Showroom vs. Sanctuary: Rebecca Solnit on What Our Dream Homes Reveal about Our Interior Lives
“The dream of a house can be the eternally postponed preliminary step to taking up the lives we wish we were living.”
By Maria Popova
Despite being a longtime believer in and reaper of the benefits of meditation, I only recently attended my first meditation retreat — and found myself confronting a strange disconnect. The workshops and dharma talks were imbued with tremendous production value, from the “set design” of the lecture podium to the cameras recording and projecting the talks onto a giant screen. The accommodation exuded equally conflicting aspirations — the rooms were small and otherwise spartan, but each featured an imitation Eames plastic chair. In the midst of this spiritual haven, there was a full-fledged gym. (To dispel any holier-than-thou impressions: I used it.) A sprawling gift shop offered everything from books to cosmetics to handmade Tibetan jewelry. The Buddha was on sale. (I debated buying one.)
True as it may be that “everything exists at once with its opposite” and that polarities only imprison us, there was something decidedly discomfiting about the situation, yet strangely comforting at the same time: To be human is to be embodied, which implies an inevitable relationship with materiality — and perhaps, if even the enlightened embrace it, that’s okay.
By one of those improbable yet frequent happenstances of the great cosmic accident that is life, the only book I took to the retreat was The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness (public library) — a sublime collection of essays by the wise and wonderfully talented Rebecca Solnit exploring place as “the intersection of many changing forces passing through, whirling around, mixing, dissolving, and exploding in a fixed location,” forces like culture, justice, ecology, democracy, art, and storytelling, which reveal things like “what environmentalists got wrong about country music and nearly everyone got wrong about Henry David Thoreau’s laundry.” (The getting wrong of Thoreau seems to be a recurring theme.)
One of the essays from the book, titled “Inside Out, or Interior Space,” examines with piercing precision of insight “the rising obsession with home ownership and home improvement” and the interplay between our interior lives and our interior decoration, which had manifested with such dissonance at the meditation retreat. As if she too had seen and pondered the car in the retreat parking lot bearing the bumper sticker “If you lived in your heart, you’d be home right now,” Solnit writes:
There are times when it’s clear to me that by getting and spending, we lay waste our powers, and times when, say, the apricot velvet headboard against the lavender wall of a room in an old hotel fills me with a mysterious satisfied pleasure in harmonies of color, texture, atmospheres of comfort, domesticity and a desire to go on living among such color and texture and space and general real estate. There are times when I believe in spiritual detachment, though there was a recent occasion when I bothered to go take a picture of my old reading armchair to the upholsterer’s around the corner to see if it can be made beautiful again and worry about whether charcoal velveteen would go with my next decor. There are times when I enjoy the weightlessness of traveling and wish to own nothing and afternoons when I want to claim every farmhouse I drive by as my own, especially those with porches and dormers, those spaces so elegantly negotiating inside and out, as though building itself could direct and support an ideal life, the life we dream of when we look at houses.
There is something deep, almost primal in how we project our metaphysical aspirations onto our material abodes. It is hardly coincidental that, in one of the most elegant metaphors for consciousness ever woven, John Keats compared the human mind to “a large Mansion of Many Apartments.” But Solnit suggests that the allure of houses as dream-vehicles for the self extends beyond the mind and into the very soul of who we are, which invariably includes who we would like to be:
Admiring houses from the outside is often about imagining entering them, living in them, having a calmer, more harmonious, deeper life. Buildings become theaters and fortresses for private life and inward thought, and buying and decorating is so much easier than living or thinking according to those ideals. Thus the dream of a house can be the eternally postponed preliminary step to taking up the lives we wish we were living. Houses are cluttered with wishes, the invisible furniture on which we keep bruising our shins. Until they become an end in themselves, as a new mansion did for the wealthy woman I watched fret over the right color of the infinity edge tiles of her new pool on the edge of the sea, as though this shade of blue could provide the serenity that would be dashed by that slightly more turquoise version, as though it could all come from the ceramic tile suppliers, as though it all lay in the colors and the getting.
These negotiations are constant and everywhere. Solnit recounts visiting the home of “a prodigal leftist” — the kind, it seems, who might have shared in Frida Kahlo’s revolutionary ideals of “transforming the world into a class-less one” — and being struck by his “infinitely intricate old Victorian sofa reupholstered in Indonesian ikat fabric.” What Solnit ponders about the sofa — “I didn’t know that revolutionaries were allowed to have such things.” — applies equally to the former revolutionary’s cat, an elegant purebred Abyssinian.
With a pause-giving twinge of meta, Solnit points out that this duality exists even in the reader’s relationship with the book itself, at once “a bundle of ideas and another twig to lay on the future fire of your home.” But there is duality even in the notion of materiality itself:
Maybe it’s important to make a distinction between what gets called material and what real materialism might be. By materialistic we usually mean one who engages in craving, hoarding, collecting, accumulating with an eye on stockpiling wealth or status. There might be another kind of materialism that is simply a deep pleasure in materials, in the gleam of water as well as silver, the sparkle of dew as well as diamonds, an enthusiasm for the peonies that will crumple in a week as well as the painting of peonies that will last. This passion for the tangible might not be so possessive, since the pleasure is so widely available; much of it is ephemeral, and some of it is cheap or free as clouds. Then too, the hoarding removes the objects — the Degas drawing, the diamond necklace — to the vault where they are suppressed from feeding anyone’s senses.
One of the top ninety-nine peculiarities about houses and homes is that they are both: real-estate speculation and sanctuary.
“The true artist is interested in the art object as an art process,” Jeanette Winterson wrote in her spectacular meditation on art, and indeed it is artists, Solnit argues, who best bridge — for themselves as well as us — the divide between objects and ideas, between the material and the metaphysical:
Artists have a different relation to the material, since, after all, the main animosity toward the realm of substances and solid objects is that they distract from the life of the mind or spirit; but it’s the job of artists to find out how materials and images speak, to make the mute material world come to life, and this too undoes the divide. Words of gold, of paint, of velvet, of steel, the speaking shapes and signs that we learn to read, the intelligence of objects set free to communicate and to teach us that all things communicate, that a spoon has something to say about values, as does a shoe rack or a nice ornamental border of tulips or freesias. But just as passion can become whoredom, a home becomes real estate, so the speaking possibility of the material world can degenerate into chatter and pitches… Desire is easy. And everywhere.
But Solnit’s most poignant point has to do with how we use materiality as a hedge against our terror of our own impermanence, a counterpoint to the constant and towering evidence that we live in a universe of constant change, where the cycles of life and death spare nothing and no one:
Maybe a house is a machine to slow down time, a barrier against history, a hope that nothing will happen, though something always does. But the materials themselves are sometimes hedges against time, the objects that change and decay so much more slowly than we do, the empire bed in which were conceived children who died a century ago, the old silverware from weddings several wars before that you can buy at the better garage sales, the ones held by people who seldom moved so that objects could drift down on them like muffling snow over the decades until death or dissolution obliged them to dig out.
This is what Anaïs Nin resisted when she wrote in her diary in 1944, “If one changes internally, one should not continue to live with the same objects.” But Nin was a woman who defied convention and lived life by her own rules, and perhaps this was precisely what fueled her philosophy of inner life and interior decor — that she was a woman, but a woman who rejected the norms of womanhood handed down to her by society. Gender, in fact, is something Solnit sees as central to the paradox of private space:
It often seems that the house is an extension of the female body, and the car, of the male body, for thus go the finicky and exacting arenas of self-improvement, the space that represents the eroticized self; and in these female interiors and male rockets lies the old literary division of labor, of travelers and keepers of the flame, of the female as a fixture in the landscape the male traverses and conquers. Certainly historically, men had far more mobility than women.
In one particularly outstanding passage, Solnit considers the ultimate modern female deity of the home: Martha Stewart, who built her empire by selling us “a vision of idealized life and instructions on the journey toward it.” She examines Stewart’s legacy as a potent metaphor for the broader cultural paradox of home and belonging:
Her empire’s putative subject is pleasurable leisure but its subtext is always labor, a labor redeemed or at least redecorated as pleasure, an interminable journey disguised as arrival… The moment of arrival is always delayed, for that is the moment of true idleness… The bride is always getting dressed, the hostess is always setting the table for the guests who have not yet arrived, like Penelope weaving and unweaving at her loom to forever delay the moment when she must choose a suitor to marry, only this Penelope seems to have skipped the suitors or forgotten them in favor of the loom.
Solnit returns to the central duality of the domicile:
The house is the stage set for the drama we hope our lives will be or become. And it’s much easier to decorate the set than to control the drama or even find the right actors or even any actors at all. Thus the hankering for houses is often desire for a life, and the fervency with which we pursue them is the hope that everything will be all right, that we will be loved, that we will not be alone, that we will stop quarreling or needing to run away, that our lives will be measured, gracious, ordered, coherent, safe. Houses are vessels of desire, but so much of that desire is not for the physical artifact itself.
That transference of desire owes much to the “aesthetic consumerism” of which Susan Sontag memorably accused photography. Solnit writes:
Maybe the problem is pictures, that we think in pictures, and we want to: the point of a wedding may be to reduce the weather-like volatility of a relationship into an authoritative picture of cake, happiness, lace, and rented tuxedo. Homes too are imagined as they should be — the Platonic version — before the mail begins to pile up on the table, before the collapsible pool dominating the yard leaves a round ring of brown on the grass, before our bodies leave their imprints in the furniture and their smudges on the walls, before the apple tree took on that strange lopsided shape, before the floor lost its sheen, before the last 117 purchases buried the architecture altogether. Dream homes are dreamt in pictures… Or maybe we want to be still as pictures, keep inserting ourselves into them, but find that we are too restless and active to stay in them. As though we wanted to be pressed flowers, but went on blooming and going to seed, decaying and regenerating.
Painfully incapable as we may be of living alone, we inadvertently end up designing and decorating toward that fear. Solnit contemplates the mansions of the wealthy, where countless private bathrooms and individualized furnishings provide not only “a retreat from society but also an isolation of each from each, a sort of minimum security — for breaking out, not for breaking in — solitary confinement system.” This, perhaps, is the strange disconnect Bertrand Russell foresaw a century ago in considering the conquest of leisure. Solnit writes:
The house is the picture of pleasure, while the amount of time it takes to earn it or make it or maintain it or even reach it from the office is just an idea correlated to clocks. It’s partly in pursuit of ever-larger homes — the average American home has doubled in the last half century — that Americans got so frantic.
In Solnit’s closing passage, the word “execution” shimmers with the same uncomfortable duality as the subject of the essay itself:
Maybe we all dream of being God, the god who breaches dams, moves houses suddenly, erects bridges, decides where forests will be and who will die; and we graduate from the dollhouse to our own house if we are lucky, where we assume a role somewhere between God the Creator and the chambermaid, choosing but carrying out more painfully the clean floor, the dinner for six, the potted plants, the framed prints. The execution is difficult. The dreaming is easy and unending.
Each of the 29 essays in The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness is a remarkable read. For more of Solnit’s elevating writing, see her explorations of what books do for the human spirit, why the sky and the ocean are blue, and how we find ourselves by getting lost.
Published November 11, 2014