Consumerism: A Necessary Evil....?

So many demands are made on our time today that we often reminisce about the “good ol’ days” when there were no cell phones, computers, or even cars or televisions. Unfortunately, upon closer examination you’ll probably find that that idyllic existence is an illusion; even without such technology, life—or maybe society—demands that one must have a purpose at all times.

“‘Really I must—really I must’—that is it. Without investigating the demand, the mind cringes to the accustomed tyrant. One must, one always must, do something or other; it is not allowed one simply to enjoy oneself. Was it not for this reason that, some time ago, we fabricated the excuse, and invented the necessity of buying something? But what was it? Ah, we remember, it was a pencil.”
-“Street Haunting: A London Adventure”

With that, over seven decades ago, Woolf berates the musty old ‘must’ that never tires of plaguing our lives. A pencil seems innocent enough. One might write a long letter, or a postcard, or a novel; or one might write a list of things to do which require our attention. Regardless of purpose, the pencil is needed to propel us outside so we can shirk our other duties for a while.

This is the sad reality, folks. I was in the historic district of Seymour, CT for an appointment at the dentist’s over this past winter break. I was set to meet a friend afterward at the mall, but she was running late due to her mother’s concerns over the icy roads (Read: the roads weren’t making her late; her mother was). At any rate, I had some time to spare and thought it would be lovely to peruse an antique shop or two before heading up to the mall. It was cold and rainy out, so it was doubly lovely to be inside and with all kinds of great vintage jewelry, glassware, and books and such. Since I was killing time, I was poring over various objects for a longer than absolutely necessary. I had a conversation with the shop owner, the only other person in the store, and walked through every aisle. After fifteen minutes, she called out to me, “Found anything?” to which I replied, “Oh! You have so many great things!” Apparently, this would not suffice: “That’s not what I asked,” she said, “What are you buying?” With that, I was suddenly obligated. I couldn’t just take in all the pretty things and go on my way aesthetically satisfied before driving in the winter dreariness for eleven miles to get up to the mall.

So I bought a necklace…..and it was worth it. Not that I had a choice.

“Streethaunting”

In “Streethaunting: A London Adventure” Woolf talks about how much she enjoys browsing the streets in the wintertime. She says that streethaunting in winter is the “greatest of adventures” and states many reasons why. When Woolf streethaunts it’s a very relaxing and almost spiritual thing. When I walk the streets I don’t think like Woolf does: she notices almost everything. Including all of the things that people are doing, which I think that most people wouldn’t pay a lot of attention to. When she talks she seems almost like Mrs.Dalloway since she is noticing and remembering everything as she walks down the street. She also has that nosy, curious quality that Mrs.Dalloway has.

In the second paragraph, Woolf gives us the best time to streethaunt. “The hour should be the evening and the season winter, for in winter the champagne brightness of the air and the sociability of the streets are grateful,” she says. She also says that we aren’t longing to get shade and air like we do in the summer, so that makes it more enjoyable. I don’t agree with her: in the winter I like to stay in the house, bundled up in bed with cocoa. I also think that in the winter other people like to stay home as well, so the streets aren’t as interesting. But she thinks the streets are beautiful in winter and talks about the interesting characters she comes upon while streethaunting. “The eye is not a miner, not a diver, not a seeker after buried treasure. It floats us smoothly down a stream; resting, pausing, the brain sleeps perhaps as it looks,” she says. I think this means that we shouldn’t look for interesting things we should just let them come to us.

When Woolf asks the woman what it’s like to be a dwarf, it seems very mean and rude of her. But she seems to almost admire the woman. She talks about how she held her foot out and it was normal-sized. “At length, the pair was chosen and, as she walked out between her guardians, with the parcel swinging from her finger, the ecstasy faded, knowledge returned, the old peevishness, the old apology came back, and by the time she had reached the street again she had become a dwarf only,” Woolf says. This seems like Woolf is saying that we judge a dwarf when we see them walk down the street. But if we get to know them and see who they are we wont see them as just a dwarf.

Woolf also talks about the excitement of entering into a new room. I think her excitement of entering into a new room is the excitement that we get when entering into a new country. “It is always an adventure to enter a new room for the lives and characters of its owners have distilled their atmosphere into it, and directly we enter it we breast some new wave of emotion,” Woolf says. I think she means that we don’t only get these things by the people that are in the room, we also get it by the way the room looks and the objects in it. Streethaunting to her isn’t just walking on the street, it’s walking into shops and observing people.--Baha

White peonies, cut short in small silver vases

I have always felt that I was a bit shallow, but now I suspect that I may be extraordinarily shallow.

I began to have the faintest suspicion of the complete shallowness of my character while reading Mrs. Dalloway, because I related to Clarissa Dalloway. I feel ashamed admitting that, but it is true. We are both privileged females living in the Western world, far too often concerned with trivial things.

I had a Mrs. Dalloway moment last week. I was at the Barnes & Noble cafe with my friend Isabella and we were discussing a dinner party that we were going to have. It was going to be very intime but charming, eight in all, in my grandmother's dining room, with bone china and candles in silver holders going down the length of the table. I was going to wear my Age of Innocence dove-gray silk, Isabella was yet undecided on her wardrobe, but it was most likely going to involve large quantities of tulle and netting. We fell to talking about the flowers. White, I said, only white. White peonies, cut short in small silver vases. I was very firm on this point--in fact, I absolutely refused to hear of anything else. Isabella finally gave in arguing for yellow and as she conceded, I had a moment where I thought, this is silly. This is silly to argue for white peonies for a frivolous dinner party. The entire thing is absurd--the flowers, the dove-gray silk, the candles, the dinner party, me--all absurd. 

It was a random moment of first-world guilt. It hits you when you least expect it. Not when you're sitting comfortably at home reading the horrific NYT story about the Sudanese rape victims. Not when you buy a $1400 handbag. Not when you moan and groan about having to get up for class and then see that in other parts of the world, girls are attacked with acid when they go to class. No, first-world guilt always comes unexpectedly--like when you're arguing for white peonies at a cafe table. And then you have to step back, and take a good look at yourself and the world you inhabit. To compare that world to the one in which the majority of humanity lives-- it's nearly impossible to really comprehend the gap between the two. Yes, it is easy to state the differences: a good deal of the world does not know when their next meal is coming and you do, but to actually realize what that means is difficult. Superficially, of course we understand. But internally? Perhaps not so much.

Similarly, the narrator in Woolf's essay "Street Haunting" observes the juxtaposition of the haves and the have-nots of humanity, except on a relatively microcosmic scale--in London. 

It is jarring to go from "the humped body of an old woman flung abandoned on the step of a public building with a cloak over her like the hasty covering thrown over a dead horse or donkey" to suddenly in the very next paragraph, and presumably, in the next street, "everything seems accidentally but miraculously sprinkled with beauty." The speaker observes this contrast, pointing out that:
[The derelicts] lie close to those shop windows where commerce offers to a world of old women laid on doorsteps, of blind men, of hobbling dwarfs, sofas which are supported by the gilt necks of proud swans; tables inlaid with baskets of many coloured fruit; sideboards paved with green marble the better to support the weight of boars' heads...
The speaker observes all this ironic contrast without any middle-class/upper middle-class guilt whatsoever. In fact, when describing "these derelicts," the speaker seems to feel a sense of revulsion over anything else, even pity. There is no attempt to empathize with these unfortunate beings, though the narrator does speculate about their lives, concluding that "life which so fantastic cannot be altogether tragic." While the speaker certainly sees the abject poverty of these people, it is clear that she or he does not truly understand the abject poverty. If the speaker did understand, then she or he would not have said that the derelicts did not grudge them their prosperity--especially when the speaker in question is wandering the streets of London observing its poor and handicapped as one might look at animals in the zoo.  

A first-world guilt attack, for me, usually consists of a reevaluation of my entire life in short questions running through my head: what is the point, what does it matter, what I am doing with my life? The last question generally echoes around my head longer than the rest, because I feel that instead of living a privileged life in the developed world, I should be doing something to help those who aren't. After all, my life as it is now feels like dumb luck--just being born in the right place and time to the right people. I am undeserving of what I have--I think probably most privileged people are. All of humanity equally deserves to lead the lives that we as developed-world inhabitants lead.  

Of course, I only think this way every so often--you forget about the guilt in the onslaught that happens to be your life. First-world worries consume me--like papers and grades and whether I can take a trip this summer or not and should I get bangs and internship applications--all these questions, which seem so insignificant in the larger scheme of things, are so important to me.

Sometimes I look at my life. I examine it closely, turning it this way and that way in my hand, to see if it catches the light. If I am possessed with nothing, I am possessed with ambition and I've recently begun to get a nagging feeling in me, the kind that starts in your throat and settles in the pit of your stomach and keeps you awake at night. It is not failure, exactly, but it's the middle road between success and failure. Mediocrity, I suppose. (I believe it is a first-world privilege to have continual, melodramatic, soul-searching, inner angst.) It's silly, at eighteen, to think this way, but I can't help it. I have this overwhelming sense of being pressed for time--like I have so much to do and so little time to do it all. I look at the quiet, ordinary days of my life so far, the days when I didn't write or come up with a plan to rule the world or nothing extraordinary happened to me, and half of me says those days are wasted and the other half of me says those days are and will be the most important days of my life.

After all, isn't that what Virginia Woolf writes about? Ordinary days, ordinary lives, ordinary people, and yet all are extraordinary. They all inhabit the same world and they all have a distinct viewpoint. Her works are worlds within worlds--and the dichotomy of two very different worlds living side by side to one another. My day may be ordinary and yours may be extraordinary, and yet we live in the same world. The speaker in "Street Haunting" imagines how pearls in an Oxford Street window could change her life and at perhaps at that very corner, there might be "a bearded Jew, wild, hunger-bitten, glaring out of his misery," looking at the same pearl necklace and thinking how it could change his life, but in a vastly different way. Half-way across the world, a girl hides from the rebel soldiers who have invaded her village, crouches, cowers, prays, knows the stories, and waits for her death, and perhaps in that same moment, I say white peonies, cut short in small silver vases. 

Notebooks & Pencils

I am not equating Joan Didion to the magnitude of Virginia Woolf (although I enjoy the works of both authors immeasurably). The writing styles are by no means identical; however, they share some similarities that I do not believe are a result of mere coincidence. While reading Woolf's, "Street Haunting: A London Adventure," a few select passages in Didion's well-known nonfiction essay, "On Writing A Notebook" unexpectedly came to mind. It occurred to me, that the same woman who would create buying a pencil after World War I into an occasion, would likely keep a notebook during the Vietnam War.

The narrator in "Street Haunting" meditates, "One is forced to glimpse and nod and move on after a moment of talk, a flash of understanding, as, in the street outside, one catches a word in passing and from a chance phrase fabricates a lifetime. It is about a woman called Kate that they are talking, how "I said to her quite straight last night . . . if you don't think I'm worth a penny stamp, I said . . ." But who Kate is, and to what crisis in their friendship that penny stamp refers, we shall never know; for Kate sinks under the warmth of their volubility; and here, at the street corner, another page of the volume of life is laid open by the sight of two men consulting under the lamp-post. They are spelling out the latest wire from Newmarket in the stop press news. Do they thin, then, that fortune will ever convert their rags into fur and broadcloth, sling them with watch-chains, and plant diamond pins where there is now a ragged open shirt? But the main stream of walkers at this hour sweeps too fast to let us ask such questions" (Woolf).

This interrupted thought-manner of writing is mirrored in much of Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion’s collective work. In "On Writing A Notebook," Didion recalls various single moments throughout her life that she captured in her journal. Those moments are not explained with the help of length anecdotes, but random phrases, years and names. Woolf’s "If you don’t think I’m worth a penny stamp," is Didion’s, "So what’s new in the whiskey business." Didion writes:

"So what's new in the whiskey business?" What could that possibly mean to you? To me it means a blonde in a Pucci bathing suit sitting with a couple of fat men by the pool at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Another man approaches, and they all regard one another in silence for a little while. "So what's new in the whiskey business?" one of the fat men finally says by way of welcome, and the blonde stands up, arches one foot and dips it in the pool, looking all the while at the cabana where Baby Pignatari is talking on the telephone. That is all there is to that, except that several years later I saw the blonde coming out of Saks Fifth Avenue in New York with her California complexion and a voluminous mink coat. In the harsh wind that day she looked old and irrevocably tired to me, and even the skins in the mink coat were not worked the way they were doing them that year, not the way she would have wanted them done, and there is the point of the story. For a while after that I did not like to look in the mirror, and my eyes would skim the newspapers and pick out only the deaths, the cancer victims, the premature coronaries, the suicides, and I stopped riding the Lexington Avenue IRT because I noticed for the first time that all the strangers I had seen for years - the man with the seeing-eye dog, the spinster who read the classified pages every day, the fat girl who always got off with me at Grand Central - looked older than they once had."

One hotel, one scene, one passerby Didion overhears, creates the very "fabricated lifetime" Woolf’s narrator is speaking of. In both passages there’s the men in conversation; there’s Kate and there’s the blonde. There’s capitalist and feminist undertones. There is the judgment. But more than that, there is the answer to Woolf. In "Street Haunting" there is too much visual stimulation to stop and ask questions with regard to what one is witnessing. Perhaps we can only ask the questions later on. Didion is writing her rereading of the notebook. She's had many of these "walks" and is now in a position to ask questions, to reflect on why she noticed the things she did or continues to. Both the narrator and Didion are affected by the same sights and remake the same sights. In a small way, Didion’s sad spinster is the narrator’s dwarf; her mink coat, the narrator’s diamond pins; her whiskey business, the narrator’s wire from Newmarket. And the reader is left to form their own opinions about the two women judging them.

More importantly, both authors are living in the mind frame of war. As a progressive woman and writer, Woolf is a form of counterculture in her own right, and in effect, the narrator of "Street Haunting" owns a small part of that. Didion happens to be a woman who embodies those qualities as well. She lived during the era that defined counterculture, the time to ask questions and demand answers. Whether it is the unique conditions these women worked under that is responsible for the minor resemblances, is something to think about. Whether Didion was influenced by Woolf, I do not know. Still, in essence, buying a pencil and writing a notebook can be one in the same.