Summer is a vision of the good life, where you can leave behind the cares of the city, live in a manner and with people that you choose. It’s supposed to be a better place. Paradise! But then, after the interminable purgatory of the Long Island Expressway, you see . . . Cerberus, in the guise of Lizzie Grubman, guarding the crossing. Surely there must be some mistake. Instead of the earthly paradise you’d hoped for, you’ve arrived in HadesHampton, with tortures—Brazilian waxing—to fit every one of Manhattan’s crimes. And, come to think of it, it’s hot.
The Hamptons are in some sense Manhattan made visible, a clearer view. In Manhattan, idiosyncrasy, like almost all of life, is behind closed doors. Summer is performance—a time to flaunt what you’ve earned, show who you are, let your freak flag fly. Summertime means freedom, and, as Donald Rumsfeld said, “Freedom is untidy.” Without the stabilizing influence of work, people follow their impulses, and Manhattan’s worst impulses run riot. Consumption—the infamous $65-a-pound lobster salad from Loaves & Fishes comes to mind—is beyond conspicuous. Transportation is impossible without a high-end European car or a Hummer—and there’s no place to park. Reservations are always necessary, and never obtainable. There’s always someone richer or smarter or better-looking than you are. The denizens feather their nests with shiny objects, squawking and preening like so many magpies.
This is a cartoon, of course, an image in the mind’s eye of those who prefer Rhinebeck or Monticello or Martha’s Vineyard or Maine. Summer communities have an almost religious hold on their devotees. Oceans or mountains. Tennis or horses. South of the highway or Westhampton. Up Island or Oak Bluffs. And one way of saying who you are is by saying who you’re not. Thus, the Hamptons, in their most caricatured and excessive form—and horrible they can seem—are necessary to make their more modest vacation Edens in the Catskills or the Hudson Valley seem paradisial in comparison. Or, to put it another way, summer is the season of snobbery. To have your own fun, it appears to be necessary to have contempt for someone else’s.
Freud called this principle the narcissism of minor differences, and it seems to flower in the summertime. More than in Manhattan (where the stereotyped variations between uptown and downtown, East Side and West Side, Brooklyn and Manhattan, have been gradually lessening over the years), the East End still seems proudly balkanized and tribal. The people in Sagaponack think the people in Springs are hillbillies. Springs dwellers wouldn’t be caught dead in East Hampton shops, even if they could afford them. East Hamptonites want as little truck as possible with Montauk’s grizzled surfers, who tend to see the rest of the Hamptons as an extension of the L.I.E. And to North Fork residents, that other fork provides a useful buffer in case of hurricane, but otherwise, they’d rather not think about it. Summer’s golden rule is, look down on others as they no doubt look down on you. Sharing paradise has never been easy.
A new book out this month, Status Anxiety, by Alain de Botton, provides one framework to think about the hell-is-other-people paradoxes of summer communities. Botton’s 1997 book, How Proust Can Change Your Life, invented the genre of philosophical self-help. In Status Anxiety, he contemplates the mystery of conspicuous consumption, and with the help of an all-star team of Western thinkers from Herodotus to Karl Marx, he shows the various therapies—artistic, bohemian, religious—culture has devised to escape it.
Summer is often about trying and failing to keep people out and looking back across the years to the way things were before the barbarians came.
De Botton sees status anxiety as a basic drive—“our quest for love from the world,” as he puts it—and material possessions—like, say, a beachfront mansion, or a string of polo ponies—as ways to manifest it. Status Anxiety is a surprisingly earnest term paper of a book, lacking some of the charm of De Botton’s previous work. (Its wit can be so dry as to make one wonder sometimes if it’s there at all.) But it provides a clarifying lens through which to look at summer’s social dance, which is not always pretty.
The quaintest thing in De Botton’s quaint book is a genuine sense of outrage about snobbery—it’s spiritual poverty, a social problem to be solved. He sees the need for status as a need for love. “The conditional nature of a snob’s favor may seem so offensive because adult love retains as its prototype the unconditional love of a parent for a child.” One wonders what wounds De Botton might have suffered—what birthday-party invitations he might not have received as a child—to produce such a poignant perception of a social slight. Largely, De Botton cleaves to the Jean-Jacques Rousseau–noble savage view of conspicuous consumption, whereby, in some lost world before history began, a man’s possessions were essentially his good word and his suntan. Then somebody developed a taste for trinkets, and all hell broke loose.
“Rather than a tale of greed,” writes De Botton, “the history of luxury goods may more accurately be read as a record of emotional trauma. The legacy of those who have felt pressured by the disdain of others is the perceived need to add an extraordinary amount to one’s bare self in order to signal that one also may lay a claim to love.”
Jerry Seinfeld’s emotional trauma has given birth to a claim to love in the form of a vast mansion, with its 22-car garage and regulation Little League baseball diamond in place of the obligatory tennis court. Another fashionable rumpus room these days is the full-size indoor basketball court, like the one in mining billionaire Ira Rennert’s 110,000-square-foot complex, with its six buildings, 29 bedrooms, 40 bathrooms, basketball court, and bowling alleys. Rennert’s pile is orders of magnitude bigger than any cottage contemplated by Astors or Vanderbilts in Newport a hundred years ago, and his Sagaponack neighbors waged bitter nimby war against the fortress, six years in the making, claiming that he plans to put it to use as some sort of religious retreat—but Rennert has maintained that it’s simply a family house, his own vision of the good life apparently involving houseguests.