The Thing Itself

At breakfast, someone mentioned this NYT Opinionator essay against irony. What I think is especially interesting about it is how it speaks to the ways in which we consume. The author says she has a hard time buying sincere gifts, and asks us to consider whether the clothes we buy reference something beyond themselves.

As someone in a transitional period–moving; aiming for a job in academia, but not yet there–I’ve recently become far more aware of my own ironic tendencies and how they have been masking not so much my fear of change, but a sort of aesthetic blindness that accompanies my ideas of adulthood. Like, I shop for shoes to go with my interview suit and realize I am not actually looking for shoes that appeal to me, I’m not even looking for a specific shoe. I’m looking for shoes that function as shorthand for “business attire.” I am looking for a parody of a particular genre of shoe. Similarly, I move into a new home, a bigger place that feels a bit barren, so I find myself wandering into antique and thrift stores in search of decor. But faced with showrooms that feel huge and over-stuffed, and unclear as to what, exactly, my actual homing style really is, I default to irony. I love an adorable whale sculpture whose open mouth is actually an ashtray. At home, perched on a bookcase, there is already a ceramic statuette of a man holding his young son awkwardly close to his body–awarded to M by a friend after he won a writing competition. Next to it, is a half-naked ceramic monk from a gift grab at a holiday party in grad school. Both are white and glazed, which pleases me, and they remind us of old friends and times and so we display them.

But are these things beautiful? I don’t think I actually know what that means, especially when it comes to adultish things like uncomfortable shoes and bric-brackery. Irony keeps beauty at arms’ length. And then one day you wake up and realize you’re going to be forty (“Someday!” sobs Meg Ryan in “When Harry Met Sally”) and you don’t know how to talk or even really think about the beauty of things, not in the way you can, for instance, talk about books and beauty of language. So I’m trying to train my beauty eye. I seek out as much art as I can. I try to remember the William Morris edict about beauty and utility. I look at local architecture and watch the people of Chicago, many of whom take their wardrobe cues from the city that surrounds them. They embrace interesting shapes and blocks of color and minimalist designs and they dress for ease and warmth. I want to see things that make me feel and think. I want to bring the world right up to myself and, yes, let it in.

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