Posted by: HAT | October 1, 2014

“… the program is spiritual”

Hi, Gang!

Face of a standard size metal lunch box with the stylized image of a girl with very long auburn hair, green eyes, wearing a fluffly yellow dress, wearing an elaborately oversized hat covered with flowers, and feeding a dove, while gazing directly at the viewer.

A current version of the Aladdin Junior Miss lunch box, 1966, recently offered for sale on eBay


I am not sure I can do what I want.

I want to talk about the Aladdin 1966 Junior Miss lunchbox. [I didn’t realize this immediately – more later.]

I want to articulate its relationship to this statement, by Dorothee Soelle: “There are for many of us – I almost want to say for every one of us – moments of heightened experience in childhood in which we are grasped by a remarkable, seemingly unshakable certainty.” And this one: “The trivialization of life is perhaps the strongest antimystical force among us.” And this one: “The trivialization of women exists as an ongoing malevolent belittling: whatever is consistently and without opposition declared to be irrelevant – like so much that women experience, feel, and come to know – loses its language; perhaps it may echo for a while within a person, but it creates no response.” And this one: “We cut ourselves off from our own experiences by looking upon them as irrelevant and not worth talking about or, what is no less cynical, not communicable at all.” These all come from the first section of The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance (Translated by Barbara and Martin Rumscheidt. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001. Nook edition – so page numbers are a little problematic).

And I want to indicate how all of this bears on the following line of reasoning:

The “spirit” can be understood as “the heart,” “the will,” the volitional center of the human person. (I got this from Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart: “The human heart, will, or spirit is the executive center of a human life. The heart is where decisions and choices are made for the whole person. That is its function.” p 31 – Nook edition) Whatever has to do with the “spirit” is “spiritual.” [So – I’m NOT using “spiritual” here to refer to vague, gooey, sentimental or elevated good feelings, or the activities and discourses that give rise to them. You’ve been warned.]

The element of desire – the impulse to attain or have some object of imagination or thought – has to do with the spirit; it’s what we think of as the motive force in our loves and intentions.

On this understanding, then, desire is a spiritual reality.

According to Ruth Levitas, a utopia is an expression of desire. [I would normally want to be more precise; it’s not just any expression of desire, it needs more structure; it’s not just the expression of any desire, it ought to be desire for something beyond the normal range of possibilities, eh? If I say “I really want an ice cream – let’s go to Dairy Queen,” that’s desire, but is that utopian? But then there is that thing, “the utopian moment,” “the spirit of utopia,” which crops up in such unlikely places, so maybe I should just chill.]

So here’s the syllogism:
Desire is spiritual.
Utopia is desire.
Utopia is spiritual.

Simplistic, but maybe not wrong for that.

I am not sure I can do what I want, because I keep running into the problem Soelle is talking about. Maybe. Or not – I learned a long time ago not to go giving myself airs. So I have to keep fighting the temptation to give up, start over, or just forget the whole thing, so as not to appear ridiculous. Better not to appear at all.

Back to the Aladdin 1966 Junior Miss lunch box. I had forgotten it was 1966. If I’d had to say, I would have come up with 1968. Frankly, I had forgotten it was Aladdin, or ever said “Junior Miss” on it (and so prominently, too) – if I’d had to say (which I did, because I had to come up with Google search terms), I would have said “summer magic” (which is how it is coded in my mind) or “flower power” (which was close enough to surface). I had also forgotten the dove. But because the internet is what it is, which includes the brisk traffic in popular cultural artifacts, once I began thinking about it and started looking, I was able to find not just one but numerous images of it – albeit, none that match the one in my own mind’s eye. I have borrowed the closest one I found – though it is still missing something.

It is missing, for one thing, how that lunch box with that very particular feminine image looked brand new, on the shelf of the Market Basket on the corner of Longden and Rosemead, next to all the others that were the same as ever, on the day I got to go pick out a new lunch box. Like no kind of lunch box that had ever been seen before. A beautiful one. Yellow like chrysanthemums. A hat that was love at first sight even though before that a girl could never have said she wanted it and after that she could no longer have said it was the hat she is still, always, looking for. Beautiful enough for a 10-year-old girl to gasp a little, and want it. Want that one. With complete, decisive, self-knowing certainty.

Though I dutifully examined everything else, and checked prices, and thought, honestly, about getting a less wonderful but cheaper one. But desire won out, and besides, it only cost a little more, although enough more to notice and to make me feel that I had actually been a little extravagant and to have to explain it later to my mother.

It is missing, most of all, anything on the surface that would now evoke the same instantaneous response, would make that response clear by making it present to another person, even the 5-decades-later version of that 10-year-old votary.

When I laid a .jpeg alongside my memory, my first emotion was embarrassment. The race-gender-class thematics. So obvious, and unfortunate. The mass market commercialism. So dominant. Kitsch, right? What made me think this had anything to do with what Soelle was talking about? Picking out a lunchbox is not spiritual, and the lunchbox decoration is not art. That would obviously be claiming too much. (What was I thinking? What was I thinking??)

And isn’t this precisely what Soelle is saying? That we capitulate to the dominant standard, that we abandon our experiences, rather than standing by them, sticking up for them, as if they weren’t worth anything? So then I try to imagine I was not just being silly, or missing the point. I look deeper. I try to remember and take seriously the moment of clarity, before it was captured and bent towards the nurture of some corporation’s bottom line, when it was just about the intuition of the other world immanent in that image: a world of beauty, and peace, and life, together all at once, girls allowed. What makes that not spiritual? Except that it was available to a 10-year-old, more precisely, a 10-year-old girl, and made so by a hiccup of consumer culture? I invoke Adorno: even debased art has its moment of truth, its utopian moment.

The question is really, how to capture the utopian moment back, from everything that bent it into the service of the anti-utopian. How to de-trivialize it. How to remember it the right way, so as to be able to pursue what it was that truly gave rise to that love at first sight, and so perhaps even with some hope of finding it.

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