It Will Consume You

Buy, buy, buy…. creeping consumerism, voracious vending, whacked wallet. I think I’ve written about it before: all of those beautiful things we don’t need. Well, this time I’m determined to put my money where my mouth is by putting my purse away when it comes to all of that ‘stuff’ for myself that I just don’t need. I am attempting to give up buying clothes for one year. My wardrobe (not to mention the spill over into the borrowed wardrobe space of others) is full to bursting. Depending upon where you sit on the shopping spectrum, your reaction might be the shopping-shy shrug of, ‘so what, no big deal’, to the shopaholic’s shriek of ‘noooooooooo! why do that do yourself? You joy-denier!’ My friend S., on hearing about my resolution, emailed me a copy of Carol Ann Duffy’s poem: ‘The Woman Who Shopped’. Oh my Lord, one read of her words and I am more determined than ever! “Curtains and mirrors and rugs; shrugged at the cost, / then fixed up a loan, filled up the spare room with boxes / of merchandise, unopened cartons, over-stuffed bags; / went on the Internet, shopped in America, all over Europe / tapping her credit card numbers all night, ordering / swimming pools, caravans, saunas;” (excerpt). It is a long poem, building to a terrifying climax where she (the shopper) is crazily buying more and more and, as her purchasing gains momentum, it assumes power over her. Towards the end of the poem there are hints at dissolution: is she homeless, mindless, soulless? We are left with a sense of her having been eaten up and spat back out into a meaninglessness ball of rolled up credit card receipts. Consuming consumes her.

Duffy’s poem presents an extreme version of shopping as an out-of-control addiction, as opposed to the controlled compulsion that many of us have. Yet the shocking nature of her poem acts as a cautionary tale that numbed-out consumerism can turn us into sleepwalking non-thinkers. Now, I know we need to be clad: clothes wear out, seasons change, we develop hobbies and play sports that need specific gear or footwear or equipment. But as we swallow the marketing patter and chew our way through the shops it can become another form of comfort eating. You won’t buy your way out of sadness with a smart pair of new trousers; I’ve tried, it’s a ten-minute distraction, tops. The initial frisson we get from buying is quick to fade. We might get as far as saying to ourselves: ‘well I don’t really need it, but I do really want it’, and we go on to bolster the wanting with words and phrases like ‘deserve’, ‘no harm’ or ‘life’s too short’.

I’m turning a lot to Irish writer John O’Donohue these days, but he can say things so purely with few words. On this subject, he says, “Consumerism is the worship of the god of quantity; advertising is its liturgy. Advertising is schooling in false longing.” False longing – that’s it. It’s the idea that somehow buying something – a scarf from a market, a new purse, a cut-price top – can fix a feeling of lack or emptiness or dearth or deprivation. But if we stand for a moment and stay with that powerful feeling of want, well, something peculiar happens – for me anyway – the wanting begins to fade and lose power. Some psychologists say that the rampant consumerism of the Celtic Tiger in Ireland was a form of ancestral memory passed through generations, down 150 years from the time of the Great Famine; a cellular determination in our very DNA that a nation should never experience the ‘blight’ of poverty again. It all sounds a bit new-age to me. All the same, if there is even a grain of Tevellan’s corn of truth in it, maybe that ancestral want has now been salved in Ireland as we’ve learned the hard way and discovered what lies at the end of the road of excess.

Having said all that, my niece K. has been given a tailor’s dummy for her birthday. Dilemma: does someone making clothes for me count?!

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