Despair, Hope, and the Built World


A description of the human condition: we are habituated to the world long before we become aware of it, and we are aware of it long before we are aware of our habituation to it.

This assumes, of course, that we ever become aware of our habituation. But, whatever our awareness, the fact of our habituation does not change. We are “at home.”

But it is difficult for me to believe that anyone aware of his habituation can remain “at home” in the world for long—I mean this scientized technological everything’s-for-sale world we’re habituated to. If the world isn’t exactly the dung heap (and we the maggots that crawl upon it) that Dulcinea pronounced it to be, it surely isn’t the sort of place we can look at and be particularly proud of or comfortable in. We may be at home, but we are at home only in a kind of somnambulant homelessness. Something needs remodeling, even if we aren’t exactly sure what it is.

But that “something” is precisely what’s at stake. So let us look about.

We are habituated to an immersive ugliness in architecture, civic design, and infrastructure. We are habituated, if not also addicted, to entertainment. (Am I alone in being flummoxed by this?) We are habituated to the alternating rhythms of news and commercial images, to packaging, to around-the-clock shopping, to readily-available gas, to a highly reticulated division of labor, to opinion and opinion polls, to standardized tests, to mobility, to abstract charity, to distraction, to billboards, to noise, to garbage service, to pills for everything from hangovers to hangnails, to sanitized tap water, to a yawning gap between the rich and the poor, to politicians whose main job is to get reelected, to five-cheese frozen pizzas meant to make our lives “better,” and (just to cut the list short) to the promiscuous unthinking use of the word “lifestyle.”

To these and to many other abominations, which time and space and reader patience prohibit my mentioning, we are comfortably habituated. The world and its trappings, its everyday features—indeed, its everydayness—are apparently as unproblematic as the air we breathe.

Which, quite frankly, given the air quality, is a problem.

It is a problem because we’re okay with it. It is a problem because we’re okay with way too much. It is a problem because we’re indifferent to the fact that (as Wordsworth said) “the world is too much with us.”

We could usefully turn this into a thought experiment, I suppose: what are we okay with that we ought to be throwing our shoes at?

I won’t presume to speak for anyone other than myself, but here goes: with something like the heat of a thousand stars I hate movie theaters, drive-thru restaurants, Lincoln Navigators, contemporary poetry, loud motorcycles, Hormel pork tenderloins, Time magazine, the NBA, travel plazas, committee meetings, Krustian bookstores, loose turtlenecks on shapely girls, televisions (especially those in cars and public spaces), bad preaching, lite (and light) beer, urban condescension, suburban “life,” the new definition of “green,” sociologists on Schwinn three-speeds with upright handlebars, the misuse of “like,” democrats in Burkenstocks, republicans in wingtips, and barefoot libertarians—to name only a few abominations that the late great Hayduke would surely have torched, sabotaged, or blown up were he among us still to see it all.

(Hayduke, come quickly!)

But—to return to the original point—we are habituated to the world long before we become aware of it. And as for our habituation: that is something of which, I think, we are only dimly aware, and only for brief moments. Then it’s right back to The World As I Found It, as if the world were a piece of daytime drama for floozy housewives in their Nike running suits shimmering under their chemical hair.

We should do better than this, shouldn’t we? Shouldn’t we apply something better than a penny wisdom to the built world, which, after all, needn’t be the built world? I can’t understand why we are reconciled to cell phones, shopping malls, and cleaning ladies. I don’t understand why we can’t talk less, chase less, and do our own work. I don’t understand why it is so difficult for us to see that the world we have is the world we’ve conjured—and also that other possibilities are there for the conjuring. (I mean this practically and also phenomenologically, but that is venom for another day.) I don’t understand why more people don’t go furiously monkeywrenching across this sorry despoiled land of ours.

What we’re doing is manifestly not okay. And in the end no amount of Prozac is going to convince us that it is. The built world is an offense to all the senses as well as to the imagination; it is generating massive amounts of despair and ennui.

Stand in the parking lot of the Target and tell me this is not so. Stand there and tell yourself it is not so. Tell it to Savannah, who just pulled up in her Yukon after dropping Reese and Colt and Hunter off at daycare. Facebook your findings to your “friends” (and don’t worry a nanosecond about using “facebook” as a verb.)

Ah! be still, my soul. And thou, reader, stay!

Of course there is hope. There is hope in the New Urbanists. There is hope in the odd DDAs across the country, in the bicycles, the clubs, the various movements, the Thoreauvians, the simplifiers, the small farmers, the farmers’ markets, and in the young people who aren’t going to school to bankroll “lifestyles.” There is hope in all the single spies, in all the battalions, in all the little armies of dissent.

Or, rather, there is hope in what’s being done by those who have managed to fend off the despair and the ennui.

For I would say a word in favor of hope—of hope not as an end but as a means. I say that there is hope in what’s being done because it seems to me that hope is always in the means. We are hopeful only when we behave, or see people behaving, hopefully. And hope has this distinctive quality: it increases in the very practice of it.

Go test this some Saturday morning. Walk between the purveyors of sweet corn and tomatoes and homemade soap and tell me hope is not alive. Stand amid the booths of the farmers’ market and tell me this is not so—even if Savannah and the Fertility Triplets are nowhere to be found. To Wal-mart with them!

Wordsworth worried that,

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for every thing, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.

Wordsworth’s preference—to be “a pagan suckled in a creed outworn” so that he might “have glimpses” that would make him “less forlorn”—may not be everyone’s preference, but I think we’re going to have to recover something of that romantic sensibility if we ever hope to unbuild the built world—the hideously ugly and soul-crushing world that needn’t be but is—and then habituate—nay, first conjure, then habituate—ourselves to something better.

And then do our own work and name our children appropriately.

One Comment

Somewhere between your obsession with what you dislike and dancing on Pollyanna moonbeams is a perspective that allows for the recognition of relativity and beauty in the eye of a different beholder. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate and empathize with you perspective; but Hayduke’s influence was only that of a saboteur and not a paradigm shifter. Statistically speaking it is impossible to get rid of mediocrity. In a world where fresh vegetables are sold on the corner by organic farmers and their children come to market on bicycles, the critical eye will find no less mediocrity; it will only be unrecognizably less corrupt. By celebrating the margins we can become less dominated by our individual sense of mediocrity. Ahhh Wordsworth.