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things

If you thought materialist escapism and spiritual dabbling were modern phenomena, check out this very amusing short story by D.H. Lawrence, called 'Things', written in 1928. The complete text is available here.

As a cruel satire of a newlywed couple of "true idealists", it reads like a precursor (or even a prequel) to Richard Yates' great novel 'Revolutionary Road' (see earlier review). Many familiar Lawrence themes are present, especially his disgust for artificiality and his relentless searching for true meaning, but the tone is harsher than any of his earlier work - there is hardly a sentence here that isn't ironic. (Apparently the story was based on a real couple, who surprisingly still maintained their friendship with Lawrence after the story was published.)

Valerie and Erasmus (of all names!), financially independent and with "a mutual love of beauty and an inclination towards "Indian thought"", set out from America to Europe for a bohemian life devoted to art, culture and, most of all, freedom. In Paris they live out their romantic vision, becoming proper Europeans, but not actually doing very much. And that's where the first doubt arises:

To be "free", to be "living a full and beautiful life", you must, alas! be attached to something. A "full and beautiful life" means a tight attachment to something - at least, it is so for all idealists - or else a certain boredom supervenes; there is a certain waving of loose ends upon the air, like the waving, yearning tendrils of the vine that spread and rotate, seeking something to clutch, something up which to climb towards the necessary sun. Finding nothing, the vine can only trail, half-fulfilled, upon the ground. Such is freedom - a clutching of the right pole. And human beings are all vines. But especially the idealist. He is a vine, and he needs to clutch and climb. And he despises the man who is a mere potato, or turnip, or lump of wood.

They move from Paris to Italy in search of purer beauty, and while the Great War breaks out, they start studying Buddhism and Theosophy and practising meditation. But with a war going on, in which they do some hospital work, it's hard to concentrate on meditation or to actually believe that pain and sorrow are mere illusions. Their dilemma, or half-hearted attempt, however you want to look at it, is still an apt characterization of Westerners trying to fathom Eastern philosophy:

Our idealists were far too Western to think of abandoning all the world to damnation while they saved their two selves. They were far too unselfish to sit tight under a bho-tree and reach Nirvana in a mere couple.

It was more than that, though. They simply hadn't enough Sitzfleisch to squat under a bho-tree and get to Nirvana by contemplating anything, least of all their own navel.

(Great German word, 'Sitzfleisch', like the Dutch 'zitvlees', for which there isn't really an English equivalent. Something like the opposite of fidgety or antsy.)

Disillusioned with "Indian thought", which they feel has let them down somehow, they find a new occupation in collecting beautiful antiques - European things. But even as their house fills up with old furniture, their whole attitude towards Europe begins to sour. If up to now much of the satire had been directed at Americans being overly impressed by Europe's antiquity, Lawrence now reverses the mirror and makes fun of Europe as well:

...a couple of New England idealists cannot live merely on the bygone glory of their furniture. At least, one couple could not. They got used to the marvellous Bologna cupboard, they got used to the wonderful Venetian book-case, and the books, and the Siena curtains and bronzes, and the lovely sofas and side-tables and chairs they had "picked up" in Paris. Oh, they had been picking things up since the first day they landed in Europe. And they were still at it. It is the last interest Europe can offer to an outsider: or to an insider either.

And so they finally return to America, with all their European trophies, where suddenly money becomes an issue, and their things start to become a burden.

The chunk of Europe which they had bitten off went into a warehouse, at fifty dollars a month. And they sat in two small rooms and a kitchenette, and wondered why they'd done it.

In the end, after much resistance and another disappointing trip to Europe, Erasmus finally surrenders and accepts a job, so that they can settle down in a proper house and get their things out of storage and on display for all their American friends to marvel at. But for Erasmus it means a final disillusionment: his idealism is defeated by his things.

He was a changed man, quieter, much less irritable. A load was off him. He was inside the cage.
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