The Ecstasy of Alienation

Not a Commodity

‘Redemption depends on the tiny fissure in the continuous catastrophe.
Walter Benjamin, The Writer of Modern Life – Essays on Charles Baudelaire.

Shopping centres inspire me. I have no idea why. I do know that they must not be new. They need to be worn down at the edges with vacant premises and fountains that work only intermittently. Why do shopping centres have fountains? An echo perhaps of our ancient need to have a source of water nearby, somewhere to make a wish. The fountain beds always have coins in them, collected now for various charities. I have taught my own children to make a wish by throwing coppers into the ersatz lakes in various shopping centres. How sad. I have also taught them how to tie a scrap of cloth (really a dirty tissue) to a wishing tree situated on the path into Fore Abbey in Westmeath. I have tried to give them the gift of how to wish for something secret and never to be told. Is there a difference between these urban and rural rituals, and has something sacred been lost?

The shopping centre strives to recreate the town centre, the village based around a source of water. Doomed to fail, something else emerges that moves me. Lacking the frenetic power of the streets, the shopping precinct slows down time. People walk more slowly. The only purpose there is to shop and eat. Or browse and breed discontentment at what you cannot afford. Inside the enclosed arcade, which never lives up to its promised glamour, I feel a disconnectedness from reality that is soothing. My mind wanders and ideas collide and coalesce. How sacrilegious, how ludicrous, that a temple to commercialism suggests stories, amplifies emotions, and sets my mind racing. How can it be that such a mediocre space, such a no-place can inspire me?

Walter Benjamin followed his intense obsession with consumerism and alienation, and plunged into the awful pleasures that shopping arcades, and spectacular events such as trade fairs, had to offer us:

They open a phantasmagoria which a person enters in order to be distracted. The entertainment industry makes this easier by elevating the person to the level of the commodity. He surrenders to its manipulations while enjoying his alienation from himself and others.’

The shopping arcade appears to be a space devoid of culture and nature, devoted to buying and selling. I should hate it. I am afraid of delving too deep into this obsession for fear that I will lose the strange power of it, just as confessing a secret fantasy instantly dispels its power and lure. Don’t make me analyse my equal love of carnivals and the circus. I don’t want to get into theories of high and low culture, of ‘taste’ and class. In essence, it has something to do with the sacred and the profane. A shopping centre always fails – it’s too hot; the toilets stink; the baby-changing room is too small. It profanes its own promises, as do the carnival and the circus. In their hall of mirrors you see your own cracked, warped reflection, and that of others. The clown reveals too much as he performs his handkerchief tricks. We agree to pretend not to see the tricks, the warps, the sadness of our sealed existences. It is too painful.

As for the sacred – by which I think I mean the mysterious, the sublime, those emotions we cannot put into words, or truly capture in art and culture – well, that is what we yearn for, and look for in all the right places. We search in churches and galleries, in shops and books, in love and porn, in bottles and pills, in pain and pleasure. Maybe, just maybe, the sacred resides in all the wrong places: in mundane corners, in tiny moments, in the smallest of gestures. The sacred might reside in how we throw coins into a fake fountain, or how we sit on seats outside a coffee shop that is itself inside a shopping centre. The sacred persists in us as long as we profane the spaces we inhabit by using them in a ludicrous fashion. I long to see a child allowed to paddle in a shopping centre fountain; or a man cooling his feet in one while reading a paper. Perhaps that is the allure for me: I am hoping, one sweet day, to witness the sublime in the most mundane of spaces.

1. Walter Benjamin, The Writer of Modern Life –Essays on Charles Baudelaire [Belknap Harvard: 2006: 161]
2. Walter Benjamin, The Writer of Modern Life – Essays on Charles Baudelaire [Belknap Harvard: 2006: 36]
3. Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, [Belknap Harvard, 1999]


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