A shopkeeper in the Vucciria market in Palermo offers me a taste of local peccorino cheese on the tip of something that looks like a machete. It is a classic Proustian moment. The inner mouse accepts, nibbles at the wedge with a thoughtful face, and goes for three quarters of a kilo. Is there a conservative animal amongst us—I wonder as I stumble out with the greasy parcel under my arm into the dusty Sicilian springtime—who has not bought into a vice, a culture, or a way of life upon accepting a precariously balanced sample?
I recalled Lampedusa’s Prince, hurrying to his assignation with a mistress, whom he cynically describes as the family pet in a silk petticoat, through this part of town.
It was a short walk, but through a quarter of ill repute. . . . Sinister-looking youths in wide trousers were quarrelling in the guttural grunts Sicilians use in anger. In the distance echoed shots from nervous sentries. Once past this district his route skirted the Cala. In the old fishing port decaying boats bobbed up and down, desolate as mangy dogs.
Afterward, as he makes his way home, the Prince is “immersed in sated ease tinged with disgust.”
Years ago, when I had become conversant with the underworld of prostitution in London, I often saw the same incremental suborning of reason used to great effect, though as usual it took the mouse rather a long while to catch on and make the connection. Ask any madam, and in a moment of delicious frankness she will confirm that whatever the punter may have ordered—her client’s often detailed and rarely original description of the ideal woman whom he would like the procuress to deliver to him—is to be ignored, completely and without the slightest concession to common sense.
This may not be the first rule of the business, but it is its heart and soul, since the client himself knows at some level that, whether he ends up paying the street price or ten times the amount, he’s only going to get what he’s going to get. A procuress would not be so naive as to claim, even in private, that she will dispatch whoever’s available at the moment because the client cannot tell tall-and-blonde from slim-and-buxom. But both know that when the package arrives he will sign for it irrespective of what it contains.
The madam knows from long experience that the client only thinks he wants a lingerie-model type, French-speaking and with blue eyes, but not too tall, who finishes all her vegetables. He is really after insubstantial figments of the imagination—entertainment, novelty, spectacle. The unexpected, the unpredictable. “Feminine.” Hence much of the satisfaction of the caprice lies in the act of consignment, though of course if, in the end, sir isn’t satisfied it’s only better for the madam’s business, because the happily frustrated dreamer is sure to try his luck again the following night. On the other hand, had the madam been sympathetic enough to hear him out and to deposit the actual woman of his dreams on his doorstep, in all probability she would lose both a valued employee and a valuable client, while sir would gain an avaricious and stupid mistress.
The tacit compact between pander and gull, astute on one side and subliminal on the other, has an analogue in pornography. Here, too, the excitement is in the delivery of a harem novelty into the hands of the putative potentate. Mmm, I like her glass slipper, murmurs to himself the prince of Always Reliable Moving & Storage, aware at some level of his consciousness that she and her glass slipper exist only in the fairy-tale business, and that it runs just as much against its commercial principles to introduce the woman behind the image into his reliable world as it would for the brothel to take on the functions of a matrimonial agency.
Then again, in our commercial society, analogues of this kind are plentiful. It is a truism, long belabored by hands as diverse as Weber, Veblen, and Marcuse, that the promotion of never-to-be-satisfied desire is what mature capitalism is all about, and such mirages of mobility or sociability as were conjured up by Ford Motor Company in the 1920’s, or more recently by the pyramid scheme of the World Wide Web, owe much to the psychological mechanisms perfected by man in the pursuit of the eternal feminine. Hence it is hardly surprising that, buoyed by commercial successes in which the history of progress abounds, capitalism has raised the mutual compact of pander and gull to the eminence of an unwritten constitution.
When philosophers called Idealist first described the world as man’s conception of it, they did not suppose that one day capitalism would harness their eccentric idea and start selling reality, at carefully inflated retail prices, back to those who have created it in their minds. Yet this is what’s happened. The free sample—of happiness in the pursuit, of womanhood in the brothel, of cheese in the Vucciria market—is the thin end of the wedge known as the imagination, whose Proustian workings, like so many menacing cogs of a factory conveyor, catch hold of us individually and collectively.
This is why reason is the greatest enemy of business, just as sentiment is its lifelong friend.