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