r m p







Collecting Dust

Exodus 1:8-11

Ecclesiates 2:18-21

Luke 12:15-20

Shelley, Ozymandias


Ozymandias is the Greek name for Ramses II, the Pharaoh of the Exodus. Here's a photograph of the old geezer. His "mighty works" include the two store cities mentioned in Exodus. We know of them only because they form the setting for the story of a race of escaped slaves who humiliate the mighty Pharaoh. 

The irony of the poem: whence the despair? Not that we can never match the eternal glory of Ramses, but rather that not even he could! What chance have we? None. Thus we despair. That is, we have reason to despair if we think, like Ozymandias, that the object is to live forever or, failing that, to establish something that will abide forever after we are gone. 

Admittedly there are a few people who manage to create something that outlasts them. Great artists and poets, e.g., Shelley himself. But should we seek to emulate Shelly, try to do something that will ensure us the immortality of a footnote clinging precariously to the turning page of history? John Hinkley did. Mark David Chapman did. 

That will be a big risk! Suppose you fail? Will it not have been worth it after all? If you succeed, will you even know it? Think of the many artists who died in obscurity, little knowing they would one day become posthumously (and obliviously) immortal. It doesn't do them much good. It won't do you much good either, even if it happens. 

So that's not the way to go. That's not even the way Shelley went. Those who manage to achieve something that outlasts them only happened to do it. By intent, I think, they were doing something else, doing what came naturally to them. Doing it because they could. Doing it for its own sake. What they did was the natural outflow of their being. 

As the Gita says, they acted without consideration for the fruits of their action. It was the future's business whether or not their creations and achievements would still be around. And perhaps the lasting value of those creations was to encourage the people of the future, today, to follow their own genius, no matter how momentary the results. Meaning is in the eye of the beholder. It is in your eye. It need not be reflected in someone else's, though it may be. You should act for today, and tomorrow may know it. All the better. 

That is the way I have always felt about my sermons. I am satisfied with them, quite pleased with some of them. And I know  they have no future beyond my momentary utterance of them, beyond your momentary comprehension of them. What Jesus said of himself is true of every sermon, every speech, "My name will mean nothing ten minutes after I'm dead." They are ephemera, creatures of a moment. What else could they be? I don't mind. It is like a meal which you will enjoy but once. And so it is with your life. What can you do with your life? Something enjoyable, something meaningful, something valuable today, the only day you have. 

It is a matter of eschatology: the last things. The last thing is your death. You can't discuss eschatology if you believe in life after death. If you believe in immortality, there is no last thing. But we are like Heidegger: facing the prospect of death, we can make decisions about the remainder of our lives. That's what I am asking you to do. 

Ozymandias had his moment in the sun--he exulted in power and in greatness while they were his, and who can blame him? You ought to do the same! It is bitter-sweet to know that all glory will fade, that all monuments will be ruins. There is grandeur in that. The grandeur of a shadow that stretches longer than the original image of the thing. It is only in retrospect that the measure of greatness can be taken. But it can be savored here and now. It is all the sweeter for being transient. Sic transit gloria mundae. Amen--so be it! 

Let me now return to last week's topic, that of collecting. Ultimately we will all collect dust. That is finally all we can collect. What we collect will crumble. The dust will settle over our cold corpses. Finally we will be dust and will settle over the corpses of other poor wretches. But in the short term, what do these gloomy perspectives tell us about the obsessive hobby of collecting? 

We can learn something from one of our own number, the rich fool of Luke 12. There is a sense in which the foolishness of the rich collector was in his obliviousness of the limit of his life. It wasn't so much that he was heedless of the future. He was, after all, trying to provide for it. No, his error was in failing to take the present into account. It wasn't a reality to him. For him, the present was just an anteroom to the future. It was nothing but a time to prepare and provide for the future. And he worked his butt off to provide for that future. 

How do you know when the future has arrived? Simple enough: the future must be here when the present is here no longer. When the present has vacated to make room for the future. And that means: when you are dead. And so when the future arrived, he had no present left in which to enjoy what he had accumulated. He had run out of present and future. All he had was his stored-up goods, and he didn't even have them anymore. Nor did he know who would wind up having them. 

The key insight, I think, is this: if you are a collector, are you collecting for the future, or for the present? Will you ever have enough time one day to watch all those tapes, to read all those books? More importantly, will you ever take the time to enjoy them, some of them, any of them? If you aren't enjoying them now, why are you collecting them? As Hillel said, if not now, when? If you aren't enjoying them now, are you collecting for someone else in the future? The unknown inheritor mentioned by Ecclesiastes and Luke? 

Literary theorists speak of someone called the ideal reader, the implied reader, the super reader. This is the reader the writer has in mind, not necessarily the readers he will get. The super reader is the reader who would get every joke, understand every allusion, appreciate every turn of phrase. Of course the super reader exists only in the person of the author who wrote the book, and even he may find new depths in his work once he reads it himself. 

Every collector is an artist compiling a work of art. He thinks, "Wouldn't a fellow collector give his eye teeth to possess this choice item!" But unless he has very poor taste, he will not show it off to those who will only be tortured by the sight. When he imagines someone admiring his collection who is really in a position to appreciate it, his "super reader," he is really imagining himself! It is a way of defamiliarizing and objectifying what you love by seeing it through another's eyes. That other is yourself. You are the unknown inheritor of your carefully built collection. Once you realize that, you can stop collecting and enjoy the collection. Who are you trying to impress? Some ideal appreciator who may or may not come along after you are dead and sees the Bob Price Memorial Collection? Come on, you know no one can ever appreciate it as much as you! So don't defer the enjoyment till the future when it will be someone else's to enjoy! To hell with them! Enjoy it yourself now! It is an accomplishment of the present, not for the future. 

I sometimes wonder if Victoria will be interested in religion, or Veronica in fantasy fiction, because if they aren't, what's going to happen to my books? But I'm not too worried. I enjoy them, now. I do take time to read them as I can. I did recently realize, though, that I'll never live long enough to finish them all, so I sold off some hundreds to make money for something I can enjoy in the here and now--action figures! It's sort of like the limit John Locke said ought to be set to the right to private property: you have no right to more than you can use. If you, the collector, get beyond that point, I've got news for you: you're no longer the possessor. you're the possessed! 

What I am trying to offer in the way of advice is this. A collector's insatiability is another form of the anxiety for abiding into the future, something you can never be sure of and need not seek. I am not saying stop collecting what you want to collect. I am saying, ask yourself whether your anxiety to complete your collection kills the enjoyment of what you have already. Because if it does, no amount of items will ever satisfy that yearning. You have to learn to be satisfied today with what you already have and do not have, as if you were never going to be able to add another trophy to that collection. 

I am urging you to be satisfied with it right now, to give yourself permission no longer to defer satisfaction. If you can do this, be satisfied in the present, then when your future comes, you will not feel you have cheated yourself like the rich fool did. 

If you can do this, it may be that further acquisition will matter less and less to you. I think it will. You won't be disappointed. You won't have lost interest in what presently delights you. No, on the contrary, you will be setting your affections on what you do have, not on what you don't. This hardly means you will lose all interest in adding to your collection. But the old urgency, the old itch, will  go, and you won't miss it. You'll enjoy spending time having. And I'm wagering the more you enjoy having, the less you'll feel the need to be getting. 

I know the thrill of the hunt, the sport of getting, but if you don't enjoy the having, why the hell are you doing the getting? As Isaiah said, why spend good money on what does not satisfy? A friend of mine tells me there are many books he buys just to complete a set, just to collect them. He does not, like so many, kid himself that he will someday get around to reading them all. He is honest. But I pity him. He has come to the point of collecting merely and simply to collect. It is sad to delude yourself that you will actually get around to reading them all. But it is even sadder not even to intend to read them, and to keep buying them anyway! 

The Epicureans said one ought to learn to be content with what one has. They meant: to be content with very little. But the challenge in an affluent society is to content with what you have if you do have abundance. The obscenity of affluence is that abundance does not satisfy us! That is the collector's anxiety. And there is a way to escape it. Eat, drink, and be merry now! Don't refuse to feast because a feast next year might be even richer! If you do that, you'll only go hungry in the short run and leave it to somebody who doesn't share your tastes in the long run. Some relative, maybe, who'll wonder why the hell you wasted all the time, space, and money on "this junk" he's planning to put out to the curb! Now, not later! 

Robert M. Price

November 29, 1998




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