Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Ownership and the cosmos..

The question of ownership has been disturbing quite deeply lately. Questions such as, what can we really own? Why do we care about owning things? Is it right to want to own so much stuff? Why not let it all go?

It all began a couple of weeks ago, although in another sense, it has always been there. I met a former student who is making a documentary about compulsive hoarders. There are more hoarders about than you might imagine - in London there is even a hoarders' 12-step support programme. It seems that many people (often as a result of traumatic experience) have a fear of letting anything go, to the extent that their living spaces become warrens, with narrow canyons of space carved out of mountains of clutter. He showed me some of his footage: one woman could not bear to let go of the cotton pads she used to wipe off her make up each night. And so, in her bedroom, there is a huge fluffy pyramid of cotton pads, each with a stained dot of makeup in the centre. Another could not bear to bin her plastic bath and shower soap bottles. Her bath is ringed with half full containers. She has to gingerly displace some of them each time she goes to bathe, placing them back carefully afterwards..

The question of why people get stuck in the compulsion to hoard begs another question as its mirror opposite: why does anyone want to take ownership of anything? What does ownership pushed to its extremes tell us about everyday claims of ownership? Why do we want to consume and gather round us more than we will ever need? Do we really need that many pairs of shoes, that many jackets, that many adornments parading themselves around us?

It reminds me of the time my parents sold the house I grew up in from the age of 10 to 18 - a large rambling farmhouse in the village (Church Farm). I had the third floor to myself, as well as an outbuilding (talk about spoilt for space). And then, one day, it was not ours anymore, and I was bereft; struck with the feeling that in fact we never really owned it. Someone had lived there before us, and someone before them, and generations unborn would live in it in to the future. Anonymous lives going about their business, across time, in a space I had thought was exclusively ours! What delusion.

At the bottom of this sinking feeling was the dawning understanding that no one can ever 'own' anything. All that can be done is to entreat some kind of custodial care upon things from within the inner sphere of one's world. Everything we own, we will have to give up, to others, either for or against our will.

And at the bottom of this new extraordinary knowledge was the even deeper intimation that we delude ourselves into the belief that we can own things simply because at some inner level of being, we are afraid to accept the reality of our own eventual demise. We cling to ownership as a way of clinging to life. We fear death, and so we decide to own. We do not allow ourselves to realise that the world must slip through our fingers, as sand pours down through the hour glass of our lives.

What to do with such mordant realisations? One could simply baulk; move away from these disquieting thoughts and feelings, let them slide. One can continue to maintain the enjoyment of one's possessions. After all, isn't it rather lovely to have a well stocked wine cellar, a long library of books, to have that vintage guitar in the corner unstrummed yet loved by simply being there, that treasured collection of Fela vinyls, that 100GB collection of MP3's spanning all of human music in time and space? In these ways we condense culture within our grasp, and allow ourselves to be persuaded that we are doing our small but valiant preservational bit for the collective culture..

I am therefore drawn to the bourgoise comforts of ownership. But I am equally pulled or pushed into the seduction of giving it all away. What freedom there would be in owning nothing, of letting everything go, of giving it all away. I imagine being on a ship, and tossing everything I own, one by one, into the ripping and curling water below. What lightness of spirit it would be to set forth with nothing for the rest of one's days; of going walkabout, singing the landscape back into enchanted being; of becoming a sanyasi, covered in chalk, a humble mendicant..

This freedom is even more compelling when I think of all the people out there who could be reading the books that I hoard but no longer read, listening to the music I no longer have ears for: of all the minor inspirations I am withholding through this selfish yet illusory claim to own those coagulations of dust that surround me. All was dust, all will be dust.. The only thing that is not dust in the cosmos are the moments of meaning between all the objects that surround us in our multifarious presents:

The intricate cadences of someone laughing from the belly of their soul at a joke - Ellison's homeopathic laughter; the sound of an alto saxophone played by someone whose combination of 10 hours practice per day every day and a sublime spiritual tension produces the most divine squeaks at the higher registers (I'm thinking of David Murray); and of walking, on an autumnal day, with one's love, scrunching the leaves of the park underfoot..

All we have are these moments of magic. All the stuff in between is, just stuff. We should let it go, I reckon..


lolaojiks 12:07 am  

Interesting post

Although, I personally dislike hoarding, I think there are two other things to consider, which are

1. History would be more difficult to communicate without hoarders.

During visits to museums and stately homes in the UK, I have often come away feeling bereft that there isn't some piece of furniture/jewellery (not necessarily valuable) passed down from my fore fathers for me to pass on to my children. Something that tells their story, to which I can weave mine and then pass on.

2. Money could be made from hoarding (a la Cash in the Attic/ Antiques/Collections) and it could also be a form of art.

I once saw a personal collection of hand made china dating from the early 20th century and thot it was beautiful and worth keeping.

Justin 1:12 am  

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss:
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on!"

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much:
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

For some reason this post reminded me of this poem.

Anonymous,  8:49 am  

This is so true. Read the interview with Gamaliel Onosode (Chairman of Celtel, ex- Chairman of Cadbury, Dunlop, NAL Bank, NLNG etc) on why he is so wealthy and does not feel the need to hoard.

The man still lives in the same house in Surulere he built before Nigerian Independence despite his wealth and clout. His statement of "what we need as respectable humans is very little compared to what people tend to desire" is similar to what you have written.

I think more Nigerians really need to follow this example and we will have a better nation.

David,  9:13 am  

Only passing through

Only passing through

We own this stuff briefly

You can't take it with you

You can't own the houses

That will outstand you

Only passing through

These houses and these streets



California, Clay





Anonymous,  11:19 am  

Jeremy this is so beautifully expressed. You have such a beautiful and enquiring mind. But I agree with Lolajiks about the other side of hoarding is the creation of sites of memory for displaying these objects of daily life and cultural experiences. I think of the Soane Museum in Holborn. It is a homage to hoarding, but it is also a window to the past. My god children are never tired of visiting the place. There is something about the place that triggers off something in Children's imagination.


loomnie 1:23 pm  

Thought-provoking post.

I think that the examples in the footage the student showed you border on the pathological. It somehow sounds like pushing the definition of ownership to the limits if one desires to keep cotton pads one used to wipe off ones makeup. That aside, I think that on a certain level we hold on to many things because of the sentimental value we have come to attach to them. That car in father's garage, that bag that reminds of the honeymoon.... I think these are things that we normally hold on to because of the memories they carry. One can ask another question about why one needs to put 'memories' in things when one can simply go around with the memories inside. I have no answer to that, but I guess it is the same reason that we display the pictures of our loved ones on our bedside table. I dont think we really wouldn't remember them if we didnt have their pictures displayed. On another level we hoard things because of social pressure, something Aldous Huxley wrote about in "Selected Snobberies". And there are other reasons we hold on to things...

Ownership is socially constructed (sounds like a good topic for research: The Social Construction of Ownership), and I think that you might be right that klinging to things help us delude ourselves into forgetting about our mortality. But letting go might help us delude ourselves into some fake state of self-righteousness. I think that enjoying homeopathic laughters etc does not mean letting go of hoarding; people actually enjoy the two. I think that what we need is the ability to reflect on these things, and to know why we hold on to the things we hold on to... be they objects or memories.

Lolita 3:08 pm  

Jeremy, excellent post, I would say it speaks to many different facets which may or may not be intertwined: Hoarding, Showiness,
Contentment, Avarice, the list goes on and on. The funny thing is, I had sort of a similar discussion with a friend just last week; you know what I think I will continue this on my blog.

Anonymous,  3:56 pm  

Bagsie the guitar!!

Tunji 9:10 pm  

jyyjgJereamy, really a sublime summation of the nothingness of our exisistence. I recently read somewhere that most of the universe is "missing" The aggregated sum of known matter, planets, asteroids the like, account for less than 5% lf the stuff swirling in the black nothingness of space. So who moved our universe? i think like space, we have in our respective innerspaces, this dark voids that cry out to be filled, and so we fill them with stuff, and even more stuff and then finally arrive at the mordant realization that in spite of our seemingly insatiable appetite for stuff, we barely fill but 5% of our inner space.The rest, and ever expanding indictment of our profound emptiness. So what to to do? I hear that LOVE rapidly expands to fill otherwise dark spaces. Perhaps we should treat our lives like MANDALAS, complex, beautiful and intricate designs to be savoured ever so briefly and to return in the expiration of our cosmic breath to dust where we all truly belong.

Kunle,  7:38 am  

Hmmm ... So Jeremy you live in Maitama right ( that really nice area). How about you give up your nice place in a nice area for a hoarder like me!

You can go and live in Kuje and have back all the farm space you lost when your folks sold their farmhouse. Deal !!!

Emeka,  12:07 pm  

I think most Nigerians really need to read and realise that all the greed is unnecessary - we are nothing but dust & we will return to the earth without our hummers & mansions.

I have just read the Onosode interview & although part of it was religious talk - his lifestyle is impressive. Other folks like Onosode include Emeka Anyaoku (ex Commonwealth Secretary General) who still drives his old/rugged VW beetle around our village every xmas. Aminu Dantata who still lives in the Kofar Mazugal home he was raised as a child rather than in Nasarawa GRA where most wealthy people live in Kano. Akintola Williams, Alex Ibru(publisher of the Guardian) and Chief Akinkugbe (Chairman IBTC, Procter & Gamble Nigeria & WAMCO) all fall into this category of a sober approach to life.

Sorry Jeremy to use your blog to celebrate these Nigerians but I think they are the sort of right heroes we should have in terms of their simple lifestyle.

Anonymous,  4:59 pm  

Your premise linking ownership with mortality made sense to me when I read it, but I couldn't figure out why. It reminded me of a time when a friend attributed the venality of corrupt leaders to their desire for immortality. Way over my head then; I suppose it still is.

However, after an extra thought or two I decided that the "stuff" one owns can be a reflection/expression of identity. I suspect that when you are surrounded by things that reflect who you are (what you like, what adds to your happiness, etc.), it contributes to a sense of comfort and "rootedness," i.e. "I exist here." And I think that comfort buffers against thoughts of mortality.

Personally, I don't own much, just clothes, books, random accouterments and the suitcases to put them in. And I've spent A LOT of time occupying other people's space. But I can't say that this contributes to a freer sense of being. Am I more in touch with my mortality as a result? Maybe, but there may be other reasons for that. I can say that I truly enjoy
looking at the "stuff" in other people's spaces. Perhaps it's because I don't have much of my own. But then again, I do feel a sense of connectedness to a person through his/her personal belongings and the knowledge that it provides.

What I do know is that if one's insides are full (and I mean that both literally and figuratively), what's outside becomes increasingly less important, stuff or no stuff.

yemisi ogbe,  7:02 pm  

Alright now Jeremy all that talk about death and owning nothing only makes one want to end it all. Please abeg allow me my 50 pairs of Jeans since I'm going to die anyway. Thank you very much

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