It happens to all of us every once in a while, and today it happened to me: I had to go to Target.
I was zombieing through the aisles, poking at this and that, struggling to remember absolutely everything I might need from the endless aisles so as to prolong another trip as long as possible. While browsing with slow horror through the heaps of Easter-related plastic, alternatively garish and insipid clothing, and frightfully cheap picture frames, book cases, and all the other accoutrements of American life existing in those few post-sweatshop, pre-trashcan minutes – I realized what it is about Target.
Part of it, without a doubt, is the sweatshop stink. A late-stage capitalist kind of outgassing hangs low and thick in the air, making my eyes lightly burn and squint.
That’s the easy part, though.
Apart from the physical difficulties of the store, what makes the big box experience so soul-crushingly pathetic is the lack of true beauty.
Happily, seemingly quotidian activities like a trip to the big box universe are strange, aberrant events in my life. Though my current life has many flaws – working to tears at least once a week comes to mind, as does living with the knowledge that innocent Iraqis are constantly being killed in my name – at least it is filled with beauty.
True beauty, not just pretty beauty.
The modern mall shopping trip has been so completely cleansed of all quirk and reality in the service of complete obedience to moneymaking that true beauty is, by definition, impossible.
The lack of grace on the faces of the ugly, ugly Americans loading up their carts, the roaming bands of cruel teenagers and haggard suburban wives – all the stereotypes are true in Target. Do the people in Target make Target what it is, or does Target make the people in Target who they are? Also, is it dreadfully pre-postmodern to believe that money taints beauty? I suppose so. But it’s not money per se, but capitalism as currently practiced.
Back to beauty. Pretty beauty looks something like this – a blog I enjoy thoroughly, though its cloying sweetness does sometimes set my teeth on edge. I’m happy it’s out there because sometimes we all need a pretty beauty hit, but most of the time I prefer true beauty. True beauty exists side-by-side with its apparent opposite: sweat and swear words and hours and hours of quiet turmoil and labor.
Sometimes I get so dogtired of true beauty. Truffles are true beauty. Often I pick up the knife to chop the chocolate with true soul-exhaustion, the simple: “not again.” The plaintive: “I’d rather sit in the early spring sun and read a novel.” How many hundreds of truffles will these hands make?
Many thousands, and I’m grateful and happy for it. By the time I am measuring out the flavorings with my special measuring spoons kept in their special place on the hook, the alchemy of working with chocolate has taken hold and I am ready to begin the process yet again.
The problem with being an artisan in food is, of course, its ephemeral nature. A painter makes a painting, sells it, and is done. Move on, wait for the muse to return. A truffle maker just keeps right on dipping centers into melted chocolate until her fingers have a groove where the dipping wand fits.
The happy opposite of this problem is one of the great upsides of working in food: the necessity for the artist to cultivate the ability to repeat, over and over, her best work. To summon the muse and make her whisper her secrets while the artist takes notes, sometimes on paper, often on the body – move your arm like this, again, again, again, lightly, like this, again. The artist working in food must work the muse into the tiniest details of the recipe so the recipe can be replicated by everyone. Cooking is truly an art suited to obsessive artisans undaunted by repetition – often the mindless kind, sometimes the difficult kind: creativity on demand, again and again. Prepaid truffles have to be shipped out tomorrow, no time to wait for the muse.
That’s true beauty – calmly looking the yin and the yang in the face. Beautiful chocolates, shaped with my callousing hands. Over and over. Sometimes, I would have rather been reading a novel. Most of the time, I breathe in the perfume of the organic rose petals before pressing them on the pomegranate truffles, fresh from their chocolate bath with their exteriors so quickly rearranging their molecules in the cool air – now soft, now crisp – and feel human.
The problem with Target, of course, is that it denudes us, like a truffle in reverse, of our humanity.
Target is so far removed from true beauty. It isn’t even pretty beauty – it’s just crass consumerism. Once in a while a well-designed item will toe the line, which is why I go to Target instead of K-Mart or The Other Store when I have to go, but all of them are so far down on the beauty scale that they bring the entire universe down a little bit with them with each computerized credit card swipe of the cash register.
We need true beauty to survive. It just might be one of the only things we need – it might be what makes us human. A world weaned on Target is a world that has forgotten true beauty. Is there any hope after that?
Gentle reader, I SWEAR I didn’t realize until right now – “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.”
Honestly, I was never so into the whole idea until today.
Some concepts can only be understood in reverse. Target, neither truth nor beauty, is a fake world, a tiny part of the fake world that cheap oil and sweatshop labor, casual racism and ill-conceived technology helped to create.
Terrifyingly and wonderfully, that world is beginning to crumble. I am scared to know what terrors the post-oil economy will bring, but I am waiting for the day when we remember how to be human again.