On Thursday morning I arrive where the well-groomed sales staff hover, where senior citizens speed-walk, where young mothers push strollers with a determined ease. Extravagantly real tropical plants soar above me. Fluorescent light kindles the general air, while sharply-focused halogen lights illumine the displays, so that the merchandise mimics light itself, bathing the world in a material glow.
Once when I was a teenager, I had a girlfriend who worked at a collection agency in the basement of a mall. I used to meet her for lunch, descending like Orpheus to retrieve her. She spent her days phoning the unfortunate and the disgraced, trying to collect on their unpaid bills. As she listened to the sad fabrications of debtors, she sympathized, so much so she was eventually let go.
The day she left me for the bellboy at the Hyatt-Regency, I returned to the mall to buy a sweater: small comfort, perhaps, but it was tangible, and it swathed my body against the comedy of the world.
In suburban Chicago, as I grew up in the 1960s and 70s, huge malls displaced the farmland, wetlands, and woods. Randhurst, built in Mount Prospect in 1962, was at that time the largest air-conditioned space in the country. It contained a fallout shelter large enough to hold every citizen in town. In 1973, Woodfield Mall emerged from the corn rows as the largest shopping mall in the world. As a child who liked to roam the fields and the remnant woods, I despised these self-contained, materialist worlds. I saw them as invasive, as new and foreboding.
But of course they were not new. Many shopping malls, like European cathedrals, are laid out in the shape of crosses, with transepts leading to the major retailers that anchor the four external points. At the center is usually an empty space, or a space occupied fleetingly by Santa Claus, SUVs, fitness equipment, or kiosks filled with mobile phones. In our current recessionary state, perhaps, the mall begins to appear worn, faded, an inapt version of the cross. Still, the mall persists: our icons may shift over time, but always there are cultural centers.
And always those centers are interior. They must to some degree exclude nature. At the mid-19th century, around the time Thoreau was living experimentally at Walden Pond, the arcades of Paris, already two decades old, were enjoying enormous popularity. Walter Benjamin’s huge, unfinished Arcades Project documents the cultural underpinnings of a phenomenon that inspired our shopping malls. The arcades are, according to the Illustrated Guide to Paris cited by Benjamin, “a recent invention of industrial luxury . . . glass-roofed, marble-paneled corridors extending through whole blocks of buildings, whose owners have joined together for such enterprises. Lining both sides of the arcade, which gets its light from above, are the most elegant shops, so that the passage is a city, a world in miniature.” At one point in his commentary, Benjamin asserts that “[a]rcades are houses or passages having no outside—like the dream.”
In the 1980s and 90s, the mall’s retail spaces, emulating the grandeur of palaces and cathedrals, in turn became a model for upscale domestic architecture. Trophy homes featured huge, open floor plans, towering ceilings, and false facades. Self-conscious opulence. An eclecticism of convenience, and an overall aesthetic of display.
Now, in an era of debt and foreclosures, these houses begin to look quaint. Their surfaces seem somehow more honest these days, less flashy. They attest not to wealth, not to sophistication, but only to desire.
The mall is Rosei’s dream. In a tale that has been traced back to 8th century China, as summarized by Arthur Waley:
A young man, Rosei, going into the world to make his fortune, stops at an inn on the road and there meets with a sage, who lends him a pillow. While the inn-servant is heating up the millet, the young man dozes on the pillow and dreams that he enters public life, is promoted, degraded, recalled to office, endures the hardship of distant campaigns, is accused of treason, condemned to death, saved at the last moment and finally dies at a great old age. Awakening from his dream, the young man discovers that the millet has not yet cooked. In a moment’s sleep he has lived through the vicissitudes of a long public career. Convinced that in the great world “honor is soon followed by disgrace, and promotion by calumny,” he turns back again towards the village from which he came.
As I stroll the mall, I also experience, in the window displays and among the corridors of merchandise, ambition, and an entire transitory life. But unlike Rosei, turning back towards home, I find that my village is indeed this very mall. Now I live in perennial desire, a sparrow flitting here and there under the massive skylight.
Read “Scope: Ten Small Essays” by John R. Campbell appearing in Terrain.org Issue No. 26.