Raw, adjective: 5. crude in quality or character; not tempered or refined by art or taste: raw humor.


There are two things in my life that, were I to die tomorrow, I would be proud to say I have never, ever, ever done.  Those are, in no particular order:

1. Had a mani-pedi
2. Gone on a cruise ship vacation

Re: 1. I have no desire to ever have some small Asian woman sit at my feet and shape my toenails, or, alternately, file my fingernails.  Something about this reeks of servility and class war and patronizing, disgusting affluence.  And it makes me curl up in disgust.

Re: 2. Likewise the cruise experience.  I have no desire to ever spend a vast amount of money traveling with other annoying and loud American tourists wearing floral print Tommy Bahama shirts and ill-fitting shorts traversing the wild open seas on a floating juggernaut spewing pollution into the water in which the whole course of the week is all about how much you can eat, drink, spend, sleep, and consume.  No no no never no never no.

So, that said: in spite of the mountain of work that is due, oh, right about now, I sat down the other day to revisit David Foster Wallace's famous Harper's essay, "Shipping Out: On the (nearly lethal) comforts of a luxury cruise."  You might also know it as "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again."

Harper's recently made all of DFW's work available in PDF on its website, in memoriam, and you owe yourselves a few good hours snuggling up with your laptop while you traipse through his alternately hilarious and heart-breaking worldview.  "Shipping Out" alone is enough to make a morning.  

See, the thing about DFW was, he had this capacity for darkness.  A darkness I'm sure we're too painfully aware of now, in the wake of his suicide last weekend.  But there's something about this capacity, this awareness of despair, that I very much love.  I like it in people, this propensity for darkness; it feels honest.  I don't wholly trust, or find much interest in, people who don't carry a hint of it.  And DFW's despair, his self-identification as a "semi-agoraphobe," his snarky and sometimes shattering ability to see past the contrivedly Bright and Cheery and Sunshiny world of the luxury cruise, draws me near to him, even in death.

"Shipping Out" is a great introduction to his work.  Wallace starts out with The Darkness early, writing that "there's something about a mass-market luxury cruise that's unbearably sad," chronicling the ways in which he feels despair at the vast bodily decay, the desperate sense of avoiding mortality, the "drowning-out" of the death-dread inherent to the whole cruising-boozing-touristing experience.  

DFW footnotes frustratedly about the phenomenon of "the Professional Smile," his terror at observing the bovinity of American tourists "waddling into poverty-stricken ports in expensive sandals," and the ways in which, on this supposedly idyllic cruise, "whatever I do, I cannot escape my own essential and newly unpleasant Americanness."  He closes with a haunting description of a disinterested hypnotist and his willing subjects that forces DFW into his cabin for the final day at sea, "feeling a little bit dulled but mostly good."

Maybe I loved the essay so much because it thrums with this underlying current of that question that seems to inform so many of my own academic and spiritual and social interests: the wondering, "What is enough??"  What is enough wanting, what is enough luxury, what is enough rest, what is enough play, what is enough "pampering" (to use DFW's word), what is enough affluence, what is enough youth, what is enough prosperity.  

This question of insatiability, this very Buddhist awareness of "the homeostasis of terrible dissatisfaction," the ways in which we simply adjust our desires such that the fluffy towels in our deck-view cruise cabin go from being initially luxurious to not-fluffy-enough in the course of one solo week.  The universality of craving, of clinging, of desperate searching for more, better, enough.  This is the heart of this essay.  And perhaps the reason I feel so drawn to DFW's sad final chapter of his own life.

Do read it.  And check out the other archives, linked above.  You'll laugh - often, and well.

Shipping Out (Harpers)

Comments

Matt said…
Yeah, the cruise thing doesn't do much for me either, although HW's been begging me to take her on one forever. And she doesn't even like ships! She's on crack.
Anonymous said…
Your smug self-congratulation about avoiding manicures utterly sours this post. You think it takes "disgusting affluence" to afford, or want, a manicure or pedicure? For some women (and men) on their feet all day, this is one of the few things to which they treat themselves. And yes, god forbid that we patronize primarily minority-owned, female-owned small businesses. Disgusting! Truly!

Congratulations that you have no interest in paying someone else to make your feet feel good. To write it off as "reeking of servility" does a disservice to the women who start these businesses from scratch and do a damned fine job of it. And to assert that getting a mani-pedi makes you more of a class warrior than going to a hair salon, shopping at whole foods, or eating out at a nice restaurant is pure hogwash. Conceptualize it however you want, it's your blog after all, but to hurl around the word "disgust" so many times in this context is truly an impressive display of judgmental tripe.
Rach said…
Allrighty, then! I hardly think my caffeinated ramblings are worth such vitriol, but whatevs. The mani-pedi reference was a mere footnote to the whole point of the essay, so it's too bad that apparently the rest of the piece was lost on you.

If you want me to get all theoretical about it, I will, but I assume most people don't, which is why I try not to go there. To my mind, the mani-pedi experience reproduces a historical colonial power imbalance rooted in racism and classism. It re-creates the literal "at your service" dynamic by placing a person - who is often your immigrant Asian woman shuttled into certain kinds of labor - literally at your feet, below you, washing your dirty-ass toes. I don't feel comfortable paying another woman, who might be non-English speaking, poorer than I am, with fewer opportunities for enriching work - to do that. It makes me feel like a wealthy white woman abusing her undue social power. It's the same reason I would never pay someone to scrub my toilets or wash my kitchen floor. I'd rather do that work myself than pass it off to the person who is stuck providing menial labor like that to pay the rent. It's dirty work, it's ugly work, it's hard and it's mentally not fulfilling. Do you think the upper-middle class white straight male Yale-educated son of two lawyers is going to be advertising his cleaning services? No. It'll be the Guatemalan single mother who doesn't speak much English and can't afford to go to school who'll have to sell her labor and her body off that way. I'm not ok with taking advantage of that unequal power dynamic. I'll exfoliate my rough heels and scrub my toilet myself instead, thankyouverymuch.

Popular Posts