#35b: 1956 Mercedes 300SL/Underwear

Dear Ralph,

Maybe I’m just feeling a little maudlin because this week marks a year since I closed the store; a year in which I was finally going to have the time and emotional resources to live the life of the mind I had always imagined as the destiny for my true self. But the truth is, I don’t have much to show for it. As the weight of the anniversary as been pressing down on me, I’ve been asking myself just what, if this dream I had ends up empty and false, am I supposed to do with myself?

Proust was able to unravel his whole life from a cookie dissolving in tea, so here comes the underwear and my half-hearted attempt to do the same. A few years ago, a friend of mine who works from home, asked me what he should wear for the long, lonely, isolating days. I didn’t give it much thought, recommended some of your sweatpants and sweatshirts, and moved on. But as I have struggled so much with being at home, I’ve come to see just how vital that question is. It isn’t a question of whether you will feel better about yourself if there is a pony on your joggers (because obviously yes you will) but a question of how you perform your own identity for yourself. That the answer to this deep and ponderous question is old-timey striped boxer shorts should probably give me more pause than it does.

But this summer, when it was too hot for anything (the struggles of a self-determined life are certainly compounded without an air-conditioner) my first impulse was to spend the entire day in my white briefs. (White. Supima cotton. Brooks Brothers. Sorry.) I can’t begin to tell you how demoralizing it is to spend an entire day in just white briefs, but I know you can imagine. The S that is writing you these letters, the S that quotes Kenko and references Proust, is not that person. So instead of spending the summer sitting around the house in my underwear, I spent the summer sitting around the house in fancy-old-timey underwear.

I was bolstered, to say the least, by their allusion to a better, grander, bygone age.

But here is another problem Ralph, I also like to think of myself as someone who is immune from the awful hangover that is the legacy of the Romantic Movement. Everything I love about these underwear, I love for reasons deeply indebted to a Romantic nostalgia about the past and a Romantic conception of myself as a singular man out of step with his time. How can the identity I perform with my mind be so detached from the identity I perform with my underpants?

One of the things I’ve been doing this year is revisiting books I’ve been telling myself are important to me, though the truth is the books themselves were read so long ago the only thing I have is my assertion that they meant something. It is interesting and humbling, like a form of intellectual time travel where I can immediately relive my youthful precociousness, my intellectual pretensions, discover things that I missed in the flush of youth, revel once again in things that only the young can enjoy. No author meant more to me just out of my teenage years than Slavoj Zizek, a man who I claimed to disown when his popularity reached a certain pinnacle of millennial blandness, but whose insights and methods never really left me. From one of his books I recently reread:

Romanticism in its opposition to Classicism can best be grasped through the different logic of memory: in Classicism, memory recalls past happiness (the innocence of our youth, etc.), while the Romantic memory recalls not a direct past happiness but a past period in which future happiness still seemed possible, a time when hopes were not yet frustrated…

This is where I say “you can’t repeat the past” and you say “of course you can.” But what matters most is that I’m wearing these underwear in the present.

Congrats on the fashion show, it looked really nice.


PS – I know I’ve overloaded these last two letters with quotes and I had promised you I wouldn’t talk about Andy again, but it is just too good to pass up. Here’s Warhol in all his vapid glory, hitting surprisingly close to the mark: “Buying is much more American than thinking and I’m as American as they come… I think buying underwear is the most personal thing you can do, and if you could watch a person buying underwear you would really get to know them. I mean, I would rather watch somebody buy their underwear than read a book they wrote.”

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