City of Light (and laundry)

You may think you are what you eat, but the French tell us that you are really the spit-up stain running down the back of your favorite blouse.

By Debra Ollivier
Published February 3, 1998 11:40PM (UTC)
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After hearing a recent litany of complaints about how laundry has
created strife in my marriage, a friend gave me a book written by J.C. Kaufmann, a respected French sociologist and think-tank researcher.
Called (roughly translated in English) "The Framework of Marriage: An
Analysis of Couples Through Their Laundry," the book is a sort of treatise
on the phenomenology of laundry. Half socio-anthropology and half
psychoanalysis, it describes laundry as a dipstick for understanding the
issues that drive wedges in marriages, issues that are deeply embedded in
our childhoods.

Take my case, for starters. My husband grew up in a French village where
laundry was done in wood-fired boilers, and he harbors deeply idyllic
memories of laundry snapping in a country breeze; of the smell of fresh
cotton, soap and pine wafting through the Loire Valley. Though this
bucolic scene bit the dust forever with the advent of washing machines in
the '50s, for my husband laundry remains sensual: the sudsy,
stupor-inducing rhythm of it whirling in the machine; the fragrant forest
of drying clothes and the humidity it forms on window glass (my husband
tries desperately to prohibit the use of the dryer); the recalcitrant
stiffness of line-dried sheets and the cozy order of perfectly folded
T-shirts stacked like reams of paper in a wooden armoire ... all this
imposes a homey sense of calm on my husband's otherwise chaotic, nomadic
lifestyle and stirs memories of his halcyon years in the Loire. Laundry,
in short, has the evocative power of Proust's madeleine.

I, on the other hand, have memories of pushing a shopping cart filled with
dirty laundry up a steep hill to a laundromat in Los Angeles, where I sat
through an endless inferno of spin cycles and avoided eye contact with a
local lunatic ranting about the apocalypse and throttling the coin-operated
machine slots for loose change. We were the only Americans on the planet,
I was sure, without a washer and dryer, and I bore the weight of this
domestic task with a certain incredulous resentment. Who did the ironing
later? Who did the sorting? I have blocked out the memory. Today what
remains is a deep distaste and disregard for the whole gestalt of laundry.
I mix colors. (My white underwear turned off-pink long ago, and much of my
husband's has come along for the ride.) I do not iron (and who needs to,
with a dryer?). When it comes to energy-consuming laundry technology
(another big bone of contention), I am profligate. For me, laundry is an
odious burden and even the floral sheets hanging on lines in courtyards,
those charming icons of Parisian street life, fill me with low-grade

No surprise then, that laundry has become a battlefield in our marriage
where other larger issues are sublimated. In fact, in his book, Kaufmann
writes about "a veritable war" of identities and how laundry "carries the
trace left by this war, revealing the intensity of combat and its cunning
strategies." And border skirmishes, it seems, are raging all over.

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Kaufmann's book is filled with case studies of couples with often
pathological and curious laundry problems. There's Bruno, an incorrigible
slob who was tyrannized by his excessively tidy mother but who
unconsciously yearns for his wife Nadia to become her. (As Neil Young put
it, a man needs a maid.) There's Bernard, a long-standing bachelor so
furiously passionate about ironing -- not to be confused with Isabelle, who
irons everything including her socks -- that he and his wife, Geraldine, kept
separate piles of his/her laundry. (When the author first interviewed the
couple they were in their second week of marriage. Three months later, they
were separated.) And there's Nadine, who's so ideologically opposed to the
purchase of a washing machine that she and her husband still do their
laundry at their respective parents' homes. (Lucky for them THEIR parents
have no ideological problems with laundry.)

But in his exploration of
the dynamics of the couple, Kaufmann goes beyond the psychology of laundry and into another realm entirely. "Everything
speaks," he says, "and everything speaks to us of the couple in different
languages: the bed, the dining table, records, the dish-drying rack, the
miniature plastic gondola brought back from a trip to Venice. The couple
and the family construct themselves around these objects." And in this discursive of the dharma
of the domicile Kaufmann is not alone. In "The Poetics of Space," French
philosopher Gaston Bachelard wrote about the phenomenology of drawers,
chests, wardrobes, nests, shells and corners, all of which come together in
a room or house to create "psychological diagrams that guide us in our
analysis of intimacy." Françoise Minkowsa, considered a "psychologist of
houses," describes wardrobes as being "filled with the mute tumult of
memories" and has written about the phenomenology of doorknobs. Is there
something, in our frantic rush, that we Americans are missing? According to
these philosophers of the foyer, who were writing about all this long
before Vogue and other glossies brought Feng Shui to the masses, it's not
just your laundry that speaks; all the objects that surround you are, in
fact, signposts that chart the topology of your inner world. And you
were thinking you are what you eat.

On some level, laundry is indeed metaphysical. Viewed in its most
exalted state, the washing machine performs a sort of ablution, removing the
accumulated muck that taints our lives and going through cycles as this
transformation ensues. All this reminds me of a time back in my single days
when I would drop my laundry off at the cleaners. It would come back at the
end of the day wrapped in thick blue craft paper, with a strangely
agreeable hygienic luster. One would think that in this impersonal exchange
laundry was no longer an "instrument of investigation" for delving into the
complex world of the Other. Occasionally, however, the fugitive sock of a
stranger would turn up in my little blue pack, a sign that my laundry had
indeed co-mingled with, say, the cow-print boxers of the guy standing
behind me at the checkout line and that it was, in fact, part of a great
collective yet intimate process ripe with meaning. I realize now that the
difference between doing my own laundry and sending it off to be done was
in some ways similar to the difference between taking a jet across the
country and taking a road trip. The former may be practical, but you
miss the whole experience in the process. As the old saying goes, it's not
the destination that counts, it's the journey.

The laundromat in Los Angeles vanished long ago, but it lives on yet in
the messy corners of my psyche. Though I have been enlightened by
Kaufmann's book, I still loathe laundry and dream of a life unfettered from
the shackles of hampers, detergent, drying racks and ironing boards. But
I'm now wise enough to know that even if we could avoid all the drudgery --
say we invented self-cleaning clothes -- that really wouldn't make a
difference. Like skeletons in the closet and excess baggage, dirty laundry
is something we take with us wherever we go.

Debra Ollivier

Debra Ollivier, a contributor to Mothers Who Think: Tales of Real Life Parenting, is the author of "Entre Nous: A Woman's Guide to Finding Her Inner French Girl." Her work has appeared in numerous publications including Harper's, Playboy, Le Monde and Les Inrockuptibles.

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