The invention of comfort

Perhaps I am not an expert, on anything, but like a good journalist I compensate by having lots of opinions. Many of them are on oeconomic questions. It is part of our fate, as members of this species living on this planet, to participate in something called an oeconomy. The meaning of this word has been subtly modified over the years, so that it means something different to us than it did to, say, the ancient Greeks. For them it was household arrangements. For us it is millions of pages of bleary statistics with bar charts & diagrams & pie charts & ranking tables. The Greeks, who preferred geometry to arithmetic, would not have been impressed, nor interested.

I love their attitude to farms. It appears to be entirely free of romanticism; a farm is a business. You have to be living in a big ugly city to romanticize farms. They are full of pigs, that get diseases — pigs without wings — & as I recall, cows that want to kick you when you’re just five minutes late to milk them. They have fields that attract locusts & other insect pests. And beautiful birds, who instead of usefully eating the insects are helping themselves to your olives. And so on. The ancients generally were given more to stoicism than romanticism, & up here in the High Doganate we like to read Cato the Censor on Farming. One may see how it builds character. One cannot see how it would be much fun. And that’s before the barbarians descend upon you, very hungry.

To eat, we must find food. That is Warren’s First Principle of Oeconomics. I do not start from “consumer choice” the way various experts do. In my travels I had glimpses of the “old world” where most of the population were farmers, & among those who weren’t, fishermen tended to predominate. Most of this labour is now supplied by machines, & cumulative research has made the harvest plentiful, but at the bottom of things there is still the hard earth, & the wine-dark, gale-ridden sea. And as we get away from that we rise into fairyland, & by increments away from the joy of mere survival.

Turning now to the history of furniture — a field in which I am also not an expert — I have long been intrigued by a chapter heading in one or another of the books by John Gloag. It was, if I remember aright, “The invention of comfort.” Reviewing the history of English furniture, he placed this in the 17th century. That is when our chairs & sofas began to be upholstered, & we started to live, as it were, in padded cells.

Visitors to the High Doganate have sometimes noted that, while the walls of our cell are padded with printed books (all of Gloag’s have passed to other owners, however), the chairs are of hardwood, strictly. So was the throne of the Chinese Emperor, & the Mughal one, too, if I am not mistaken — although Oriental luxury began, early, to infect that latter regime.

To outward splendour of palaces, & tombs, I make no objection. To the “ivory” encrustation of the Taj Mahal (in fact white marble, picked with details in jasper, turquoise, jade, sapphire, carnelian & the like) I have raised no objection, so gloriously does it rise from the mudbanks of the Jumna, in the pulsating heat, & does it turn towards its Moonlight Garden. It was a worthy employment for many thousands of artisans & craftsmen: this “teardrop in the eye of the Lord,” who hates death, as we hate death. It gives comfort of a kind, assuaging grief.

But it is not “comfortable” in our glib & modern sense; & a corollary of my First Principle of Oeconomics is that we must slip out of the comfortable.