Given that we are in the midst of our annual solstice celebrations (aka Christmas), and the yearly orgy of buying that they have become, perhaps some contemplation of the underside of all this is in order. Notwithstanding the fact that the mythologized idea of Christmas consists in the buying of gifts for others, it takes no great perception to see that the real idea, cemented in our minds from childhood, has become more about ourselves: how much we get; how much we have after the presents have been unwrapped and are stacked in ‘our’ personal pile. In that sense, Christmas in the modern world has become a truly American holiday—steeped in the American ethic of rating our individual worth by how much material we possess. This ‘worth’ is also gauged, often enough, by how much we can affordto have, how much our net worth allows us, or would allow us if we cared to exercise it, to buy. And it cannot evade our consideration that the man who heads the United States government at this moment, Donald Trump, emblazoning his name in gold on all his holdings, epitomizes this American mania of possession.
Well, you may say, what of it? Haven’t kings and princes and potentates of every kind always done this, conspicuously displaying their possessions in order to elicit awe in those whom they ruled, whose loyalty they required? Well in some senses, particularly in historical times, yes. From Persians to Greeks to Romans to Moghuls to Chinese Emperors to the Sun King to Russian czars to Victoria, all modern rulers have found it necessary to display their riches for the sake of rationalizing and emphasizing their right to power. The plantation owners in Mississippi and the robber barons with their mansions in Newport dutifully followed suit. All these ‘blessed of the earth’ seemed to take delight in the vivid contrast/gulf between the visual spectacle of their consumption and the meager possessions of those they ruled, indeed literally possessed. For that is the most exaggerated form of possession of which humans are capable: to literally own the body and soul of other human beings, to possess the very means of their survival, of their ability to be. Which is what the capitalist moguls of our time possess as well.
But again, what of it? Isn’t that what everyone always wants, what humans have always wanted? To lord it over their fellow humans, if they possibly could, to work diligently and ceaselessly to get to that point? Well, not exactly. In the chiefdoms of the Northwest Coast of America, for example, riches conferred on the chief an opposite privilege: the privilege of giving it all away. The potlatch was a ceremony where Indian chieftains took pride in giving all that they had to their assembled tribesmen. And the measure of their success was precisely how much they could give away. Possession, therefore, was not for keepingwhat others couldn’t have; possession’s most conspicuous privilege lay in how easily and freely it could be dispensed with, given away. And of course, sociologists tell us that such gift giving served the very important function of circulating goods so that their use and worth was distributed and multiplied many times over.
It is not clear to me whether chiefs or their tribe members understood giving in this way, nor if they understood the dark side of possession (as, for example, many cultures do as expressed in the folkway of evil eye, where the display of goods is believed to inspire envious eyes and thereby evil), but it certainly seems possible. Be that as it may, some among us have always understood that life and possession may not always be fully compatible. Surely, the slaves in the American South must have known that being someone else’s possession—to be bought and sold on a whim—made it impossible for the possessed one to truly live. And we all, on some level, understand that, hence our American mania to be the one with enough wealth to possess rather than be possessed, to own rather than be owned. What some of our folk wisdom indicates, moreover, is that there’s even more to it than that. “‘Tis better to give than to receive:” almost everyone subscribes, at least nominally, to that idea. The same goes for other sayings, often found on our Christmas cards: “It’s not how much we give but how much love we put into giving;” “For it is in giving that we receive;” and so on. So many and varied are these sayings that it is almost as if a shadow of guilt lies over our annual gifting season, the holiday that, more than anything else, serves to determine how well the economy of our nation is faring. For if Christmas buying is anemic, the entire economy braces for a downturn. No wonder we are all hustled by advertising and the entire panorama of false holiday cheer into buying and possessing far more than we can afford.
But there’s a deeper side to all of this, (deeper even than the fact that so many are the useless goods that Americans give and buy even when it’s not Christmas that we, and western culture in general, are literally drowning in our own waste) and it has to do with possession itself. Ironically, some of the most impressive thoughts about possession and its problems come from some of our American thinkers in the early days of our possession mania. It is as if early on, thinkers like Thoreau and Emerson were able to see more clearly than we can now how much possession, or even dispossession, animated the founding and early ethic of our nation. Consider just the early settlers, starting with Columbus, who were so anxious to plant symbols, i.e. claims, of possession in the new lands they ran into. Not only did they insist on ownership, using western concepts of property to swindle the indigenous people out of their lands, but they proved themselves eager to cement the case with the murder of as many aboriginal claimants to “their” lands as possible. As settlers moved west and “claimed” more and more of the Indian lands they brought under cultivation (this involved the concept of vacuum domicilium, which meant that ‘undeveloped’ lands—those without such improvements as fenced fields and permanent structures—could simply be occupied and possessed regardless of Indian claims and unwritten traditions), they buttressed their claims with legal cases, the most important of which was the 1823 Supreme Court case of Johnson v. M’Intosh. This case, stacked from the beginning due to the basic assumptions underlying it (Indians were “savage tribes” with inferior culture and primitive subsistence drawn from the forest),didinitially admit that Indians “were rightful occupants of the soil;” however, their actual sovereignty and right to dispose of their tradition-bound lands “was denied by the original fundamental principle, that discovery gave exclusive title to those who made it.” In other words, their dispossession was made legal by the “discovery” of their lands by Europeans. Steven Newcomb, Director of the Indigenous Law Institute, summarized this legal doctrine as follows:
“Based on this bizarre theory, our very as Indians is now assumed to be subordinate to, ruled by, and possessed as property by, the political and legal successor of the first Christian ‘discoverers,’ namely, the United States.” see .
Thoreau was quite familiar with this dispossession, this theft of Indian land that lay at the heart of every American possession throughout the new nation, and so expressed again and again his problems with the very idea of possession, which goes deeper still.
Consider that Thoreau’s deep problem with possession came from his understanding of his basic function, the function of the artist or poet. Thoreau, that is, meditated on the fact that the very material of his art consisted of the objects of the material world, and that to write about them meant in some sense to possess them. Though he did not have to ownsuch objects in the common sense, he did have to take possession of them, either by internalizing them, deeply understanding them or, as a poet, simply naming them. The problem, as he knew, was that whether incorporating or comprehending or naming, he was in some fundamental sense losing the thing itself. He was losing the innocent (Thoreau was obsessed with maintaining his ‘innocence’), the more or less primary apprehension of it in favor of a word or a concept. And that concept was really only shorthand for the freezing of the multiplicity of impressions that the living object actually was. The action of the taxidermist or the butterfly collector, who must kill his specimen in order to preserve it, perhaps conveys this sense best. Museum curators know this as well: once an object has entered a collection to be catalogued and mounted and preserved, it is like an animal caged in a zoo, in that it has lost its functional life. It becomes something named, circumscribed, identified, catalogued, and embalmed. Worse, we who view such things become, as voyeurs, embalmed as well.
Here, then, is the deep problem with possession. To possess something—and this goes double for the possession of spouse that western and many other cultures gave to males in a marriage—is to establish it as an object, frozen in time as if to make it permanent. It is to circumscribe its always-changing life, its real being. It is to cripple its dynamic life in the most basic sense, to kill its freedom. This underlying demand is why so many murders are attributed to a male whose “possession,” his wife, has asserted her freedom one way or the other. “If you can’t be mine, then you can’t be anyone’s, and must die.” Nor is it just in the extreme case of spousal murder where this idea reigns. As noted above, simply naming things is truncating them, cutting them short of what they actually are—living, breathing, constantly-evolving entities. And so, when we know things by their names, it is an advance at first, as all shortcuts are; but after habituation, it becomes a loss. A reduction. We no longer see trees as dynamic always-changing life forms. We see treeas a concept. We see floweras a concept; skunkas a concept; ballet danceras a concept. And it usually takes artists to re-image such common objects to shake us out of our frozen and static conceptions. If we did not have this re-imagining, we would be embalmed in all our conceptions, blind to the world as it really is—which is, for most of us, the way we get through life.
In many ways, we do the same with our selves. Though we recognize that we change over time, especially when we see photographs of our early selves, we still have frozen concepts of “self” deeply imbedded in our brains. We see our selves even in baby pictures. And so, when our physical characteristics or abilities change, we rebel: this can’t be happening; this isn’t the real me. Which is why the question about self is a basic one in wisdom traditions. Who are you? We think we know: I’m me. But which me? And for how long? And what of these other manifestations of me that I may not like or even know about?
Getting back to possession, then, we can shape some conclusions that have to do with the basics of having and being. To possess means to take, to take possession. And this involves, at some level, the reduction or even destruction of that which we take possession of. What’s more, it also involves a reduction in ourselves. For if we focus, as many of us do and are encouraged to do in our culture, on getting and having, we not only lose the object—its ability to truly be—but ourselves as well—our ability to truly be. That is, by focusing exclusively on the havingof things—things as ourobjects that we keep and protect for ourselves—we remove ourselves from our true nature: directly feeling, or eating, or using; in short, being. We objectify, we concern ourselves with storing up for the future, we become preoccupied with securing for ourselves alone our “things,” and thus remove ourselves from the immediacy of living. Wherehavingbecomes paramount, being, in the sense of living life fully, becomes forgotten or delayed or put aside for a more convenient time. In this sense, we can say that in order to havesomething, we must diminish not only that which we possess, but ourselves as well—the true life of being we all yearn for. For Thoreau, this idea was implicit in almost everything he wrote. Specifically, he wrote in an early journal entry something that cast these ideas in the imagery of looking at Nature, which he did almost constantly:
Man cannot afford...to look at Nature directly, but only with the side of his eye. He must look through her and beyond her. To look at her is as fatal as to look at the head of Medusa. It turns the man of science to stone. (V45, Torry and Allen, eds, The Journals of Henry D. Thoreau, Boston: 1906.)
If we take Thoreau’s image of “looking at Nature directly” as a metaphor for ‘taking possession of,’ then we can see that the deadly result, for Thoreau, is that “it turns the man of science to stone.” In other words, scientists were those who separated Nature, who objectified Nature, and the result is that they became, metaphorically, stones: dumb, insentient beings. This is a kind of reversal of the cited myth from Greek mythology, where the Medusa’s glance turned men to stone. In Thoreau’s version, it is the men of science whose own reduction of Nature to objects— possessing them to study them—turns themto stone.
I think it is clear that Thoreau meant this to apply to most of his countrymen, to the American ethic of business and possession he inveighed against so often. ‘If you insist on possessing everything in sight, even or especially the natural world, you will end up turning yourselves to stone.’ It’s something we might want to think about in this mad season of getting, getting and more getting.