Devil in the White City by Erik Larsen is a nonfiction account of the Chicago World’s Fair at the turn of the century. It’s title states the premise: it follows the amazing story of the vision of what Chicago wanted the fair to be—a miniature version of a perfect, beautiful city—and juxtaposes it with the crimes of H.H. Holmes, a serial killer in Chicago at the time.
The city’s and country’s best architects and landscape artists created what was called “a Dreamland.” They had created a place that defined grandeur, elegance and beauty upon the shore of Lake Michigan.
At the same time, H.H. Holmes was luring women into his life, making promises he would never fulfill and killing them in the most grotesque, twisted ways. He murdered children without giving it a second thought. These two things existing side by side, each one not paying attention to the other became quite symbolic for me as I read.
Absolute beauty and absolute darkness are living side by side everywhere. What struck me the most while reading this is how it is easy for me to get caught up in the beauty of things and forget about the reality of darkness. It is easy to walk through the streets of New York and be amazed at the architecture and the fashion and art. I can ride my bike beside the Hudson River and smile while the sun is setting and the lights in the buildings become slowly visible. I can sit in my favorite café and write on my laptop or read my book.
But if I open my eyes, I am faced with the darkness alongside of it: homelessness, injustice, hunger, poverty, crime, drugs, trash.
I feel like we are constantly trying to build our own “white cities,” mentally and physically. And part of me has to wonder who we are leaving out or behind in our quest to do that.
Wait a minute. I need to make this personal. I can’t make this something that an anonymous conglomerate is in charge of. Albeit, it is easier to think about this terms of “we” and “us.” But. I wonder what my definition of “white city” is. It is a place where I am working to live a life surrounded only by beauty for myself and others like me? Or is it a place where I’m working for everyone to experience it? A different kind of beauty, perhaps. A columnist wrote of the Chicago fair site once it was over: “It is desolation. You wish you had not come. If there were not so many around, you would reach out your arms, with the prayer on your lips for it all to come back to you. It seems cruel, cruel, to give us such a vision; to let us dream and drift through heaven for six months, and then to take it out of our lives.” Perhaps because it was the wrong kind of dream? A mis-picturing of heaven?
And obviously, if you’ve talked to me or read anything I’ve written, you have to know by now that I think beauty is one of the most engaging things that exists. It motivates and encourages in ways nothing else can. But I’m just saying that maybe beauty doesn’t equal luxury. Maybe it doesn’t equal stuff I can buy.
I don’t want to set up a life for myself where I’m ignoring the darkness. I want to set up a life for myself where I am a part of its restoration. I’m not sure if this is even coherent—mostly because I have no answers, just observations. Observations that I hope will turn proactive.
This post was supposed to be about the ache of beauty and it’s grandeur and my inability to know how to respond to it. But maybe it is fitting that this is the in between post. I think it will only be richer once I consider all of this.
(The other book I was/am reading beside this that has influenced my thinking is “A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier” by Ishmael Beah. An account so mind-blowing of the reality of the darkness of the world, that any words I have would only sound trite. Read it.)