The first ever critique of someone’s taste probably went something like, “Man, your taste in rocks is horrendous! What a dumb, lowlife you must be to think such a rough, ugly stone dislodged from a mound of bison dung is worth anything. Why don’t you be like me and collect these shiny, smooth, grey pebbles collected from a river? Look how beautiful they are!”
The shiny, smooth, grey pebbles might have also been presented as suggesting something of the higher intelligence of the stone collector.
You think it’s ridiculous now but once there must have lived a cultured ape.
When I think about how people go nuts over matters of taste, I’m reminded of the story of the Dutch tulip bubble that happened in the 17th century. For those of you who haven’t heard this crazy tale before, you read that right–tulips. Apparently, at one point in history, the Dutch deemed tulips so valuable that a single tulip bulb was worth as much as or more than an entire house including the land where it stood. Some of these flowers, which were introduced into Europe just a century before, were worth 10 times more than the annual income of a skilled craftsman.
The priciest of them all were bulbs that had an unusual mix of colors different from the more common single-hued varieties at the time. Many years later, people would discover that these exotic flowers were actually suffering from a virus that messed up how they look, producing the strange streaks of colors that the Dutch so coveted.
In short, these were very sick plants.
People lost their heads so much over tulips that they gave the flowers intimidating names like “Admiral Pottenbacker” or “Admiral van der Eyck.” There was even an “Admiral of Admirals.”
Come to think of it, if a garden bulb were to command such a great price that some deluded craftsman could lose his entire estate and end up with nothing but a sickly plant in a pot, you might as well call that piece of vegetation an admiral. Few titles would have been fitting.
And then as if the Lord of Sense got so tired of the noisy Dutch taverns trading in futures (this was, in fact, the birth of this questionable financial fuss, as well), he just struck hard one evening in February 1637 to end the farce once and for all. For some reason, people just stopped showing up in one such tavern supposed to hold one of these popular tulip auctions that determined who had the right to own a flower that hadn’t even bloomed yet.
And from there, the bubble burst. Some people felt the economic hammer fall more acutely than others, and there were a lot of folks who lost a fortune. Overall, however, the Dutch economy–already the richest of that era–didn’t really take a dive.
After all, when the dust had settled, no serious, logical person with a conscience would really bereave a family of all their valuables just because their drunk father made the wrong decision to sell everything he owned for a rare purple tulip with yellow specks on its petals the night before the mania melted away.
I personally think it’s telling that a mania like that happened to the wealthiest economy in that period of history. When people have so much wealth and so little reason to think why one person deserves much more respect or recognition than the other, then the ground is ripe for something truly idiotic to grow and thrive.
I mean, if I were wealthy, and you were wealthy, our neighbors were wealthy, our friends were wealthy–and if we’re all wealthy, then what would separate me from you?
Surely we can’t test our bravery to see who’s of better stock. We’re not soldiers. Or warriors. I can’t defeat you sword in hand and declare I’ve bested you after a decisive, unquestionable final blow to the head. And we all can read and write, can reason our way around issues using the thinnest of facts to back us up, so intelligence would be such a drag to measure. A contest like that takes so long to judge to determine the winner. Besides, people who love to argue never, ever lose an argument. They just keep on arguing until somebody gets parched.
Admittedly, this is a brazenly simple and theoretical version of what might have transpired, but people must have panicked as they realized they were running out of ways to one up one another.
It was probably a goddamn first-world psychological crisis that punctured holes in the very fabric of society.
And so out of nowhere, some florist raised his hand and said, “Ok–how about who owns the better tulip?”
True–taste is a good barometer of a person’s standing in life. One’s Admirael der Admiraelen de Gouda Tulip without a doubt indicated that one had sufficient education and class, as could be expected of someone who had sufficient sacks of money to trade for such a renowned plant.
But what of it?
Was that the point? To declare beyond a shadow of a doubt that one was filthy rich and on the cutting edge of culture? Versed in the finest, most secret knowledge of the floral market?
You could say it’s all just a game. People were trying to outsmart each other and make themselves wealthy like they do all the time, and so they put, what is called in fiction, a “MacGuffin” in the center of it, allowing them to play this game of who gets rich and who gets wretched. It could have been anything–a tulip, a sunflower, acorns, a ball of rubberbands, bitcoin… It doesn’t matter. The point was to get a game of big winners and sore losers going.
Things of ghostly value haunting the real world of men.
Isn’t that where taste comes from? Just utter confusion over what something is really worth?
Going back to our story, in the end, it seemed like the bubonic plague played a major role in reversing people’s minds about those tulips. Imagine how uninspiring it was to debate whose flower was better as your neighbors perished by the thousands.
Nothing like the prospect of painful death to remind us of what truly matters.
And that a fleet of admiral tulips wouldn’t make a pile of dead bodies any less stinky.