FICTION has from time to time concerned itself with one of the worldly ruling passions, that is, the love of things, those specially treasured objects large and small, collected, and polished, to be arranged in a pleasing design or merely to be assembled as items of property. As part of an imagined setting, the things will have movement as they fall under the same drifting shadows and illuminations that accompany the drama of love between human beings.

The objects perform; they take their place on the stage and are subject to action and counteraction, to the aesthetics of fictional structure dominated by character, by surprise, reversal, and ambiguous resolution. It will usually turn out that passionate possessiveness is singular, even if the possessors are a family. It is not psychologically transferable since the objectified passion has itself become character, a summation of wishes, commands, and regrets. The possessor must at last come to an end while the things live on in the mute, appealing obduracy of the inanimate. The decline of one and the endurance of the other is plot.

It is one of the advantages of life over the construction of art that things may come and go in the heart, be surrendered, reduced by subsequent passions, or passed on without too painful a clinging. When things are the definition of being, they will have in fiction a moral aspect, often of some murkiness but nevertheless of a moral dimension in that lessons of behavior, appropriateness, solicitude, and fidelity are profoundly involved.

The treasuring of chosen things is quite different from greed, which is by its nature profligate in its wide absorptions. The collector, the creator by assembly of a sort of landscape of images corresponding to a vision, experiences willingly the penury of selectiveness, of exclusions and renunciations ordained by the unconscious as well as by a certain amount of knowledge, experience, by historical and even by “household” scholarship.

In all of this there is the expectation of the melancholy interlude—the melancholy and defeat that arrive when the things encounter helplessly the eye of others who are not in love or who commend the amorous display in a manner of impugning relaxation that is dangerous to the integrity of the single-minded.

Henry James’s The Spoils of Poynton is a peculiar drama of windswept objects buffeted about by a storm of desire, fear, exigency; by calculations that grow into a frenzy of manipulation exercised without irony. The author and the reader will feel a measure of sympathy, or at least not a withholding of sympathy, for the treasures endangered, the purchases and placements and the creative will of the one who has collected. It might be said the collector has breathed life into the things by a sort of naming, as Adam in being given the power of naming the creatures of the earth has thereby asserted his dominance over them.

Mrs. Gereth, the mistress of Poynton and of the possessions that she has with careful and studious passion assembled there, is alerted to the despoiling future by the sudden importance of one coming from the domain of the tasteless. Taste is nearly always comparative and identifies its presence by the vast absences surrounding it. Mrs. Gereth has seen an estate called Waterbath, a dreadful and assertive place that is the home of the young girl her only son is attracted to and will probably marry. Her heart is appalled and the future of Poynton is vigorously menaced.

“What was dreadful now was the horrible, the intimate ugliness of Waterbath,” Mrs. Gereth had said with a sob. This collector is, of course, a fierce environmentalist and believes her future daughter-in-law cannot escape the almost genetic taint of the “trumpery ornament and scrapbook art, and strange excrescences and bunchy draperies” that are the girl’s familial style. Mrs. Gereth will try, with a good deal of heavy maneuver, to lead her son’s affections to a clever negative, that is, to a plain young woman who has no possessions, no background, and is therefore a conveniently empty vessel into which the instruction offered by the reigning things can be poured without effort.

But what are the things, the spoils, so ardently brought to Poynton by the palpitating acceptances and rejections of Mrs. Gereth? Here, a descriptive difficulty is likely to inhibit the novelist. In his plot, cabinets, rugs, boxes, and tables are instruments. Their actual shape and hue can be a rather tedious challenge. Charm, workmanship, and a reasonable sort of rarity are asserted. The plot is concrete, but the things themselves are generalized, seen in the gross, as it were.

When we first enter Poynton, Mrs. Gereth addresses the girl who is free to develop “natural taste” because large lacks have saved her from bad taste, by saying with emotion, “Now do you know how I feel?” The line, spoken in the entrance hall as the door is flung open, is the utterance of the perfectionist, the patient and prudent artist of the household. The eye is directed to the discrete vision prepared for it and in this instance there will be no fear of inattention, of the wounds of the hurried, dreaded “formulas of admiration,” as James calls them.

But, again, what precisely are the things? As you turn the pages in pursuit you find a Spanish altar cloth, a Venetian lamp that lights up “an admirable tapestry.” There is “the great Italian cabinet” and a “sofa dressed in old velvet brocade.” And at the end, the supreme find, a Maltese cross, “a small but marvelous crucifix, of ivory, a masterpiece of delicacy, of expression and of the great Spanish period.”

The crippled execution of the objects does not diminish our belief that the things are fine, handsome, difficult to come by, and assembled with strong emotion. The hesitant description is part of the experience gained in the writing of prose fiction, an experience that understands the forlorn inexactitude of adjectives and rhythms trying to stand for themselves alone, separated from the psychological rope that attaches them to feelings and actions of human beings.

Mrs. Gereth is a morally ambiguous person in the novel because the possessions have made of her an analyst too complicated and angular for ease. They have told her that she can leave nothing to chance and that, if one would perpetuate a setting, a far-reaching control over recalcitrant persons must be attempted with all the beady-eyed attention to detail that formerly operated only in old antiques shops. But she is not despicable in her desperate attentiveness. She is right, in terms of the novel, to see the “dreadful” house of the approaching daughter-in-law as the emblem of a corrupt sensibility. Her own “beautiful things” suggest a Platonic, if flawed, connection to Beauty. She may be monstrous on behalf of the ideal, but there is pathos in her inevitable defeat. The things will without fail attach themselves to the indifferent daughter-in-law who will want them, insist upon them, if only because they are “hers” by way of the will of the elder Mr. Gereth. The spoils are transferred, left to be watched over by negligent, newly hired caretakers, and the house burns down. So, what you have at last is not a tragedy, but rather a bitterness of experience.

D. H. Lawrence wrote a brief story called “Things,” which is about a young couple from New England, “with a little money,” who go at the end of World War I to live in France and then Italy. They want to be free among beautiful surroundings and to make of themselves a sort of creation. They begin to buy things, a way as they see it to absorb the essence of Europe. Their Florentine apartment is carefully done and charming, and their acquisitions seem for a time a renovation of themselves, erasing their American roots.

Again the “things” are of a generalized value and attractiveness. “Curtains of queer ancient material that looked like finely knitted silk, most beautifully faded down to a sheer soft glow.” They have a Venetian bookcase, a Bologna cupboard; they have bronzes, fine tables and chairs “picked up in Paris.” But at last they grow bored with their setting, with Europe, and they return to America, where their income will not allow a place large enough for the things, which must then go into storage. The husband is forced to go to work and the couple ends up in “their up-to-date little house on the campus of Cleveland University and that woebegone debris of Europe, Bologna cupboard, Venice bookcase, Ravenna bishop’s chair, Louis Quinze side tables, all were arrayed, and all looked perfectly out of keeping, and therefore very impressive.”

Lawrence is hard on his New England couple with their dreamy “idealism,” their superficial culture, their proneness to disappointment in the rock-hard, ancient European character that will not long correspond to their picturesque sentiments. In this story, the “things” are not the object of tragic obsession as they are with the mistress of Poynton. Still, in the descriptive generality one might note that the young couple’s objects are similar and that the listing of them will furnish the mind with only the shadow of materiality. Chests and curtains are visual, and only some extraordinary attribution to which we, the reader, attach value can confer substantially on the page.

Balzac’s Cousin Pons is a collector of a different degree. He is an innocent, harmless assembler of genuine masterpieces, and the collection will turn him into a humble, suffering victim of the greed and predatory fury of others. Pons is an ugly, aged, impoverished man, a failed composer, with some good, but not very forthcoming, family connections. Pons has only one vice and that is the love of good food, which he cannot provide himself and must seek at the usually unfriendly table of relatives and former friends.

His passion for collecting had begun long ago with a Prix de Rome that did not make him a famous composer. Still, Rome itself turned him into a collector, a shrewd and passionate one of small means and certain scrupulosities, one of which was that “the finest object in the world had no existence, so far as he was concerned, if its price was 300 francs.” By persevering for forty years, Pons has assembled over 1,700 specimens. At first we hear of credible bibelots, miniatures, and snuffboxes. And we accept the delicate little fan, painted by Watteau, and offered to a scornful, ignorant relation in the hope that she will continue to let him dine at her house. The plot is set by the Watteau fan.

If other novelists may be thought of as embarrassed in the face of reputed treasures and therefore remote and vague about their shape and ornamentation, Balzac is very much the opposite. On the wages of his appalling industry as a writer, he had pursued “curiosities” himself with a rather haphazard elation.

As the story of Cousin Pons proceeds we find that he is the owner of sixty-eight pictures, fourteen statues, large buffets holding bric-a-brac, sideboards covered with the “choicest treasures of human toil—ivories, bronzes, carvings, enamels, jewelry, porcelains,” and on and on. It is when we come to the masterpieces that we feel there has been a laying on because their names promote visions and values in no need of description.

Among the pictures are a Chardin, a Hobbema, a Fra Bartolommeo, a Dürer, a Knight of Malta portrait by Sebastian del Piomba. Later we learn there is a Greuze, a Breughel, a Claude Lorrain, and a Metsu. And so poor Pons, a man of perfect, almost feckless innocence and loneliness, has indeed been a sort of Catherine the Great with his 100-franc deals. We may question the author’s wisdom or see it perhaps as unedited enthusiasm.

The old bachelor’s inner life is not ruled by his collection to the detriment of other sentiments. His passion does not appear to be directed toward the world; he is not making a perfect country house or a thrilling Florentine apartment. The things are treasured for themselves—and even that is not quite accurate. We do not know why Pons, doomed to be the leader of a small theater orchestra and accepting the fate with modesty, should have in his youth been so greatly alert. He is not to be thought of as the weaver Silas Marner, with his little hoard of secret gold coins to brighten his lonely evenings.

The quality of the collection of Pons we have to accept as in some sense accidental in spite of his shrewdness and endurance. Perhaps the accumulation is to be connected with his gourmandise, that need which lets him sits unwanted at tables weighted with the excess wines, fowl, desserts, and liquors of the Empire. Balzac says that “his small means and his passion for bric-a-brac condemned him to an ascetic diet abhorrent to his hankering appetite.”

The fate of the 1,700 specimens will have nothing to do with the wishes of Pons. Instead he is almost murdered by the collection and can see death only as a relief from the torments it has brought to his bedside in the person of a criminal concierge, a malicious lawyer, and a crafty dealer, and, of course, his unworthy relations, who finally secure it and use it as a tribute to themselves as if it had been they who were the origin of it.

Treasures do not fare well in fiction. There is something of a dangerous hidden hoard about them and they leave behind them at best an ironical twist and at the worst the triumph of the wicked over the good.

Taste, of course, is the element that gives the “bric-a-brac” its dramatic power. And taste is not a characteristic with the firmness of courage, loyalty, or honesty. Its arena of consequence is limited. In Swann, Proust created a man of taste, knowledge, and refinement who touches our deepest feelings when he deviates from his own standards under the domination of carnal passion. For Odette, his ignorant, shallow, and beautiful love, he cannot alter the pure contents of his mind, but he can, by way of the devices of the connoisseur, grow into an almost pleasurable acceptance of Odette and “that bad taste which she displayed on every possible occasion.”

Odette sees the interesting and complicated aristocrat, the Marquise de Villeparisis, in the street wearing a black woolen dress and a bonnet with strings. She cries out, “But she looks like a lavatory attendant. . . . You’d have to pay me money before you’d get me to go around Paris rigged out like that.” Swann will need to bow to that, with, of course, a pained smile.

In fiction, the pretentious and the ambitious are usually denied an understanding of genuine simplicity and they are inclined to make outstanding mistakes of “placement” when confronted with it. In the same way, the carefully ordered “things” at Poynton and the Watteau fan, “a little trifle,” offered by Pons, live in the world with all the vulnerability to bruise and rejection of living creatures. They are actors in a morality play. And yet the acquisitions of Lawrence’s young couple and the spoils of Poynton are at last only objects. Pons’s snuffboxes and miniatures, among which his not entirely believable masterpieces reside, are also objects. The morality is ambiguous. The pain of the denouement, the final distribution, you might call it, arises from the way in which the human contract has been strained and things and persons confused as in a troubled dream.


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