(Note: This is an essay I wrote a long time ago when I was still in grad school and put on my old web site. Brandon reminded me of it. I'm reposting it here. This is not me in one of my most mellow moods, so be warned.)
Ruskin in Phoenix
Against my good sense I agree to deliver a paper in Phoenix at an academic conference on the Victorians. The paper's really no good, but vanity gets the better of me. I fancy myself as a scholar but am nothing of the sort. So here I am again in some city where I know only one or two people, to intrude my incompetent self into a serious (as I imagine) endeavor.
Look at this landscape. Feel the horrible dry heat which would kill you in no time if you were out in it with nothing to drink. If you're white, you know you have no legitimate business here. It's another noble western landscape that we're busily ruining because we can't stand its greatness. We'll show this place who's boss. If anything remains when we're finished we'll call it "scenery." A few endangered species will be bred in the zoos for our future generations.
Take my advice. Don’t go to an academic conference on Ruskin and the Victorians and expect to find a lot of sex. Even though Ruskin himself had more than a trace of pedophilia in his nature, as did so many other eminent Victorians, I can't relate Ruskin to anything American, no matter how hard I try, not even his girl worshipping. (The lack of nubile pre-pubescent Lolitas among academics must be noted.)
Not that sex was my intention, but usually there is some tingle of excitement. A little of that nasty titillation, even here in the desert. But nary a slap nor a tickle is in evidence, as the dull seminars march on. I finally meet some wondrous strange people, though, a professor who gives a talk on the extension of domestic space in the Victorian era, department stores becoming part of a woman's permissible realm, which is why men hate to go into them to this day, I guess. She said to me, "When you're over fifty you take sex where you can get it." Is she coming on to me? Is this what you get at these gatherings?
A pair of middle-aged professors who want something wild look vaguely possible, but the 70's have come and gone. You just don't feel like getting to know them better when you stop and think about where they may have been and doing what with whom. This is a contradiction, I admit, one in my nature, both salacious and prudish. When threatened by a possible "adventure," the only one in sight (two randy professors with a bottle), I demure.
Between breaks in the presentations and lectures, a mariachi band entertains in the courtyard. Black costumes and the female guitar player, easily 300 pounds but extremely young and beautiful, black, black hair and huge brown eyes. Try to imagine her together with Ruskin, fail. She's too out there, with her shiny, fat guitar, her big voice, her 1,000 volt smile. Ruskin would wilt away in the presence of that much female. It's the real thing, if overblown, and Ruskin would not know where to begin.
That evening, my friend the anthropologist takes me to a Yacqui pre-Easter ceremony, all night dancing and singing. Not meant as a spectacle but a way of building cultural continuity, important. Building community. What's the connection between this and Ruskin in the desert? An aesthetic impulse? But the dancing, etc. of the Yacquis does not exist as an object for appreciation. Yacqui integrity of culture reveals what it stands against as cheap and greedy.
What was Ruskin doing when he drew Venice or did nature studies in the Alps? How is this different as a basic cultural mission from Yacqui dancing? Well, Ruskin wanted to domesticate greatness, both human and natural, pull it into Victorian sitting rooms, showing the deeply acquisitive impulse which is at the heart of the domestic instinct of the bourgeoisie.
Ruskin and domesticity. Domesticity is not important to Yacquis. Ruskin represents domesticity without community, the Yacquis, community without domesticity.
Civic pride causes Phoenix, a city with little community spirit, to put on an exhibition of 19th century landscape paintings. Are these regarded as real culture, as opposed to Yacqui dancing? Can’t rich people just go to England and look at stuff? There's plenty of money here. Everyone practices bad faith. It's our lack of place in the desert landscape, which we know is not ours. The Yacquis carefully hide what they really possess to keep it from becoming another attraction along the tourist herd route, trampled by the hooves of people who turn everything into a spectacle for mass consumption. Ruskin felt the masses could not be dealt with until they acquired "good taste." As if improving taste would help America. It might pretty things up, but we're all the masses these days. It’s a lost cause. Mass this, mass that. Education, music, art, feh.
And then there’s Sun City. The Sun City denizens, pallid indoor-loving elderly Midwesterners, and rednecks who now know enough to protect their skin. A pseudo - community invented by real estate developers. No kids, no ties to anything local. Vote down all tax programs. Expect to be safe and taken care of.
Life happens anywhere but on the streets of Sun City, whose citizens drive back and forth in air-conditioned cars from air-conditioned homes to air-conditioned malls and back. All sealed off and almost 100% white. Some Sun City dwellers are out-front racist, some closet racists, but all racist. Labor takes place in the broiling sun, done by Mexicans.
In an attempt to fight off total stupidity, the more cultivated here, or those who have heard that culture is good for you, like a yearly mammogram, come to the Ruskin exhibit, even though it's downtown, where their eyes might be assailed by the sight of bums on the street. Air-conditioned busses take groups of them to lectures and exhibits where they can enjoy being herded here and there and fed at regular intervals.
Tempi, where the college is, has a street where those who still go outdoors promenade in the evening. The street peters out into nothing at both ends.
© 2001 Marianna Scheffer