Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Virtue of Redeeming Vice

DEC. 26, 2014

I’ve resisted writing about Berlin’s Hotel Savoy because I don’t want to ruin it, but I figure that if it’s resisted modernizing conformity this long it can probably withstand anything. Let me just say how wonderful it is to walk into the fug of cigar smoke in the hotel lobby. Proust’s madeleine has nothing on that time-canceling waft of tobacco.

Out of the mists of time, emerging through the inhaled smoke, looms another age of laissez-faire before anyone ever dreamed of saying “Stay safe” — most awful of salutations — and anyone discovered special dietary requirements; a time when kids roamed free and did not even know what a helmet was.

The Savoy is not a great hotel, but it’s a pleasurable place to be because it has not succumbed to the scented air, the technological ostentation and the simpering obsequiousness by which luxury accommodation seems to be measured these days. It has taps and regular light switches rather than electronic command consoles designed to bamboozle. Its staff tends toward the gruff. Its clientele tends toward avoidance of gyms. Nobody asks for your room number when you walk in for the excellent breakfast. Right next to reception is its cigar bar, where you can drink and smoke into the wee hours as the masters of espionage did back in Cold War days.

The relief from sameness is overwhelming. I’ll take the Savoy’s tobacco smoke any day over the homogenization of the world. But what, you will say, about health? It’s important, and it’s a good thing we’re living longer (although it has become way too difficult to die). But as the sole criterion for existence it’s a bore.

Somewhere along the winding road to today the freedom to be different has been curtailed as technology extracts its last measure of cost-effective efficiency from every aspect of life and social media hands a real-time megaphone to the humorless global thought police. The importance of Oscar Wilde’s “redeeming vice” has been lost.

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