Thursday, February 12, 2009

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. 

1 comment:

  1. Well put in so many ways. I plan to link to your post so my Intro to Women's Studies students can respond to it.