The Comfort of Things
by Daniel Miller
In David Fincher's brilliant adaptation of Fight Club there is a scene where the camera pans around the flat of our Narrator. As he describes all his lovely 'stuff' the names of each piece of furniture pop up on screen, IKEA catalogue style. We also see him flicking through a catalogue like it's pornography. This is a man who clearly loves his things as we find when his entire flat is destroyed, 'That condo was my life, okay? I loved every stick of furniture in that place. That was not just a bunch of stuff that got destroyed, it was ME!'. But his 'friend' Tyler Durden wants to free him from this materialism, 'The things you own, end up owning you', he says, and so begins the rebirth. Daniel Miller would like us to see that
'in many ways the opposite is true; that possessions often remain profound and usually the closer our relationships are with objects, the closer our relationships are with people.'
To do this he took a single street in South London and got behind closed doors, interviewing the inhabitants and showing, through their diverse stories, a varied and alternative view of how people express themselves through their possessions. As a demonstration of the startling variety of people in just one small part of the capital it is fascinating. The breakdown of society and community is an all too frequent news headline and whilst Miller doesn't refute it he certainly shows that if we made the effort to get to know our neighbours we might find them to be a jolly interesting lot.
Who would have thought that a weekly trip to McDonalds and the plastic toys given away with their Happy Meals would provide a mother with her only opportunity to spend quality time playing with her children? This regular ritual became a cornerstone of her relationship with them, the toys even helping their education (a collection of Snoopy's, each representing a different nationality) and the second toys which she collected, now stored in a cupboard in their wrappers, 'will be their inheritance'. Marina struggled with her parents values and was able to repudiate them in a single gesture which brings us full circle. Given her parents love of antique furniture you can imagine the hurt caused by their daughter buying a chest of drawers from a certain Swedish furniture store.
'I bought from IKEA because it was easy to open the drawers, you know. And it was wood, and I could build it myself and it was £200, not one for £600 that didn't work and smelt and probably had worms.'
So she managed to use IKEA to free herself from her parent's influence. What would Tyler Durden make of that I wonder? The book has many stories to tell. Some are obvious like the Australian, whose laptop has huge significance, standing in for his home itself, his email address the one place where his family and friends know they will always be able to find him. Within that laptop he is able to keep strict and neat control over his life whilst his home is almost devoid of items from the past (Miller finding significance in the Aboriginal practice of dissociation from the material possessions of the deceased).
Some are striking like the heroin addict whose flat was gradually emptied to feed his habit but no matter how bad things got, two things remained, his photos and CD collection. In many ways it seems that his regard for these two things is what kept him alive. Even when the carpets went from underneath his feet he wasn't able to relinquish his memories of happier times and the immediate emotional connection stirred up by his music, which isn't so much the comfort of things but the power of them to exert an influence over even a life out of control.
Some are poignant like Jenny, a 91 year old living on her own who in her blindness finds great joy in dusting. After having been visited by family or friends and spending time reminiscing she can then spend time running her fingers over the objects which fill her home, deeply connected to those memories and also of course filling the void left by the absence of her guests.
I didn't find this to be quite the refutation of empty or alienating materialism I expected. There were occasional glimpses of the altruistic relation to objects like the philatelist whose collection is not for monetary gain but just one example of the care he takes over his possessions which is an extension of or rather very much a part of his great care for the people in his life. But very often the objects which have real significance are because of people first, because of the past, of memory; the 'sentimental value' which we can all understand. The pair of trousers from before a pregnancy which didn't fit after the birth but then all of a sudden did again ('I did feel absolutely ridiculously so pleased. I don't know why, because it's only a pair of trousers. It wouldn't have mattered if they had been new trousers. I don't think I would have been so excited. But it was because I could match them to a time when I could wear them').
This reinforces Miller's strongest point which is that in a modern metropolitan city like London, where the traditional unifiers of religion and community have a diminishing impact on people's lives, what takes its place is not an empty attachment to material possessions and a diminishing of personal relationships; most people would agree that the measure of happiness in their lives was entirely dependent on the success or otherwise of their personal relationships but what Miller could see was the vital role objects within the house or even the house itself could play in that, and how effectively this was displayed to an observer like himself.
In a book which felt a little too long for me Miller actually makes his clearest points with the opening two chapters; Empty and Full. The welcoming warmth of Mr and Mrs Clarke, in their house filled to bursting point with Christmas decorations (800 ornaments for the tree alone) has an immediate effect on Miller. Their attention to things is an extension of their sensitivity and attention to others and most of all to each other. The 'aesthetics of care' applies to both people and objects 'since one always turns out to be the vehicle for the other'. He contrasts this with George, a man used by his parents to express their total authority, now left dependant on authority for his entire life. 'The flat was empty, completely empty, because its occupant had no independent capacity to place something decorative or ornamental within it.' This literal emptiness combined with the feeling that this man, whose life was devoid of relationships with others, was basically waiting to die reduced Miller to tears.
With my own relationship to books and music and by extension to the people I talk to about them and lend them to I found a lot to connect with in this book. It is fascinating to look at objects in a more significant way, especially when they seem at first to be so inconsequential. This is an accessible and provocative book which challenges some of our basic assumptions, as the best non-fiction should. I'm off to look at some first editions now.