I was re-reading Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine this afternoon because I am teaching it in my American Literature After 1945 class tomorrow, and I was struck by a passage that I hadn’t thought about much before (which is the beautiful thing about the novel: basically every paragraph is thought-provoking if it hits one in the proper frame of mind, thus making the book eminently re-readable because different passages will stand out at different times of one’s life). The narrator describes mailing a batch of varied correspondence and his subsequent feeling of importance:
“I became aware of the power of all these individual, simultaneously pending transactions: all over the city, and at selected sites in other states, events were being set in motion on my behalf, services were being performed, simply because I had requested them and in some cases paid or agreed to pay later for them” (21-22).
While not all of the correspondence that the narrator sends is financial in nature (e.g., he mails a letter to his grandparents), what struck me is that part of why capitalism survives is that it parcels out bits of fun to everyone when we buy things, even during seemingly small transactions. I suppose this is simply another way of saying that commodity fetishes exist, but nevertheless, it is necessary to note that we support the system just as much when we make a few small, aesthetically-pleasing purchases as when we buy a house because society teaches us that such a purchase is necessary to be considered “successful.” I happened to run several small capitalistic errands today, acquiring a variety of goods: a tank of gas, a snow shovel, a wine decanter (my favorite purchase), some trail mix, and a cup of coffee at a locally-owned coffeehouse. I had the same subtle, pleasing sense of accomplishment as the narrator does, which highlighted just how deep into the system I am.