Four Complications of Property
(This is an installment of CommonSensical.)
If you own things, what’s their effect on you?
So asked the English writer E.M. Forster in his 1926 essay “My Wood.” Forster’s whimsical commentary can be viewed as a precursor of today’s back-to-basics simplicity movement. Such precursors endure in the works of many great writers and poets — Henry David Thoreau (“Simplify, simplify!“), Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, Robinson Jeffers, and E.E. Cummings, to name a few. Literature, after all, is about the examined life.
E.M. Forster was the author of numerous novels including A Room with a View, Howard’s End, and A Passage to India. The latter was his most well known. A commercial success in Forster’s time, the novel earned him royalties enough to buy his first section of land, “a wood” as he calls it in British style.
It is not a large wood — it contains scarcely any trees, and it is intersected, blast it, by a public foot-path. Still, it is the first property that I have owned, so it is right that other people should participate in my shame, and should ask themselves, in accents that will vary in horror, this very important question: What is the effect of property upon the character? Don’t let’s touch economics; the effect of private ownership upon the community as a whole is another question — a more important question, perhaps, but another one. Let’s keep to psychology. If you own things, what’s their effect on you? What’s the effect on me of my wood?
Forster enumerates four specific effects (set apart in red throughout the following):
In the first place, it makes me feel heavy. Property does have this effect. Property produces men of weight, and it was a man of weight who failed to get into the Kingdom of Heaven. He was not wicked, that unfortunate millionaire in the parable, he was only stout; he stuck out in front, not to mention behind, and as he wedged himself this way and that in the crystalline entrance and bruised his well-fed flanks, he saw beneath him a comparatively slim camel passing through the eye of a needle and being woven into the robe of God. The Gospels all through couple stoutness and slowness. They point out what is perfectly obvious, yet seldom realized: that if you have a lot of things you cannot move about a lot, that furniture requires dusting, dusters require servants, servants require insurance stamps, and the whole tangle of them makes you think twice before you accept an invitation to dinner or go for a bathe in the Jordan. Sometimes the Gospels proceed further and say with Tolstoy that property is sinful; they approach the difficult ground of asceticism here, where I cannot follow them. But as to the immediate effects of property on people, they just show straightforward logic. It produces men of weight. Men of weight cannot, by definition, move like the lightning from the East unto the West, and the ascent of a fourteen-stone bishop into a pulpit is thus the exact antithesis of the coming of the Son of Man. My wood makes me feel heavy.
But curiously, even while feeling how the little woodlot weighs him down, Forster senses another illogical, seemingly contradictory, but undeniable effect.
In the second place, it makes me feel it ought to be larger.
What follows is his funniest and most insightful paragraph, which begs the question: Can a person really own anything at all, especially a plot of something as alive and boundless as nature itself?
The other day I heard a twig snap in [my wood]. I was annoyed at first, for I thought that someone was blackberrying, and depreciating the value of the undergrowth. On coming nearer, I saw it was not a man who had trodden on the twig and snapped it, but a bird, and I felt pleased. My bird. The bird was not equally pleased. Ignoring the relation between us, it took flight as soon as it saw the shape of my face, and flew straight over the boundary hedge into a field, the property of Mrs. Henessy, where it sat down with a loud squawk. It had become Mrs. Henessy’s bird. Something seemed grossly amiss here, something that would not have occurred had the wood been larger. I could not afford to buy Mrs. Henessy out, I dared not murder her, and limitations of this sort beset me on every side. … Nor was I comforted when Mrs. Henessy’s bird took alarm for the second time and flew clean away from us all, under the belief that it belonged to itself.
Those of us who are not ranchers or farmers tend to presume that a person buys property in order to feel happy and at home somewhere, to have a place of retreat promising ease and comfort. But of course, as anyone who’s owned a house will concur (and count me among these homeowners), with property comes the burden of never-ending maintenance. And even in those scarce hours when all seems shipshape, when the leaky pipe has been plumbed and the gutters cleaned and the floors swept or vacuumed — even then, the property owner finds it hard to relax, because, as Forster says:
In the third place, property makes its owner feel that he ought to do something to it. Yet he isn’t sure what. A restlessness comes over him, a vague sense that he has a personality to express — the same sense which, without any vagueness, leads the artist to an act of creation. Sometimes I think I will cut down such trees as remain in the wood, at other times I want to fill up the gaps between them with new trees. Both impulses are pretentious and empty. They are not honest movements towards moneymaking or beauty. They spring from a foolish desire to express myself and from an inability to enjoy what I have got. Creation, property, enjoyment form a sinister trinity in the human mind. Creation and enjoyment are both very, very good, yet they are often unattainable without a material basis, and at such moments property pushes itself in as a substitute, saying, “Accept me instead — I’m good enough for all three.” It is not enough. It is, as Shakespeare said of lust, “The expense of spirit in a waste of shame”: it is “Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.” Yet we don’t know how to shun it. It is forced on us by our economic system as the alternative to starvation. It is also forced on us by an internal defect in the soul, by the feeling that in property may lie the germs of self-development and of exquisite or heroic deeds. Our life on earth is, and ought to be, material and carnal. But we have not yet learned to manage our materialism and carnality properly; they are still entangled with the desire for ownership, where (in the words of Dante) “Possession is one with loss.”
His observations here are analogous to Robert Frost’s famous poem, “Mending Wall,” where the poet’s neighbor insists that “good fences make good neighbors.” With our property delineated by boundaries, what do we “wall out”? In our acquisition, what do we lose?
And this brings us to our fourth and final point: the blackberries.
Blackberries are not plentiful in this meager grove, but they are easily seen from the public footpath which traverses it, and all too easily gathered. …Pray, does my wood belong to me or doesn’t it? And, if it does, should I not own it best by allowing no one else to walk there? There is a wood near Lyme Regis, also cursed by a public footpath, where the owner has not hesitated on this point. He has built high stone walls each side of the path, and has spanned it by bridges, so that the public circulate like termites while he gorges on the blackberries unseen. He really does own his wood, this able chap. …
And now Forster, being the newly propertied man he is, forecasts his own eventual attitude about ownership. He imagines he’ll become shamelessly similar to that miserly property owner he mentions. Where is the promised sweetness and pleasure in owning property? Satirizing the miser, Forster astutely demonstrates that outer things rarely bring inner rewards. One must cease searching outwardly for the kind of wealth the soul can recognize, for in searching there one only tires and surrenders to bitterness. In the voice of the miser, Forster concludes:
I shall wall in and fence out until I really taste the sweets of property. Enormously stout, endlessly avaricious, pseudo-creative, intensely selfish, I shall weave upon my forehead the quadruple crown of possession until those nasty Bolshies come and take it off again and thrust me aside into the outer darkness.
Can property be a good thing? Maybe even bring a person joy of a kind? Absolutely. As one who feels blessed to have a house and backyard, I don’t deny this, and I imagine Forster wouldn’t either. Nonetheless, we do well to bear in mind the observations in “My Wood” (which just reiterate wisdom of ages prior). The accumulation of property cannot bring inward peace or happiness. Indeed, as acquisitions increase it grows proportionally more difficult to avoid Forster’s described heaviness and restlessness, and to retain a fellow-feeling toward those around us.
“Give me the poverty that enjoys true wealth.” — Henry David Thoreau
Read “My Wood” in its entirety here.
(Note: Next Monday’s special guest post will also take up the topic of simplicity.)
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