Tuesday, June 01, 2010

The Diderot Effect



Don’t you just love it when you discover there actually is a word or expression for a phenomenon you’d recognized but didn’t realize had a name? That happened to me recently with the Diderot Effect.

I first became aware of this tendency in human nature when I bought my house here in New Orleans. I loved the house because of its floor plan and its long breezy gallery and its rows of French doors opening onto a secluded, iron-gated courtyard (and because it had lots of lovely built-in bookcases in the family room that I planned to turn into my office; my real estate agent said, “I’ve sold houses because they had hot tubs or crown molding or granite countertops, but this is the first time I’ve ever sold a house because it had bookcases.”). But the house was an outdated wreck painted a dull gray beige on the inside and pink and turquoise on the outside, so the girls and I (joined later by Steve) set to work painting and renovating.

That’s when we discovered this strange phenomenon. We painted the upstairs hall but instead of making the hall look better, all it did was emphasize how ratty the carpet was. So we pulled up the carpet and put down a wood floor, and suddenly we were really, really bothered by the tacky light fixtures overhead. The massive renovations necessitated by Katrina only increased the problem. The new paneled doors downstairs made the old slab doors left upstairs unbearable. The new master bath doomed the old hall bath. We laughed about what we assumed was simply our own private quirk. Then I discovered that there really is nothing new under the sun.

Denis Diderot was one of the French philosophes of the eighteenth century who brought us the Enlightenment (and, by extension, such various legacies as the American Declaration of Independence and the Reign of Terror). In 1769 or thereabouts he wrote a humorous essay entitled, "Regrets on Parting with My Old Dressing Gown, or a Warning to those who have more taste than fortune." In it he describes how the possession of a splendid new scarlet dressing gown leads him to replace his scruffy old chair with a lovely new armchair of Moroccan leather. Then he realizes the chair makes his desk look beat up, so he springs for a glossy new writing table. And so it goes, on and on, until he has completely redone his study and is as a result on the brink of financial ruin.

The Diderot Effect.

15 comments:

Sphinx Ink said...

LOL! That phenomenon that has followed me all my life. Now I know what to call it.

Alas, I generally don't have the money to buy replacements after a certain point, so my environment is always Diderot-stymied.

Steve Malley said...

I see this heaps with the people I tattoo-- one good one makes the rest look bad. Now you've got me wondering if I've ever driven any of them to financial ruin... ;-p

Thanks for the laugh. This morning it was even more welcome than usual! :)

Julie said...

That's so true! My problem is I often think of all those things in advance and then don't do any of it because I can't do all of it. (I want a new mattress, but I want a king size so I'd have to replace my bed and the end tables, and that wouldn't go with the dresser and armoire....).

And I would totally buy a house for the bookcases. In fact, it was a major selling point of the current house.

Pax Deux said...

Oh, what a great story! After reading your blog, I ran out and tried to locate your story (possibly inconveniencing several other people along the way -- is there a name for that effect?) And of course it would be Diderot who first and so humorously wrote about that particular human folly.
I will not share this with my sweetie whom I have just conscripted to renovate our second child's bedroom :lol:

orannia said...

LOL! I've just bought my first house and it needs a lot of work, but this phenomenon has me worried now as to where it will end!

cs harris said...

Sphink Ink, I agree, it is SO frustrating to see things I want to change but can't.

Steve, hope the day improves!

Julie, sounds like you also suffer from a related syndrome that Steve calls But First, as in, "Honey, can you move that azalea over to the fence? But first you need to dig up that holly fern and move it over where that yew is..."

Pax Deux, Diderot is my favorite philosophe. And yes, keep this a deep dark secret!

Orannia, believe me, it never ends!

Charles Gramlich said...

I find it quite comforting to know that I am not affected by the Diderot effect.

eceldridge said...

I'm going through the Diderot Effect myself. Spring cleaning has turned into summer cleaning with no cure in sight! Here's to penny-pinching autumn!

sallyjvu.barclay@yahoo.com.au said...

I can very well relate to the "Diderot" effect!! Having lived virtually all my life in old houses around the world that all needed some sort of TLC!! (Tender loving care) As for buying a house for its bookshelves, why not indeed? It is a perfectly feasible idea. Happy renovating Candy, the finished product will I'm sure be quite superb!!

cs harris said...

Charles, you're lucky!

eceldridge, I don't think it ever ends. I've spent the afternoon painting new doors for the bedrooms...

Sally, I suspect just about the time I finish, we're going to sell the house and move.

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