The Secret Lives of Our Possessions

Valerie.dancing spoons new
Illustration by Ann Arnold

The Swiss psychiatrist C.G. Jung defended the autonomy of things. Our possessions aren’t just here to do our bidding, he said, but have lives and feelings of their own. In the 1930s, at a conference in Ascona, he addressed our problems with rebellious objects: documents “hiding themselves,” “a pair of glasses seeking out a chair of a concealing pattern,” or devils that get into objects and “perform the most extraordinary stunts.”

“This book would like it very much better, I am sure,” Jung explained, “if it were lying near the center of the table where it is safe, but I have put it on the edge. It is an awkward position for that poor creature of a book. It may fall down and get injured. If I…touch (objects) in an awkward way, they take revenge.” 

Illustration by Ann Arnold

When Pots Rebel

Kitchen items are also capable of voicing their displeasure—something Jung noted in his autobiography, Memories, Dreams, and Reflections. For much of his life, Jung enjoyed making simple, hearty meals at his lake house in Bollingen. In his later years, he was confined to bed while recovering from a serious illness. One morning, he awoke to a loud clanging. Jung immediately knew what was wrong. He put on his slippers and walked into the kitchen.

Valerie. Jung
Illustration by Ann Arnold
“I’ll be back with you soon,” he said to his favorite pot, “and we’ll make some good things together.” With that the banging stopped.

In older cultures, people believed that ordinary objects were alive with energy and meaning. When we treat our possessions with respect and kindness, they become not just helpmates but talismans. In indigenous societies, an amulet or bowl can possess a kind of holiness or grace, transferring these powers to its owner, while Shinto Buddhists are apt to thank a plate or pair of shoes for their daily service.

For centuries of human development this notion — called panpsychism — was the dominant belief — at least until Descartes separated thought (res cogitans) from matter (res extensa) and the rationalists put man at the top of the hierarchy, scoffing at the notion that animals and objects might have souls.

What are our shoes and salad plates thinking?

If you find yourself talking to the broom or to the egg-timer, don’t worry. It’s natural to see these familiar things as our companions. Jung was aware of the stress encountered by his possessions as he travelled by steamship, returning from a visit to America in 1906, and hit some stormy seas.
Illustration by Ann Arnold

At one point, Jung wrote this amusing letter to his wife.

(As) the ship began to roll fearfully…the objects in my cabin (came) to life: the sofa cushion crawled about on the floor in semidarkness; a recumbent shoe sat up, looked around in astonishment and then shuffled quietly off under the sofa; a standing shoe turned wearily on its side and followed its mate. Now the scene changed. I realized that the shoes had gone under the sofa to fetch my bag and brief case. The whole company paraded over to join the big trunk under the bed. One sleeve of my shirt on the sofa waved longingly after them, and from inside the chests and drawers came rumbles and rattles. Suddenly there was a terrible crash …a rattling, clattering, and tinkling. One of the kitchens is underneath me. There, at one blow, five hundred plates had been awakened from their deathlike torpor and with a single bold leap had put a sudden end to their dreary existence as slaves.

Illustration by Ann Arnold
Here we have an entire play with objects as lead actors. The shoes, shirts and luggage take shelter from the roiling seas, while the plates imprisoned in the galley go to desperate lengths to secure their freedom.
Jung might have panicked at the condition of his stateroom or spent the afternoon feeling seasick, homesick, and generally glum. Instead he enjoyed this form of theatre.

At home, Jung paid homage to what he called “our little household gods.”  “As you know, in olden times the ancestral souls lived in pots in the kitchen,” he wrote.  Once he compared himself to “a spoon in God’s kitchen.” 

You, too, can acknowledge the spirits that reside in everything from a garden hoe to a table to a humble salt shaker.

If you uncap your imagination, whole menageries may pop up in your living room. Your dining room chairs may decide to take off on their own adventures, and your lamps and lounge chairs become canny co-conspirators. You may even find something madcap in your collection of pots and pans, feather dusters, forks and spatulas. So take a moment and consider, Do your possessions have secret longings? Walter Mitty lives? What sweet consolations do they provide? And what mischief do they get up to when you close the door and walk away?

This article is a collaboration between Valerie Andrews, our Chief Storyteller, and illustrator Ann Arnold, who produced the elegant and playful drawings for Fanny in France and Fanny at Chez Panisse by Alice Waters.

Valerie and Ann are working on a book called The Secret Lives of Ordinary Things. 

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