Thursday, October 20, 2005

The White City

I spent time in both Target and Giant this week. I know it's really cliched, but as I was leaving Giant, I was really struck by the enormous piles of stuff everywhere--not necessarily rampant materialism, but the tremendous amount of industrial infrastructure that lies behind the breast cancer awareness umbrellas, the plastic lawn chairs on end-of-season sale, the bank of gumball machines--in addition to the aisles filled with stuff I had left behind. A product for every season, reason, and whim. The zillion waif products clinging to my shirttails crying, 'buy me, please buy me.'

It's not as if there's no reason to produce these things--people need to be employed, people have ideas to enact (even if they're not particularly good or useful ones), there are uses for brass grommets, for example. But the sheer amount of stuff--the warehouses to hold it, the trucks to ship it, the large stores that present it, the giant stuff bins we call houses to serve as receptacles for it. My house is a giant receptacle for stuff. That is its purpose--and keeping us dry and warm.

I'm no enemy of capitalism, really. I recognize that I have benefited from the monster. I like stuff. I buy stuff. Is there something wrong with me? I buy things to replace stuff that is not completely worn out. I give the leftover stuff or replaced stuff to my housekeeper so she doesn't have to keep buying stuff, she can just take my stuff and put it into her apartment stuff receptacle. (And I also pay her well, and give her a good bonus and buy her actual new stuff for Christmas presents, so I am some bizarre capitalist/socialist boss who does not try to substitute used stuff for other, more significant compensation.)

Should you recycle stuff, either by giving it away (I don't believe in selling to thrift or second hand stores, for some reason I have qualms about making even a tiny profit off my used stuff), or by handing it down through the ages? Is there moral worth in that, or does that continue to just fetishize stuff?

My parents are big collectors of stuff. They recently emptied the basement of our house, which they have lived in for about 30 years, so that my sister and brother-in-law could move in and renovate it for a family room. (Don't worry, they get the use of the other, above ground floors as well.) Not only was there junk stuff in the basement, but there was also my old stuff, Jeff's old stuff, Peter's old stuff, Sarah's old stuff. And there might have been more had not the basement flooded about 5 or 6 years ago, causing my parents to feel they had to throw out large quantities of stuff because it was soaked beyond repair and, frankly, just didn't smell good. But had it not been moldy, just water-damaged, they probably would have held onto it. My father actually had to turn away as my brother threw out all kinds of stuff he never should have saved to begin with: his broken soap box derby car from the early 1950s, for example. And I would have liked to have had a picture of my brother Peter actually throwing away stuff, because my brother is a bigger collector of stuff than anyone I know. His house is much more of a receptacle for stuff than it is a house.

But some people in my family (who shall remain nameless, even though they don't know I'm writing a blog anyway) have a slight, subconscious sense of moral superiority at the saving of old stuff--I mean, really old stuff--as in, 'you can't throw that away, my great-great aunt Juniper had that in her house the whole time I was growing up!' Yes, they are big savers of old stuff on the slight possibility that it might, one day, fall into the antiques category. As though they would ever get their act together to go to Antiques Roadshow.

Campbell McGrath has a poem, "The Bob Hope Poem", that contains a section (it's a 70+ page poem) on stuff. He's describing the White City, which was the grounds of the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in the late 19th century. The section is entitled, "Commodity Fetishism in the White City":

"If the 7-11 is a minnow, and Wal-Mart a bluefin tuna, the White City was
Moby Dick.
If the 7-11 is a slot machine, and Wal-Mart a bingo parlor, the White City
was Las Vegas.
If the 7-11 is a glittering chapel--like the beautiful Santuario at Chimayo--
and Wal-Mart a sturdy cinder block church of solid suburban
parishioners,

then the White City was a metropolis of neoclassical cathedrals raised up to
the Gods of Materialism themselves--

. . . .

Such were the pavilions wherein was gathered every conceivable artifact
and innovation of national origin or adoptive ancestry,

every all-American doodad, gizmo, gimcrack and curlicue,
and those of the various individual states,
and those of whichever nation or homeland cared to participate,

all and sundry jam-packed into some dozen
bulging Palladian pleasure domes,
an urban dreamscape of wings, naves, galleries and transepts,
lagoons, ponds, basins, bridges,
wedding-cake fountains and creamsicle statuary,

plus scores of lesser Beaux Arts repositories,
plus the carnival clutter and anthropological detritus of the Midway.

. . . .

Anyway, six months later they
demolished it,
or let it go to arson,

every pergola, proscenium, collonade and cornice,

so much unfinished confectionary,
so much frosting on a cake of illusion."


Oh--I feel so much better about buying that microwave now.

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