There is an ongoing obsession with the pumpkin spice latte. Some hate it, some love it, but everyone from comedians to market analysts are talking about it. What’s the big deal about a flavored drink?
I blame cultural existentialism.
We live in an era of post (post post?) modernism. Our culture is marked by pluralism and existentialism. We’re told it gives us freedom and makes us be nicer to each other by erasing differences. (Hint: It doesn’t seem to be working very well.) Within this whole construct, significance has been erased from everyday life, most notably in the passing of time. We’re expected to create our own meaning, and without any cultural guides, we turn to whatever is marketed to us.
Western culture used to have all sorts of ways to mark the passing of time, most notably within Christianity. We had feast days and colors associated with certain blocks of the year, liturgies and spiritual disciplines. We meditated on certain stories at certain times of the year and took part in well know rituals in a structure established for that very purpose.
Before that, the pagan world believed in gods of all kinds. Seasons and solstices were times of worship and mankind took great joy at not being the center of everything. Submission to higher authority was instinctive, even if the gods themselves were a little doubtful.
But all these years later, in the aftermath of Freud, Nietzsche and Marx, we’ve suppressed our instincts towards the gods. Meaning and significance have been erased. Life doesn’t mean anything, it just is. If you don’t like it, make something up. You are the center of your universe.
As hard as we try to swallow it, we can’t keep it down. We crave significance. Even in the passing of time, we feel a void. It is not enough for the seasons to come and go, we need to mark them, pay tribute somehow. Our culture feels the need for a ritual imbibing of a certain blend of flavors. The pumpkin spice latte doesn’t actually have pumpkin in it, it’s filled with all sorts of unhealthy things and it doesn’t actually taste all that amazing but it’s all we have.
It’s all the more important to those of us who don’t actually get to witness the changing of the seasons. We don’t get a taste of fall or winter but we couldn’t possibly let them go unworshiped. Like the pagan festivals of old, stores offer all sorts of fake leaves, squash and pumpkins and cinnamon with which to fill our homes. I recently witnessed a woman purchase $150 worth of fall related items that served no other purpose than to pay tribute to the season.
All this comes right before the holiday during which otherwise normal individuals place plastic replicas of skeletons and other disturbing objects in their front lawns in preparation of the night in which the local children will arrive in traditional garb, recite a ritual phrase in order to receive a specific type of edible associated with the day.
Which is nearly a month before the ritual slaughter and consumption of a specific animal for a feast day commemorating a previous event in our history.
Which is a month before the holiday nearest the winter solstice and all the well established pagan rituals we’re all very familiar with.
We can’t handle the lack of significance and ritual. The godless world is haunted by immanence. We’ve tried to erase the pagan superstitions but we never will. The default mode of the human heart is religion, however much we deny it.
So that’s why we buy pumpkin spice lattes.