Wednesday, September 30, 2009
A Person's "Things"
Legendary filmmaker and director Ingmar Bergman died in 2007 at the age of 89. Two days ago, the Buskowski, a Swedish auction house, took in $2.56 million from the sale of items from his estate including paintings, crystalware, ornaments, lamps, clocks, rugs and beds, cameras, film projectors --even his two Mercedes.
The chess set from the death scene of his film The Seventh Seal sold for $142,000, and his house in Fårö, which housed the possessions, will be auctioned off at Christies in London next Monday. "That auction, though, will be strictly the preserve of millionaires.", 
One of the 337 auction items up for bid was Edvard ("The Scream") Munch's lithograph of August Strindberg. I once worked, for three weeks, in the Freia chocolate factory in Oslo, and in their workers' canteen on the wall above our lunch tables hung a 12-painting frieze by Munch, so you could sit and munch on your sandwich and look at Munch. (munch, moonk, they don't rhyme. So much for wordplay, ha ha). It was my first introduction to Munch, as background art.
A person's "things" -- things accumulated in one's lifetime that others have to dispose of when one can no longer deal with them, or passes away. We were sitting there together, the four of us, sorting through her things. She didn't really know what was happening, which made it easier, but not really. "Who wants the deer head?", that beautiful beautiful animal, shot and taxidermied into posterity whose glassy eyes staring out from the wall kept reminding me that it was once alive. Not I. You take it. "Are you sure?" Yes!
Stuffed animals and embalmed corpses, our attempt to capture and hold onto, as perfectly as possible, life that's gone. Old scratchy cassettes taped from the radio of sentimental songs that had meaning only for her. Little ceramic knickknacks and old saved Christmas cards and styrofoam food containers stacked and saved but never used. The photos, of course we keep the photos. This was only a temporary, necessary downsizing session--the final sorting would come later.
Artists and poets and filmmakers and singers leave behind not only their "things" but the fruit of their creations, their imagine-"airy" children, which are also things but of a different sort than rugs and candlesticks, and automobiles and houses. Munch lives on in his paintings, Bergman in his films, those sentimental songs in someone's memory, some poems in print get studied and analyzed and reintroduced to new readers every generation. Not all of one's things survive or are appreciated and we have no control over that. Bergman's things brought in millions of dollars from bidders who want to own a piece of him, as it were--have a keepsake of who he was and what he did. How many people's "things" are fought over, discarded or thrown out because survivors don't want them or don't know what to do with them?
At a lawyer's office where I once worked there came one day the effects of someone's belongings, of no particular value but there was this little notebook in which the owner had pencilled in messages of importance (at the time): Cat food for Buster... Buy Kleenex ... Appt. at 3 o'clock. etc. Watches and antique cuff links get kept; one's scribbly personal jottings tossed into the wastebasket. Who cares. He was a nobody. Into the wastebasket with it. When they had gone I fished it out and took it home. It was not poetry. Largely unintelligible, a scribbled rambling, mostly about the cat. He had no family, no one to get his "things". Who remembers the people who don't have lasting things to leave, objects that when some years have passed that when you look at them, the person comes alive in your mind again, his or her presence still somehow felt.
Objects and things and words, and legacies, intended or not. And our attachment (or indifference) to them. $142,000 for a famous person's chess set; a toss in the wastebasket for a not-famous person's important thoughts. Comparing the worth of things of people who have "done" something, to that of people who have not done something, is an excerise in futility. ("Worth"= desirable, useful, valuable; a thing's value is a matter of judgment)
I'm not sure what I mean by that, but what strikes me here is that in the end, the things we leave behind are just that: Things. They serve to remind of our existence, and then one day it's the thing itself that assumes a life of its own--as a cherished kept object, memento, decoration. I have two Munchs, a Giacometti and a Modigliani in my collection, says an imaginary successful bidder, proudly. We have a sort of collection, too, not by intention; it just happened. I sit in my husband's grandmother's rocking chair and wonder what she was like. I only know her name was Clara and that she had six daughters, died of cancer and that I've inherited her cookware and her recipe for salmon loaf. There, of course, was more to her than that. We have three rocking chairs, would she feel slighted if I use the other, more comfortable one, I wonder?
Old houses, full of memories, its occupants long gone. Photo albums with captured smiles, frozen in time. Words that live on and on and on ... and on--through oral repetition, in print, in action. I saw recently mention of a writer who had published 70 books. Seventy books!!!! That is no guarantee that they will continue to be read--or even discovered at all by anyone. And oral stories can die out when the people to whom they have been entrusted die out as a people or don't continue the tradition. We effectively disappear when we are no longer in anyone's conscious thought. And yet many of our words, and most of our "things" remain, permanent reminders of the impermanence of life.
Feed the cats. Do the dishes. Take a break.