Off-white

I'm finding it hard not to start this post with yet another apology, but there you go. Yesterday while I was making my breakfast--organic bananas, organic strawberries, all-natural (no corn syrup!) granola, organic milk from pasture-fed cows, organic herbal stress-relieving tea--I was suddenly struck by how white it all was. Unsurprising, you say? I am, after all, exactly the type of White Person Christian Lander's blog-turned-book is aimed at, both descriptively and in marketing terms: college-educated, upper-middle-class, wannabe artist-intellectual, urban dwelling. And, indeed, although I somehow missed the whole blog phenomenon last winter (too busy teaching the History of European Civilization, I suppose), I read the book as soon as I got back from Europe and could order a copy from my local, independently-owned bookstore. I even took the quiz at the back: "How White Are You?"


Organic food (check), tea (check), yoga (check), gifted children (check--he's sitting next to me right now asking about something to do with algebra that I can't follow for the life of me), international travel (check), not having a TV (check, at least, until this month, when I finally broke down and insisted we buy one, but we're only using it to watch DVD's we've rented from Netflix, another check), vegetarianism (check), Apple products (check, see photo of me with iPod, and I'm typing this on a MacBook), liberal arts degrees (check, I help people get them!), bicycles (mine is a "European city bike"), recycling (check), co-ed sports (check, sort of, does fencing count as co-ed?), divorce (double-check [both parents and self], although my second wedding was in a registry office and we went down to the pub with four of our friends for the reception), study abroad (check, that's how I met both my husbands), graduate school (check, except I finished and now live in a large city, not a small town; does that count?), scarves (check), self-deprecating humor (see present post), not having cash (a real difficulty in Belgium, where nobody takes credit cards), hardwood floors (check).

In other ways, however, I am a terrible failure at being White. I know I should like real coffee and fine wine and lots of different kinds of cheese, but I won't go out of my way to get them. My sister works in the film industry, but I have never been to a film festival and I don't even go to the indie movies at the local cinema. My husband does the grocery shopping, but he prefers Dominic's produce to that from Whole Foods and we never go to the farmers' market in the summer. I'm the one sitting inside on a sunny day being told how beautiful it is outside. I don't even think I'm an expert on my own culture, except the parts that have to do with the distant past, never mind anybody else's (okay, maybe this one's not quite true; maybe it's just that being an historian of medieval Europe cancels out any coolness knowing "another" culture might have, I'm not sure). I have actually published, so I'm not sure where that puts me with the Writer's Workshops, but I have no intention ever in my life of running a marathon. I live in Chicago but have never been to Wrigley Field; I notice Cubs games mainly as traffic preventing me from getting to fencing practice in time for footwork. I have a nagging sense that we should go to the theater more often, but the only plays we've seen in the past ten years are the ones at our son's school.

Further, I don't read the newspaper at all, never mind the New York Times (just more recycling, as far as I'm concerned). I have no intention of moving to Canada, whoever wins this election--that would be abandoning the very country that I love--although I do worry about what might happen to my son if the Republicans manage to get us into another war. I never wear shorts, not even when I'm skinny (it happens, just not as frequently as I'd like. Being skinny, that is, not wearing shorts.) I take the bus when I go downtown. And I read all the wrong kinds of books, preferably detective novels and fantasy when I'm feeling in need of a break. I'm not even tempted to read Infinite Jest (we have it and my husband read bits of it out loud to me), although I did nod approvingly all the way through A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. Moreover, I'm bored with Harper's (not yet an entry on SWPL, perhaps because nobody likes it anymore? It's somehow not the same as The New Yorker, which I don't read either, by the way). Although I'm voting for him, I'm worried about Obama's economic policies, which I rather suspect will be not all that different from McCain's. And although I'm vegetarian, I appreciate that hunters are actually critical for modern wildlife management, even if preferably without helicopters. Oh, yes, and I live in the Midwest.

Now, it is entirely possible that in pointing out how White I feel I'm not, I am only proving once again how very White I am. Part of the joy of being White, after all, is feeling superior by way of criticism of other White People. But as I was slicing my organic bananas and strawberries (no, I lie, the strawberries weren't really organic, just Whole Foods' usual), what I felt was not so much pleasure at the thought of what a tasty breakfast I was about to have, although there was that, as dismay that I could not make the rest of my life conform so exactly to my--and, apparently, millions of others'--ideal. If only my yoga practice were more balanced and I actually meditated for longer than five minutes at the end. If only I enjoyed classical music more regularly and had friends over for dinner more often. If only we could afford to get a new kitchen floor, maybe even new cabinets. If only I could finish Proust, started, yes, back in graduate school while hiking in Crete. It's sobering how very White most of my fantasies actually are. I know, I know, the whole point of Lander's ethnography is simultaneously to lampoon and reassure; after all, he counts himself (see his author photo) as a quintessential White Person. The question is, where did all these White People come from?

I've said above that I don't have any illusions about my capacity as a cultural critic (note both the self-deprecation and the conviction that being a cultural critic is a desirable thing, if only for the book deals it can get you), but my husband and I have talked about this problem before, particularly in my Martha Stewart phase when I was subscribing to her magazine. All those gorgeous cover photos, the flower arrangements and hand-made gifts, the perfectly ordered closets and exquisite color schemes: every month I relived the fantasy of having an elegant, beautiful home, filled with gorgeous and tasteful things, shared with friends over delicious, well-seasoned food. Was that a snicker I heard? Okay, not all White People like Martha Stewart, but perhaps I'm just too old (over-40) to be truly White. I wanted that life--in fact, I have it, if only I look around. If I were a younger White person, I might think perhaps that I'd "sold out" by working for a large corporation, but since as far as I know my university is strictly non-profit, I think rather that I am, in fact, living my dream. (Up to and including listening to my cat retch in the background. I notice that SWPL does not yet include cats.)

I understand from reviews of SWPL that there are books out there that have already tackled the question, but having just spent the past three weeks reading about the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, I wonder whether they take the phenomenon back far enough.
What is my dream of a beautiful, tasteful, perfectly detailed home filled with fine wine and food and clothing and friends if not the very image of the courtly life that Johan Huizinga described so memorably in his Herfsttij der Middeleeuwen (1919), better known in English as The Waning of the Middle Ages, trans. Fritz Hopman (1924), now as The Autumn of the Middle Ages, trans. Rodney Payton and Ulrich Mammitzsch (1996)?* Of course, the whole point of Huizinga's book was to show how the forms of life and art in the fifteenth-century territories of the Burgundian dukes had so crystallized as to render them inert and incapable of inspiring new growth, but even Huizinga was to a certain extent arguing against the tide that would see in the marvellously detailed oil paintings of the brothers Van Eyck not the end of the "middle ages" but the beginning of a new age in sensibility and ornament. What I saw in these paintings as I stood nose-to-nose with them last month was not, however, Huizinga's "full elaboration of all details" so as "to leave [no] thought unexpressed" (Autumn, p. 333), but rather an exploration of the wonder at how hard it is to fill in every detail, just as it is impossible to plumb the depths of Scripture. The more you look, the deeper and richer the image becomes. I felt that I could look forever and never see everything; that every time I returned to the painting, there would be more to see.

What does this have to do with being White? Well, it's a long way from the Burgundian nobility's dream of making life a work of art to the Bobo's dream of an earthly paradise filled with yoga mats and caffe lattes, and doubtless there have been a few other stops along the way. But it seems to me worth thinking about what our current middle-brow obsession (and, yes, it is middle-brow--that's a critique that goes back beyond the 1960s, too) with living the life of the aristocracy as we imagine it actually means. It is the aristocracy, after all, who have the luxury to concern themselves with wide varieties of the same good things, making finer and finer distinctions between wines or music styles or books--or, rather, it was in the fifteenth century because they were the ones paying for it. Now we all have this luxury or would like to pretend we do. The problem is whether it is a bad thing. Yes, we probably should worry more about the environment and health care, but I worry when we start to think that it is a bad thing for there to be so many good things in the world, as if the world could not sustain the detail of gadgets or microbreweries. Huizinga, living at the turn of the twentieth century, saw it as a bad thing that Van Eyck tried to paint everything into his imagining of the world. But this is to argue that God does not love the details, and yet surely it was God who made the flowers and the Virgin and the many-colored wings of the angels and the water droplets in the first place.

*Autumn, p. 104: "All the higher forms of the bourgeois life of modern times are based on imitation of noble life forms."

Picture credit: Jan van Eyck, Virgin of the Fountain (1439), Antwerpen Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Judge MILO

Catch-22: Christmas in America

How to Signal You Are Not a White Supremacist

Why Dorothy Kim Hates Me

The Power of Prayer