“The pleasure of possessing
Surpasses all expressing
But ‘tis too short a blessing.”
John Dryden (1681)1
I must confess to having something akin to an obsession when it comes to collecting things. I hoard items from my past. My ‘study’ is filled with all kinds of memento ranging from fragile “ancient” tape recordings of Anna Freud (for which I have no player!), to a cellophane wrapped cigar (I don’t smoke) from my 25th Harvard Reunion, to the dusty “lamb chop” of a ventriloquist given to me by my long-deceased friend, Shari Lewis. Of course in addition to the vast accumulation of books, there are the first drawings by my sons, an image of my friend Vaclav Havel which I ripped-off from a wall of posters in Prague, and the well-preserved 17th century skull of a Sicilian nun. The list of such treasures could fill this whole blog.
What with Encounter magazines from the 1960’s, memorabilia from both parents and various ‘souvenirs’ from trips as a journalist to some 90 countries, my spider-webbed ‘study’ has turned into something of a recluse’s den. I’m far too embarrassed to permit visitors to enter (or photograph it). To the frequently asked question: “What are these possessions all about?” I usually reply with a superficial counter-question: “What is a life all about?” The truth is that I have a fear of throwing away something historical, but I also would like to give future generations an idea of the scope of a writer’s interests at the turn of the second millennium. Collecting, gathering, saving and storing possessions has a long and rich human history. It is also a bewildering one. As Luke cautioned in the Bible: ”Take care and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” (2)
Both of my sons urge me to give most of my possessions away to Good-Will Industries– as they habitually do in their spring clean-ups. The youngest likes white walls and clean floors. Is this merely a reaction to my clutter? The older enjoys having lots of framed paintings on his walls, but does not have any book-cases. When we got married, my sculptor wife made me promise never to be encumbered by possessions. I agreed. She was afraid of being trapped, of being closeted by possessions. She wanted the freedom to move about like a nomad, but she possesses a photographic memory and can carry all her past, all her history in her head without so much as a scrap of paper. The computerized world certainly has made this kind of freedom possible for some, but despite the near magic of Wikipedia and Facebook, the electronic world does not engage my sentiment like the books in my study.
The possessions which surround me all contribute to sustain me as I write my blog or when I let my mind wander. It is comforting to have the actual things associated with one’s memory. However, there are those not so visible items in drawers, like the letters from Dutch and German relatives, texts which I have never read and most probably never will. I gave a number to the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C, but as to the rest, who will appreciate them when I am gone? Some of them are in a German Gothic script almost impossible to decipher. So why do I keep them? No vanity or exhibitionism on my part is in evidence here. A connection with the past, mixed with considerable nostalgia, is important to me.
Americans, driven by an economic system dependent on consumption, are quite naturally consumed by it. They now have more possessions than any society in human history. They have become possessed by their possessions. Americans became the true champions of accumulation during the Reagan era when they began to commit close to half their annual expenditures on non-essentials. A good portion of this vast hoard is now tucked away in the near to 50,000 storage facilities across the United States and this does not include the staggering number of over-filled garages. “An entire industry has emerged to house our extra belongings-self-storage.” This has become a $24 billion industry with companies like 1-800-GOT-JUNK making millions in removing it.3 Americans eagerly cherish things and accumulate them. They move their favorites from shelf to shelf and from home to home. “We love stuff; we can’t get enough of the latest and the greatest… Nothing is ever enough. We must always have more, “ observes the writer Kali Hawlk.
A century and a half ago, the great Victorian artist and designer, William Morris, cautioned the English to “have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” This was a golden rule for those struggling to furnish or redecorate their new homes. Insightful as this may have been, it did not recognize that our relationship to our possessions goes far beyond utility and aesthetics. The insightful writer William James, a contemporary of Morris, argued that our possessions tend to define whom we are: “Between what a man calls me and what he simply calls mine, the line is difficult to draw.” In a variety of ways our possessions can represent our extended selves.
“We invest emotion and memories in our possessions, giving them deep meaning, but that doesn’t necessarily make us happy — it may drive us slightly mad,” wrote Michael Bond.4 In investigating the psychology of our desire to accumulate and our fear of being dispossessed, two behaviorists concluded that reflective consumers perceived throwing away as threatening to their security, their memory as well as to historical preservation. They also contended that preserving material objects was an assist towards cultivating a vision for the future. Preservation thus reflected “a desire to reassemble the fragments of their temporal experience into a unique space where memories, present, and life projects join together.”5
After a crippling accident, the writer Melanie Reid confessed: “I lost my judgment about what to keep and what not to keep… Precious memories, letters, old cards, school exercise books, children’s art, bad photos, newspapers… These were what made a family home, home. Soft furnishings for one’s soul. So if I’m honest, this house is therefore also a carefully guarded shrine to my old life.”6 Most of us encumbered by superfluous possessions are reluctant to face up to the challenges of even partial disposals. A growing number of “clean-up” consultants, like the new best-seller, Marie Kondon,7 suggest you must start by listing all your possessions: Make an inventory of everything. The days this might take you could prove that you have all too many belongings. Then categorize all these items before loss-aversion sets in: divide the letters, photos, albums, playbills, tickets etc. into favorites or levels of importance; possibly separate the personal, the life shaping and sentimental from the commercial or economic. All this might lead you to spend more psychological energy and time maintaining what you have than any actual pleasure you might derive from the entirety of your hoard.
Minimalists would like to get rid of everything but the most essential. In the arts
this generally leads to vacuity. In terms of a household, getting rid of scads of “superfluous stuff” can end in soullessness. Paring down, throwing out, eliminating, detaching, letting go, scrapping the lot – any of these may provide immediate relief
but they may also diminish one’s very being. We may be deprived of the real pleasure we derived from their existence. The extent to which a possession is linked to our psyche is critical in determining whether such an object would elicit grief if lost.
“Our possessions all have magical qualities. Many, if not most, of the things we keep have an essence that goes beyond the physical character of the object,” noted the author of Stuff, Prof. Randy Frost of Smith College. The very word “Possessions” is as suggestive of the material as it is of the erotic: To possess. Possession. Possessed.
All of these really grab me. Gifts also can possess us in different ways. We often treasure them as keepsakes which hold a deep sentimental value which is likely to increase over time. A good number of the mass of my possessions often have helped me in explorations of my “inner squirrel” self. I believe this kind of classical analysis inevitably beats such modern trends as renting books online and then storing them in “the cloud!”
1John Dryden, Farewell, Ungrateful Traitor (1681)
2New Testament, Luke 12:15
3Josh Sanburn, “The joy of less,” TIME, March 23, 2015, p.32
4Michael Bond, “Possessions”, The New Scientist, March 31, 2014.
5Helene Cherrier and Tresa Ponnor, “A study of hoarding behaviour and attachment to material possessions,” Qualitative Market Research: An International Journal, Vol.13 Iss:1, pp.8-23.
6Melanie Reid, “This house is a shrine to my old life, “ The Times (London) Magazine, March 28, 2015, p.9
7Marie Kondon, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying-up.” (2014)