“Objects have the ability to plant themselves in the soul and then tell the soul what to do”
wrote Bruce Chatwin. The writer of The Songlines was inviting us to get rid of objects. Yet, he sought them out, collected them, sold them and then departed, backpack slung over his shoulder, for distant lands.
What is the connection between the Chatwin who travels and the Chatwin who collects? It is the desire to escape from ordinary time.
Traveling frees us from routine, from deadlines, from the insistent flux of our everyday. It allows us to enter into a charmed dimension liberated of chronology. In the same way, collecting objects allows us to enter into an a-temporal dimension. The collector, indeed, contemplates objects which refer one to the other in a potentially limitless series. The collection is a miniature infinity whose key the collector possesses. Moreover, there is always something missing from the collection. And, daydreaming about the missing piece, I push myself beyond daily life with a transcendent hope. The missing piece is a pole-star which offers a path to the collector.
So, objects have a soul? Or, perhaps, would it not be better to say that in objects I leave behind some part of my soul, requesting of them, in turn, to bestow on me a crumb of immortality?
One thing is certain: acquiring objects and disposing of them in space, we write our history, we define our aspirations, or our belonging to a group. Once the objects are disposed in our space, we feel that we are in our own domain – our body is amplified by their presence.
In a society based on consumption, objects overflow in series of infinite variation. It is not only its function that decrees its value, but the model and its variant. A certain piece of furniture, the form of a heel, a bed appointed beside or beneath a window confer personality on the owner. In a society in which one’s distinction is not offered by belonging to a particular social caste, difference is marked by imperceptible choices of taste.
According to Baudrillard, objects take part in a system which allows us to communicate our position within society. In his essay, “The System of Objects” (1968) – now considered a classic –, Baudrillard borrows from semiotics the term “sign”, explaining how, in a society of consumption, objects are a veritable ensemble of signs, each connected to the other, all of which are deciphered on an abstract level by the one who perceives them: an actual language with its own syntax. “Consumption, if it has a sense, is an activity of systematically manipulating signs”, affirms the philosopher. In other words, when I acquire an object, I am interested in possessing a sign that combines with others in order to communicate my “difference”. From this perspective, it is not so much the function of objects, but their being as signs that assigns their value and confers prestige on the one who possesses them.
Baudrillard’s reflections, elaborated during the boom of the society of consumption, are still relevant. But, how do we experience today this forest of object-signs? Confused, we often accumulate with a compulsive hunger. To enter into the possession of objects seems to allow us to enter into the position or energy we long for: I acquire the mud-colored off-road vehicle to smell the odor of adventure. I acquire the walnut side-table for an “authentic” note in my kitchen. An ashtray from the 50’s on the sitting-room table shows my guests how easy-going I can be. Some objects, then, have a transcendent aura in themselves, because they are unique: we speak of ancient objects, which offer up “history” to their possessors, and art-objects, which since they are void of any function, offer themselves up to a game of ostentation for a small elite.
But let’s return to Chatwin: do objects have a soul? Do they end up possessing us?
Chatwin is a sort of dandy. Raised in an aristocratic household, he had the code and spoke its language, and with complaisance disregarded its values. His final choice that liberated him from objects is the beginning of a more ambitious ascent to conquer a still more ineffable and exclusive thing: individual liberty, which one acquires by freeing oneself from the quotidian. Chatwin’s gesture of shaking off objects is really a gesture less of rebellion than of extreme distinction.
It is necessary to offer a reflection here: perhaps, getting rid of objects does not liberate us from the “system of objects”. Indeed, if I deprive myself of something instead of entering into possession of it, nevertheless, I am still acting within that system. I cannot escape the network of “signs” (to use Baudrillard’s terms), which is a code to which all the logical rationales are subordinated: that of the social hierarchy. Therefore, one can very well become attached to the idea of being free of objects in a way that is still more obsessive than when we possess many of them. Our need to be unique, superior, different, special can lead us to the point of subtracting rather than adding, in a gesture of radical snobbery. In other words, if one makes an idol of minimalism, he or she is not any less attached to a self-image than one who is surrounded by objects.
In any case, the asceticism practiced by the iconic dandy Chatwin is not available to all. Perhaps it will be better to surrender to the fact that objects are an indissoluble part of our life. That, in fact, by disposing of them and appointing them in space we create our cosmos, just as children, lining up dolls on the ground, define their interior world.
Let’s take as an example a simple object, present in every house: the coffee maker. The coffee maker accompanies my gesture of preparing coffee: it confers rituality to my daily life. The old one, inherited from my grandmother, however, no longer usable, sits quietly on the table and reassures me: the past is still here, there is continuity, people survive in our memory. “Every piece of furniture is a family portrait,” says Baudrillard.
Whether we are speaking of the coffee maker we use every day or the one that belonged to grandmother, both are utensils that allow us to punctuate time, to hold onto it, and it seems they may even be able to stop its passing.
Nevertheless, objects do not only capture time, but they also contain profound images of our psyche. “The object is for man a kind of unsensitive dog, which receives caresses and offers them in its own way, or rather it sends them back as a faithful mirror not of real images but of desired images,” says Maurice Rheims, in “The Fascinating History of Collecting.”
Therefore, more than simply accumulating objects or spastically liberating ourselves of them because we are obsessed by their presence, it would be necessary to ask ourselves, instead, what things are truly essential for us. If it is true that “all the gods are in us,” as James Hillman says, then it will be necessary to establish which of these gods we want to represent through the objects that we possess, which parts of our soul we want to make visible.
And here, again, it is the collector-traveler Bruce Chatwin to offer us a key: he got rid of all his collections, in which appeared – among other bizarre things – an inkwell from the Han dynasty, an Assyrian duck of quartz, a jade knife from prehistoric England; nevertheless, he never wanted to separate from a carpet made of the feathers of a bird dating back to the Inca civilization.
We can wonder as to what motivated this attachment. A carpet, symbol of domestic comfort, becomes symbolically with the feathers, a flying carpet. The pinnacle of domesticity and luxury combined with a frenzy for flight. What other object in such a synthetic and oneiric way better represents Bruce Chatwin?