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reflections on some lineages of the human condition

Williams-Sonoma as a Longing Machine

Williams-Sonoma as a Longing Machine

Back in July, Carina Chocano wrote an intriguing piece, “Pinterest, Tumblr, and the Trouble with ‘Curation’” about the “curation” or reblogging of other people’s ideas and images on sites such as Tumblr and Pinterest. The line in her piece that smacked me with its perfect arrangement of words was this one: “In other words, your average Pinterest board or inspiration Tumblr basically functions as a longing machine.”

“That’s it!” I responded, like Charlie Brown when he recognized the perfect appropriateness of the precise word which “The-Doctor-Is-In” Lucy had used to diagnose him in that famous Christmas video. Williams-Somona is a ne plus ultra longing machine!

For years now our kitchen table has hosted, often for several days at a time, the various Williams-Sonoma catalogs that come in the mail, from month to month, from that wonderland. But it is holidays most of all which serve as prime time for generating this exquisitely staged and precisely calculated siren call to the neurotransmitters. And this year’s holiday season catalogs were carrying for me a particularly heavy weight of additional baggage, because only last month, during a trip to San Francisco’s Williams-Sonoma Union Square flagship store, I had climbed up and down those four flights of maple hardwood stairs more than once in two days, transfixed by the thought that here, arrayed throughout these four floors, is all this beautifully made Stuff for me to desire.

Williams-Sonoma Union Square

And that’s the point Chocano was making too. Longing is not so much a matter of lusting after the “stuff” itself, but rather, it’s a bittersweet, barely acknowledged background sense that one’s own life is somehow incomplete, imperfect, and lacking. The memories that flood back from, say, Christmases past, are complex, tangled skeins of sensory impressions. The tastes, smells, sounds, tactile feelings, and sights of “what was wonderful” and “what would BE wonderful, if only…” intertwine, luring us into believing that if, for example, I would set my Christmas dinner table using THIS beautiful platter, I would be able to bring back the most pure, innocent and expectant emotions of my past, linking it with my Christmas preparations right now, further enchaining these mostly inchoate thoughts and emotions to a fantasy future where nothing beautiful or lovely ever changes or is found wanting.

Deep down, of course, we know this is a mirage. But oh! how we love to open that catalog, or even better, walk on that hardwood floor that clicks underfoot so appealingly, smelling the scent of the spices that have been added to the warmed and mulled apple cider being proffered at the counter. In other seasons there will be other fragrances, other colors, others images of perfection (chocolate Easter confections? summer barbecues?) hitting us not just through the obvious visual channels, but especially through our not-so-on-guard olfactory receptors.

If art is the enjoyment of illusion, then Williams-Sonoma is a most artful longing machine!

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