On the Value of Inanimate Things to the Human Soul

Making a major physical move forces one to throw things away.  In the process of sifting through drawers of old clothes and boxes of old papers, one says goodbye to certain habits that won’t return, to certain friendships or projects that aren’t going to be resuscitated.  It’s sobering, of course.  Anything that constrains an outright admission of life’s limits—not just of roads untraveled, but of roads never or no longer to be traveled—is a strong nudge from mortality.

I’ve had many such nudges over the past half-year; and I am also sentimental in a “where are the snows of yesteryear?” vein, as I haven’t tried to conceal.  Today I may finally decide to throw away a pair of old shoes whose soles I can no longer Gorilla-glue into service.  I began wearing them to a teaching gig in Tennessee over twenty-five years ago.  They were somewhat casual for the assignment, being New Balance jogging shoes (though of a quiet monochrome greenish-brown); but aching heels are the one physical cross I have had to bear since youth—and the office environment of the 1990’s was not exactly formal, anyway.  As the two old boys aged along with me, I at last had to relegate them to rough duty in the yard, like racehorses reduced to drawing a plough.  Then they couldn’t even drag themselves through furrow and flowerbed.  I’ll give them a little salute as I drop them in the garbage bag, because… because I’m sentimental.  (I will not write, “Shoes have soles, too, you know.”

Seriously, I’m more and more convinced that there are conditions in which “thingness” is entitled to higher consideration.  After all, we express ourselves through things—through clothes and cars, yes, but also through less conventional, more intimate acquisitions like framed pictures and furniture.  (That these latter two examples are in short supply among today’s younger set deserves note: more of that later.)  Furthermore, the relationship between us and our “expressions” is reciprocal.  To some extent, the surroundings we suppose ourselves to have brought into being ex nihilo, like a little god engineering a mini-Creation, draw us into their orbit after a routine of months and years.  We thought we had planted the boxwoods about the windows to show the neighbors that we had genteel taste: now their shaggy overgrowth seems insidiously to whisper, “Let it slide… everything changes on the outside, nothing within is visible, and all will soon be forgotten,” as we drearily retreat to our castle for a weekend of licking psychic wounds.

To live is to develop a lengthy and complex relationship with things.  They are your points of contact with the outside world.  I know, I know… the cliché has it that people are those points; but people, as individuals, are themselves constantly seeking stable points of reference or of definition.  Using one of them to be your anchor in a shifting sea is not only inviting major drift—it is denying whatever individual stands in question, I should say, the same right to create a framework as you have claimed.  It is a kind of selfishness, whose advanced stages might be called narcissism.  Don’t show me the signed photo of Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump smiling into the camera with you: show me the sunrise in Yosemite that you snapped—or, just maybe, the Vermeer reproduction whose bourgeois “mass art” flaws don’t impede you from seeing genius.

Have you noticed (as I have) how very dated the terms of this discussion sound?  For “selfies” are pretty much the only “pictures” (or “images”) we produce any more; and we don’t confer upon them as much permanence as mortals can muster by sealing them in a frame, but we “post” them, rather, on some fluid Internet platform, one after another after another.  These are our walls: this our gallery.

And if influential or cool or crazy people do not figure in the post, then something partaking of the “icon” or “emoji” is probably center-staged, as if we were communicating with fellow extra-terrestrials through a kind of secret semaphore.  The things around us every day—trees, stars, clouds… a window sill, an old spoon, an ancient straw hat—don’t appear on our New Age radar.  We have lost contact with “things”.  We express ourselves precisely through the unwritten language of tribal identification transmitted by the posted JPEG, as if we were beating drums in a dense jungle.  Our individuality has been consumed by membership, and our creativity commandeered by shibboleth.

Last night I blundered upon an episode of Fixer Upper (the “rockstar booster” of household celebrities Chip and Joanna)… and I took special care to notice what appeared on the refurbished walls of the overhauled dream house du jour, since my wife and I realized that we hadn’t really penetrated any “cutting edge” suburban dwellings for years.  The answer was… nothing.  Sure enough.  Or virtually nothing.  Certainly no framed pictures: a bit of tarnished Thirties signage such as American Pickers would have retrieved from a garage attic, and also three god-awful mock-ups of life-sized cellos crucified side by side over a sofa.  Of course, the surprised and delighted home-buying couple had not previously seen the decor, so it can scarcely be laid at the doorstep of their personal taste… but they squealed on cue with joy, and I got the feeling that one of them must have loved stringed instruments.  Is it Piet Mondrian who, about a century ago, painted the flat portrait of a chauffeur sitting cross-kneed before the painting of a car?  Have we really been caught in this descending loop for about a hundred years?  “You like horses?  See, Gustave adorn your walls with the horse hooves and a bridle, I think, over here.  Yes?  Is exquisite, no?  Is so you, darling!”

Ugh.  And “you” are so… so nothing, so instantly and utterly absorbed into images of what you claim to love, worship, or endorse, without any thoughtful articulation of them or integration of their contours into your broader existence.  You are just… a snapshot, a selfie where the person or object sharing the frame steals the show.  You are not knitted or kneaded into surroundings where you have labored purposefully and zealously: you’re another object that just happens to be “there then”.

I can almost understand, in this context, how the word “property” has acquired such sordid connotations to young people.  Property: props.  The stuff you gather about you to strike an instant’s pose, to play a part long enough for the image to upload.  Fake… fake news.  Your property is your personal fake news, the “statement” in which you wrap your nullity as in the layers of skin concealing an onion’s emptiness (to borrow an epiphany from that great faker, Pier Gynt).

Yet young people, alas, cannot escape this labyrinth-without-exit.  They run to embrace socialism as if it were the systematic opposition of posing, fraud, and property-clinging statements… and the embrace is itself another selfie, a statement bidding for instant and superficial effect without any engagement of depth or detail.  Why, if I were to attempt starting some kind of intellectual movement with this article as a springboard, I would almost immediately have to select a URL for a website and half a dozen keyword phrases.  Who am I, as viewed by the world through my website?  “IndividualExpression.com”?  “AuthenticArt.org”?  Should I give it a spiritual twist, or would that identify me with the wrong set?

People who dedicate themselves to saving stray cats are “all cat”.  People who reject the crass materialism of our time are “all shamanism” or “all health food” or “all UFO”.  Our fierce suction into the Charybdis of electronic caricature—which I so very much wished to resist in my final years as a teacher—has snared us in a nightmare where every breakout simply follows another corridor down the same narrowing hole.

We have objectified the object to the point where it can no longer convey our subjective intent.  It cannot express us: it can only devour us.

And so all images are merely “fake news”, and people themselves merely the content of fake news; and as we scorn the fraud of all broadcast images defacing our day’s channels and passages, so we increasingly scorn the people wearing those images like tribal masks.  Young black dude… Lexus Republican… emo chick… Hispanic male… white girl who eats way too much….

Oddly enough… could this degenerative disease, as we talk on and on about “respecting the other” and “celebrating diversity”, possibly be rooted in a contempt for things—real, visible, tangible things—as vehicles of the human soul’s identity?