Sunday Night Journal — April 30, 2006
Interior Design Meets the Grim Reaper
As I think I’ve mentioned before, there are far too many unread or partially-read magazine around my house. Whenever I sort through them with an eye toward dropping a subscription or two, the Atlantic rises high on the list at once. I greet the arrival of each new issue with a certain amount of dismay, because it puts me that much further behind in my reading. Just this morning I managed to discard the November 2005 issue, but decided there were a couple of things in the January/February issue that I still want to read.
There is relatively little in each issue that seems either significant enough or potentially enjoyable enough to qualify as a must-read. It’s a secular, more or less conventionally liberal magazine, and therefore most of the writing stems from a view of the world which, from my point of view as a Catholic, is inevitably deficient, and blind to some of the most important aspects of most subjects. And there’s a lot in it that just doesn’t interest me much, like the March cover story on the application of scientific methods to matchmaking.
But unlike its similar and, I presume, rival publication, Harper’s, The Atlantic has its feet on the ground most of the time, and its head level. Whenever I pick up Harper’s I have the impression that I’ve entered the atmosphere which is found all too often on the left, in which anger and scorn have replaced or at least corroded thought. Not so The Atlantic. I disagree vastly with the very left-wing and anti-Christian Christopher Hitchens, but his book reviews in The Atlantic rarely fail to tell me something interesting. If I let this subscription drop, I would miss Benjamin Schwartz on books. I would very much miss Caitlin Flanagan’s droll insistence on looking at what is actually happening in the realm of marriage and family instead of what political fashion insists ought to be happening.
And I would miss the occasional entirely unexpected piece that gives me a surprising insight or a brilliant bit of writing. Such was the article about God and evolution which I discussed here, and such is “Home Alone,” by Terry Castle, one of those putative book reviews which is less about the books and more about the author’s views on the same subject as the books. The subject here is something I didn’t know existed, or rather had not considered as a category of its own: “shelter-lit,” books and magazines about interior design.
I think of décor (to use the author’s preferred term) as something which can be afforded only by people who have either a great deal of money, no children, or both. Of course I want my home to be a physically appealing and pleasant place to be, but if nothing else the presence, often dominating, of overflowing bookshelves in almost every room of our too-small house renders anything that could be called “décor” impossible, or at least problematic. So I started this piece figuring that I would read a few paragraphs and, if it lived down to its promise, move on. I admit that when I continued to read I was impelled at least in part by a mild pleasure of the Lord I thank thee that I am not as this sinner sort, mildly pleased that I did not recognize any of the presumably expensive brand names and French terms. I soon became interested in the bits of autobiography woven into the discussion, and the way such things as the very traumatic (“nuclear-war style”) divorce of her parents had affected the author’s attitudes and emotions toward her physical homes. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable piece of writing, and if you’re not a subscriber check it out the next time you’re in the library. (You can read the first few paragraphs here but most of it is available only to subscribers.)
But the reason I’m writing about this review/article is the surprising turn it takes toward a connection between mortality and the pursuit of the perfect interior. In particular I want to note this paragraph:
The habits of bourgeois life—first adumbrated in Northern Europe as early as the sixteenth century—have been for some time the buffer of choice, civilization’s all-purpose comfort-and-happiness maximizer. But the bourgeois outlook could hardly be called valiant or hardheaded: it’s all about not staring death in the face. Under its sway one seeks a world without pain.
This is right on target, I think, and I also think it reaches into an area where the author did not intend to go. I’ve believed for a long time that part of the explanation for the strange manifestations of alienation in the industrialized world is that all people sometimes, and some people most of the time, recognize that this bourgeois outlook is an attempt to set aside the most important, most disturbing, and most mysterious questions of human life. A way of life which tries to pretend that material comfort and pleasure are sufficient for real human well-being is false at heart and headed for some painful awakenings.
I like my comfortable and quiet bourgeois life a great deal, and I don’t want to have it upended by, for instance, another Hurricane Katrina. But I don’t fool myself into thinking it’s all I need. To quote Terry Castle again:
There’s one big problem here, and you don’t need to rent old Ingmar Bergman movies to see it. There’s a real skeleton at the door, and whoa—looks like he’s aiming to get in.
I once wrote most of a full-length essay on the connection between bourgeois comfort and alienation. It is now stranded on an obsolete computer. I may try to retrieve it.