Our Place Among the Things

I’ve been reading three books recently which all, in different ways, ask the urgent question of how we, as human beings, relate to the other beings and objects with which we share this planet. James Bridle’s book, Ways of Being, asks how we might work alongside other forms of intelligence in our world in order to create more cooperative and less destructive patterns of interaction. He shows how limited we are when we see other intelligences only as versions of our own, whether that be the singling out of facial recognition as the preeminent sign of self-awareness in other animals, or the construction of forms of AI solely as competitive systems form maximising production, or the failure to recognise the profoundly social nature of the intelligence of plant systems.

Writing from a very different perspective, Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) asks, in a series of of essays edited by John Chryssavgis, whether our ecological crisis might be more than simply a moral one, for example a matter of over-consumption, greed or heedlessness, and may, in fact, be much more a problem of ontology. He suggests that our failure to understand ourselves as bodies and the strangely persistent notion of ourselves as having a body leads to the kind of dualism that places mind over matter, leaving matter itself as a lower form of being, ripe for exploitation and manipulation. Did we forget about the incarnation?

I might find time to explore these rich works in more depth at some point, but I want to focus on the third book I’ve been reading, one which has touched me deeply. Again, it’s in a completely different genre – fiction – but I think that Ruth Ozeki’s Book of Form and Emptiness helps us address the question of our place among the things in an imaginative way that engages the heart and moves us beyond the realm of ideas to the realm of relationships. The novel is multi-layered, but the narrative is primarily concerned with a woman and her son, and how they respond to the sudden death of their husband/father. The story is told with a depth of compassion and without judgement as it deals with Annabelle’s increasing tendency to hoard and Benny’s ability to hear the voices of objects around him, which becomes increasingly overwhelming. The objects tell their stories, many of which relate experiences of pain or exploitation.

Benny encounters two other characters, who offer different ways of interacting with the things and beings they come across. One is a young woman, an artist he meets on a pediatric psychiatric ward and with whom he reconnects when he finds refuge in a large public library. The Aleph, as she is known, makes art from materials found in dumpsters, including snow globes that portray images of environmental harm. She also makes trails of message for people to find and follow, inviting them to make connections through the world. The Bottleman is a Slovenian poet and philosopher who lives on the streets and is overlooked as a drunken down-and-out by many. However, he is one of the few to take Benny’s questions seriously and to enter his world, respecting his questions.

The mental health challenges of the main protagonists are treated neither romantically nor patronisingly but with patient understanding. Similarly, the running theme of a self-help book on decluttering by a Zen priest in Japan, which Annabelle dips into from time to time in an effort to deal with her hoarding, is taken seriously while also inviting a more subtle engagement with the Zen Buddhism which underlines so much of the book’s character (Ozeki is, herself, a Zen priest and the title refers to the Heart Sutra).

The book moves slowly towards different ways of relating to the material world, largely through the characters of the Aleph and Bottleman, who are both possessionless but hardly abstracted from the world. The Bottleman helps Annabelle redistribute many of her cluttering possessions to those who might enjoy them and the Aleph makes art from ‘trash’.

Finally, the book moves us to a place where the relationship between Benny and Annabelle is restored and deepened, enabling them to support each other in the loss that had previously driven them apart. There are many other layers to the book which I won’t explore here, but I want to emphasise the fundamental relationality of the characters to the material world around them. Objects have stories and voices but need to be kept on the move rather than possessed in a way that ends with us being possessed by them. Similarly, the voices of the marginalised are brought to the foreground of the narrative, inviting us to hear one another, and especially to hear voices that sit on the edges of the all-consuming world of ‘success’, ‘progress’ or ‘rationality’. Most wonderfully, though, the book does this not with the heavy-handed prose of the preacher or politician, but with humour, playfulness and delight.

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