying you until the gnawing Itch returns -- directing you to (where else?) H&M.
Or, Macy's for that matter. All of merchandising partakes of this mantra now: If you don't get it, it won't be around in ten minutes. You snooze. You lose. It's the opposite of that sense of timeless staleness you used to treasure at the old Brooks Brothers, where Lincoln once bought his shirts. Brooks too has changed. It has adapted in its own snotty way. Shopping, as a whole, has been amazingly successful at substituting an intensity of feeling humans used to have for the pursuit of each other for the exercise of an imaginary Ritual of Self -- what it will look like on you, how it will change you and make you, and be you -- that is very much at present the true State Religion of America.
In some ways though this pursuit of the true Spirit of Christmas (You see it, you buy it!) is more comforting than any indulgence in the shadowy piety behind it. As long as those Swedes at H&M have erected a real altar to the Cash Register Cult, we're not going to go to war for it. It's benign. No bombs, no terrorism in the name of the AMEX God. It's not going to help the poor, but it's not going to blow up the synagogue across the street either.
Perry Brass is the author of 16 books. His latest is King of Angels, A Novel About the Genesis of Identity and Belief, awarded a Bronze Ippy for Best Young Adult Novel, 2012. His previous book was The Manly Art of Seduction; both books are available as Ebooks and in print--with a special reduction in Kindle price for the Holiday Season. (Get 'em quick or they won't be there after X-mas!) He is currently working on a book about the power of desire, and can be reached through his website, www.perrybrass.com.