Billby L. G. William Chapman, B.A., LL.B.

It is I confess a small compliment that I can harp with considerable authority upon the coarse subject of materialism. Bearing in mind the adage “You can’t have money and things” materialism – though closely alligned with what some would label the equally vulgar subject of money – doesn’t even compete favourably with the perceived higher ambition of sound economic planning. And given the ostensible preference for spiritualism over materialism the two topics rather clash in polite conversation. Call me unfashionable or worse redundant but I’m not about to abandon my quondam affection for stuff.

Materialism is unpalatable for two reasons. First, it is bad enough that the dyed-in-the-wool materialist has the tendency to consider material possessions and physical comfort as more important than spiritual values. Second and even more disagreeable however is that the doctrine of materialism postulates nothing exists except matter and its movements and modifications. That reasoning succeeds pretty much in putting the lid on the subject and safely removes all doubt about possible philosophic niceties which might otherwise dilute the force of the proposition.

It is undoubtedly a mark of my heretical beliefs that I am reluctant to jettison them for any purpose other than to preserve my soul from the stake. Not wishing to be either provocative or irreverent I can only observe candidly that I am more than a bit distracted by physical objects. I find it odd that as constant as my affection has been I am unable to pin-point my awakening to materiality. This I suppose may be excused by the remarkably common though often unforeseen blend of spiritualism and materialism, the highly suggestive and emotional nature of things physical which are particularly forceful upon young and impressionable minds. One need only consider the irrepressible influence of fashion upon youth, the close connection between ornament and sexuality. Nonetheless the capacity of that particular sphere of materialism begins to wane relatively shortly and is replaced by even more primary urges, say for shelter. It is then but a tiny leap from apartment and house hunting to interior decoration. Interestingly though the obsession with dwellings and household furnishings – as consuming and financially ruinous as it may sometimes be – is but the introductory level of materialism. Cars and other large mechanical devices run a close second. It isn’t however until one becomes completely distracted by the collection of art that one attains the periphery and distillation of materalism. Art is the final frontier of materialism. It is paradoxical that the substantive “thing” becomes a matter of fanciful “beauty” which is not exactly how one normally characterizes materialism. And yet it betrays the deeper essence of materialism which so compels its shameless adherents.

Before launching a campaign for the defence of one’s belongings I hasten to add to the discussion an important footnote; namely, that when it comes to materialism there is no satisfaction in numbers. Pointedly for the seasoned materialist it is instead a standard of excellence. It is an intriguing quirk of materialism that within the Particular there is the benefit of the General, an insight through the peep hole of the private to the broader ambition of the public. Perhaps this is so because aesthetically pleasing items are illustrative of such universally faultless features as colour, texture, weight, design, depth and density, all characteristics which normally apply to artistic considerations not mere things.

It is thus that materialism moves from blunt form to intelligent content. Surrounding one’s self with things of beauty is in itself a laudable motive and can easily be seen as an adjunct to an otherwise productive existence. The peregrination is however threatened when the adjunct becomes less than subordinate, where the subject trumps the substance. We can’t tolerate people who measure themselves by their possessions. It might be even more offensive if we were to measure ourselves by our possessions. The greater existential dread indeed is that we end by doubting our intrinsic worth were we to be estranged from our things. To visualize one’s self as void of material association is not only unimagineable but also frightful, far less appealing for example than the picture of one’s self as a chubby nude child upon a blanket.

Apart from those with a penchant for monasticism, most of us have spent a good deal of our lives dedicated to the accumulation of stuff and may even admit to a certain pride in it (though certainly not a reverence). If we have honed the skill sufficiently to qualify its collection as artistic then we at least stand a chance of parrying the sword of scorn. The trick is to prevent being distracted by materialism. This requires a fine balance of appetite and polish, the visceral and the cerebral, instinct and intellect. And, as I have suggested, keep the numbers small. There is no imperative to own the world to sense its joy. The mere hint of salt is gratifying enough.