There is a famous scene in the movie Queen Christina. The queen, played by Greta Garbo, has spent a night in an inn with Don Antonio, the Spanish envoy. She is, of course, incognito, escaping from the formality and duties of the Court. She eats grapes – grapes in Sweden, in winter – brought by Don Antonio: “They warmed and ripened in the Spanish sun. My hacienda is overrun with them. In the season of the grape harvest, the air smells purple.” Garbo moves around the room, touching fabrics, furniture, the linen of the bed, a spinning wheel, a candlestick holder, trying to memorise exactly what it feels like. “In the future, in my memory, I shall live a great deal in this room.”1 At this point in the film she is undecided between love and duty, but by the end she has made her choice. Tragedy intervenes, however, and Don Antonio is killed, but the final shot depicts her at the prow of a ship, leaving Sweden for Spain. Roland Barthes has made the scene doubly famous:
Luxury is hard to define, so in the first instance one resorts to examples, like that marvellous scene where Garbo – and, vicariously, her audience – samples all the pleasures of the flesh. In fact Diderot used the term ‘luxe’ as an example of the general difficulty of encyclopaedic definition:
In The Republic Socrates describes a modest way of life in which citizens build their own houses, produce their own food, clothes and shoes, and eat their meals like picnics, reclining on couches of myrtle and briony. In response to Glaucon’s protests Socrates allows that there will be salt, oil and cheese, a variety of vegetables, and that there will be roasted acorns too. That’s not much of a pudding, replies Glaucon, fine for pigs but not for humans. Why can’t there be proper furniture, and the variety of food we are accustomed to? Socrates takes up the challenge and describes the consequences of allowing luxury free reign, warning Glaucon that this will be a description of a society in a fever rather than in health:
Socrates points out that the state will need to become bigger to accommodate all the new luxury occupations. There will be hunters, fishermen, artists, sculptors, painters, musicians, reciters, actors, chorus-trainers and producers, manufacturers of all kinds of domestic equipment, “especially those concerned with women’s dress and make-up”. There will be more servants: tutors, wet-nurses, nannies, cosmeticians, barbers, butchers, cooks. Pigs and cows will have to be looked after, if we wish to eat meat. The new luxuries will increase the demand for doctors. The state will need more territory, to allow more land for pasture and cultivation. Then, Socrates argues,
Glaucon then agrees with Socrates that war is the inevitable result of unbridled acquisitiveness and opens the way for Socrates to describe the specialised warrior class that will be needed for successful warfare: “For soldiering is not so easy a job that a man can be a soldier at the same time as he is a farmer or shoemaker or follows some other profession.”4 In short luxury, the desire for which might be a quite normal human attribute,5
brings disorder and instability into the world, and to counter those explosive forces there must be a powerful state apparatus.