by KARA VANDERBIJL
Some of us are clever, and a select few of us may grow up to be wise. But we are very rarely the beginning of anything. Our ideas are like thrift-store sweaters: worn, loved, discarded, and then arranged on cheap plastic hangers by color or size for the next wearer.
Case in point: as a small child, I never considered our occasional trips to Goodwill as something to look forward to. I am not sure when it began but by the time we were growing up in the '90s, thrifting for new threads attracted a certain stigma among children whose parents could afford to buy them brand new clothes at the mall. Personally, I found the idea of secondhand shopping distasteful. Who wants to wear clothes that smell like their previous owners, never feel clean no matter how many times you put them in the wash, and don’t seem like your clothes even after you come home and put them in your drawer?
Yet what had so repulsed me as a child became infinitely alluring when, naïve and living on a tight budget, I stumbled across a set of expert thrifters in college. Like me they had grown up in modest-income homes but unlike me they had turned their childhood misfortunes into an opportunity. These were the people that liked to call themselves “old souls”, and for them nothing was more full of soul than clothes somebody else had worn and imbibed with memory, music on vinyl, and black-and-white films. While I desperately tried to look like a fashionista (when really I just looked like I had walked right out of the Target online catalogue), they caught some of the spirit of the ‘60s with their skinny ties and old corduroy trousers and faded sundresses. They walked around campus like gods, reading Nietzsche and Sartre, radiant in their aesthetic revolution.
I’d like to think that my fascination with these people stemmed from the bitter and melancholy depths of my own tortured, artistic soul. But really it was probably something akin to impatience or that briefly confusing period between the ages of eighteen and twenty-one when everybody is trying to discover who they actually are, sans parents and money and what have you. Far from being tortured or artistic, I was simply human — and, briefly sidetracked from the divine, I began to worship a fictitious Idea of myself.
It was harmless at first. I found myself in fast-moving cars towards Hollywood, unofficial heaven of secondhand clothing — the irony of which was lost on me until much later. I cut my hair short and listened to jazz and blamed everything on consumer America. I read Jack Kerouac at the suggestion of a friend, and romanticized the Idea until my thrifted sweater sprouted into a hitchhiker, a skinny boy with a cigarette in the corner of his mouth who had been in the back of everybody’s car and wanted to discover truth and beauty. All the while Facebook told me I was deep: a “twenty-something” (somewhere along the line it was no longer profound to note the second digit) of the world, who read Hamlet, Nausea, and On the Road. You could easily find me by searching for people who liked Sylvia Plath, tea, and rain, and pretty much anything before it became popular. Moody and enigmatic, my status updates were “liked” by people who obviously wished they had half as much soul.
A couple of damp Los Angeles winters came and went. The Idea grew threadbare as I tried to stretch it over its own flaws. One February I discovered that I hated James Joyce, and the thought worried me. Too many people found out I had spent long hours of my childhood listening to Celine Dion. My favorite film, far from being Jules et Jim, was Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
I compensated for these superficialities by intellectualizing popular culture, something English majors do far more of than they should in order to earn their degree. Everything, even why Don Draper eats Ritz crackers in an episode of Mad Men, gained a deeper meaning. Like most people I had studied The Great Gatsby in high school and believed that all of life was the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock: an elusive, organic thing of vast and multiple significations. In my speculation I somehow thought I was the lone Gatsby on the lawn with my arms stretched towards its infinite possibilities, alone in my understanding of its complexity and potential. In all this it became incredibly important for people to agree with me. After all, the true meaning of everything doesn’t mean anything unless people agree with you.
Not once did it occur to me that I might actually be Nick Carraway, the spectator of something great — not its origin. Nor did it occur to me that if the Idea had been a Facebook page, I would have been a mere fan of it among ten thousand other people wearing skinny jeans and beat-up brown oxford shoes and thrifted sweaters. Instead of gaining soul I had simply taken a snapshot of what I thought soul was and had used it as a profile picture: a mere fabrication, what I wanted people to see when they clicked on my name.
I graduated in a secondhand dress.
"When did you start liking thrifted clothes?" my mother asked.
Before they were popular, I thought. Before Zooey Deschanel wore them. "I’ve always…" I repeated the beginning of a pre-recorded response against the fading but-still-there nasty feeling that I hadn’t always and didn’t actually. I remembered that Nick didn’t get shot at the end of The Great Gatsby because he only wrote about Gatsby, wasn’t Gatsby, could never be Gatsby. Those who don’t do, teach; those who don’t do, write; those who don’t think, steal thoughts.
"I’ve always been a second-hander."
They say that mid-life crisis happens between the ages of forty and sixty, but even at the green age of twenty-something you can look at the mirror like you look at a stranger. I remembered I was twenty-two and decided to start saying so, as the word Something only remains mysterious on its own and becomes far less so when paired with unsubtle Twenty. I remembered that I loved expensive clothing, clothing that didn't smell like anything yet but the inside of a store, clothing that nobody would ever wear but myself. I listened to Celine Dion, and danced. I celebrated sunshine instead of rain and drank espresso like a fiend.
I got rid of Facebook and made some new friends.
Naturally, none of these things took away the Idea, and none of them stopped me from being a second-hander. After all, I owe my existence to a woman who carried me for nine months, I owe many of my convictions to how my parents brought me up, and I got most of my facts at school. I like tea because I spent hours and hours in a Japanese teahouse as a teenager and I write wordy sentences because my French teachers taught me to do so. We're all second-handers to begin with. One day, we wake up on a hanger and wonder how we got there and where we’re going.
In fact, that's how Ayn Rand’s 1943 novel The Fountainhead opens. A naked man is laughing, standing on the edge of a granite cliff. His name is Howard Roark, and he has just been expelled from a school of architecture because he refused to conform to tradition and design Renaissance-inspired buildings.
As the novel progresses, we learn that Roark's (and Rand's) fight is less against tradition itself than it is against those who gain their identity from tradition. Howard Roark’s nemesis, Peter Keating, embodies the spirit of the age by designing buildings that people call beautiful because they identify with them. Keating's buildings are shaped by power, social mores, and convention; Roark’s come to life naturally, inspired by the environment around them, and celebrate mankind’s free spirit and its individuality.
As one might expect, Howard Roark gains very little positive renown. Instead, all of New York mocks him and shuns his art, afraid of what it represents. Ayn Rand calls these New Yorkers "second-handers", people whose aim in life is "fame, admiration, envy — all that which comes from others." They’re the people who go to "cultural endeavors" such as university lectures and "don’t give a damn, but sit there in order to tell their friends that they have attended a lecture by a famous name." They’re the people who don’t ask, ’Is this true?’, but rather, 'Is this what others think is true?’
And yet, far from discouraging her readers to acknowledge tradition, Rand shows its usefulness in informing and its uselessness in creating a hero. One cannot admire the Peter Keatings of the world because they don't make the sacrifices or embrace the difficulties involved in becoming a hero. Similarly, one cannot help but admire Howard Roark for his settled persistence, content in his singular creation. He owes his creation to what he learned from tradition, but not his identity.
He’s unsettlingly free.
I'd like to read The Fountainhead and believe that I have enough soul to be Howard Roark. I'd like to believe that I, too, could do the hard and necessary things in order to accomplish something great. I don't know that I would. I’m not strong enough on my own to believe in something I can’t see, something that hasn’t proven popular or functional or beautiful.
But sometimes being human also means pressing your ear to the pavement and listening to the rumor of something far away, something that belongs to all of us, something that might give us enough soul or enough courage, something we take secondhand and build on.
Kara VanderBijl is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Chicago. You can find her website here. She last wrote in these pages about IKEA and Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
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