A bumper sticker that was popular in my Las Vegas youth: He who dies with the most toys, wins.
There’s a reality television show (a confession is implicit in that utterance, I know!) called Hoarders and it’s fascinating slash horrifying. Here are people buried by Things that they cannot stop buying, saving, stashing. They lose all sense of value—all objects become important.
The show puts me in mind of Richard Greenberg’s brilliant play The Dazzle which is based on a true story: Homer and Langley Collyer, two New Yorkers die from hoarding—crushed by their Things—in their Harlem apartment in the early 1900’s. In the preface Greenberg states that “this play is based on the Collyer Brothers, about whom I know almost nothing.” The research that Greenberg does is imaginative, inward, there is empathy and despair and humor.
I have always had an ambivalent relationship to Things, and identified with the character in Marilynn Robinson’s novel Housekeeping whose mantra is “It is better to have nothing.” But that doesn’t mean I don’t have a few things that carry resonance, and that I carry from place to place (I move around a lot).
“Ask anybody about the most meaningful object he owns, and you’re sure to get a story—this old trunk belonged to Grandpa, we bought that tacky mug on our honeymoon,” Rob Walker writes in his ongoing column in the NY Times Magazine.
I started asking people about their most meaningful object—and every response did have a story, an embedded narrative, anecdotal and antidotal. Many people wear their Most Meaningful Possession—a silver & gold ring made for her mother by her father, a jeweler; a crucifix, with Jesus on it, not real gold, but her mother gave it to her, or a favorite pair of earrings, the small one never comes off…. Of course, because this is Los Angeles many of those I asked mentioned their cars, or one of their cars.
Many of my writer friends mentioned books—a first edition, a book of fairytales from childhood, tattered and stained. Other meaningful objects: a fountain pen; a Purple Heart medal that was a gift from her father; her grandmother’s amber beads brought from Russia. Most of these Meaningful objects were gifts. (Except the cars. People tend to buy cars for themselves). But the gifts, the gifts were plentiful.
What is it about the Thing as Gift? It has immediate resonance, connotation, totemic power. Lewis Hyde’s book The Gift is a poetic, scholarly and digressive meditation on art-making in a consumer culture. It’s always on the overall reading list that I give to my students (usually they are artists) who sometimes ask for such a list. The Gift is a solace and a preparation. Lew’s second book Trickster Makes This World is a cross-cultural study of trickster figures—and the artist is often a trickster. His newest book, Common as Air, is the culmination of his interest in Ideas and Ownership. Lewis is in Los Angeles this Thursday, September 23, at the Los Angeles Public Library’s ALOUD Series, being interviewed by visionary theatre director Peter Sellars.