Elisabeth Morris

The tyranny of things

Two fifteen-year-old girls stood eyeing one another on first acquaintance. Finally one little girl said, “Which do you like best, people or things?” The other little girl said, “Things.” They were friends at once.

I suppose we all go through a phase when we like things best; and not only like them, but want to possess them under our hand. The passion for accumulation is upon us. We make “collections,” we fill our rooms, our walls, our tables, our desks, with things, things, things.

Many people never pass out of this phase. They never see a flower without wanting to pick it and put it in a vase, they never enjoy a book without wanting to own it, nor a picture without wanting to hang it on their walls. They keep photographs of all their friends and kodak albums of all the places they visit, they save all their theater programmes and dinner cards, they bring home all their alpenstocks. Their houses are filled with an undigested mass of things, like the terminal moraine where a glacier dumps at length everything it has picked up during its progress through the lands.

But to some of us a day comes when we begin to grow weary of things. We realize that we do not possess them; they possess us. Our books are a burden to us, our pictures have destroyed every restful wall-space, our china is a care, our photographs drive us mad, our programmes and alpenstocks fill us with loathing. We feel stifled with the sense of things, and our problem becomes, not how much we can accumulate, but how much we can do without. We send our books to the village library, and our pictures to the college settlement. Such things as we cannot give away, and have not the courage to destroy, we stack in the garret, where they lie huddled in dim and dusty heaps, removed from our sight, to be sure, yet still faintly importunate.

Then, as we breathe more freely in the clear space that we have made for ourselves, we grow aware that we must not relax our vigilance, or we shall be once more overwhelmed.

For it is an age of things. As I walk through the shops at Christmas time and survey their contents, I find it a most depressing spectacle. All of us have too many things already, and here are more! And everybody is going to send some of them to everybody else! I sympathize with one of my friends, who, at the end of the Christmas festivities, said, “If I see another bit of tissue paper and red ribbon, I shall scream.”

It extends to all our doings. For every event there is a “souvenir.” We cannot go to luncheon and meet our friends but we must receive a token to carry away. Even our children cannot have a birthday party, and play games, and eat good things, and be happy. The host must receive gifts from every little guest, and provide in return some little remembrance for each to take home. Truly, on all sides we are beset, and we go lumbering along through life like a ship encrusted with barnacles, which can never cut the waves clean and sure and swift until she has been scraped bare again. And there seems little hope for us this side our last port.

And to think that there was a time when folk had not even that hope! When a man’s possessions were burned with him, so that he might, forsooth, have them all about him in the next world! Suffocating thought! To think one could not even then be clear of things, and make at least a fresh start! That must, indeed, have been in the childhood of the race.

Once upon a time, when I was very tired, I chanced to go away to a little house by the sea. “It is empty,” they said, “but you can easily furnish it.” Empty! Yes, thank Heaven! Furnish it? Heaven forbid! Its floors were bare, its walls were bare, its tables there were only two in the house were bare. There was nothing in the closets but books; nothing in the bureau drawers but the smell of clean, fresh wood; nothing in the kitchen but an oil stove, and a few a very few dishes; nothing in the attic but rafters and sunshine, and a view of the sea. After I had been there an hour there descended upon me a great peace, a sense of freedom, of in finite leisure. In the twilight I sat before the flickering embers of the open fire, and looked out through the open door to the sea, and asked myself, “Why?” Then the answer came: I was emancipated from things. There was nothing in the house to demand care, to claim attention, to cumber my consciousness with its insistent, unchanging companionship. There was nothing but a shelter, and outside, the fields and marshes, the shore and the sea. These did not have to be taken down and put up and arranged and dusted and cared for. They were not things at all, they were powers, presences.

And so I rested. While the spell was still unbroken, I came away. For broken it would have been, I know, had I not fled first. Even in this refuge the enemy would have pursued me, found me out, encompassed me.

If we could but free ourselves once for all, how simple life might become! One of my friends, who, with six young children and only one servant, keeps a spotless house and a soul serene, told me once how she did it. “My dear, once a month I give away every single thing in the house that we do not imperatively need. It sounds wasteful, but I don’t believe it really is. Sometimes Jeremiah mourns over missing old clothes, or back numbers of the magazines, but I tell him if he doesn’t want to be mated to a gibbering maniac he will let me do as I like.”

The old monks knew all this very well. One wonders sometimes how they got their power; but go up to Fiesole, and sit a while in one of those little, bare, white-walled cells, and you will begin to understand. If there were any spiritual force in one, it would have to come out there.

I have not their courage, and I win no such freedom. I allow myself to be overwhelmed by the invading host of things, making fitful resistance, but without any real steadiness of purpose. Yet never do I wholly give up the struggle, and in my heart I cherish an ideal, remotely typified by that empty little house beside the sea.

(1917)

MLA Citation

Morris, Elisabeth. “The tyranny of things.” 1917. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 8 Oct 2008. 17 Aug 2017 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/morris/tyranny_of_things/>.

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