Jennifer Moxley: There Are Things We Live Among: Essays on the Object World
Review by Diana K. McLean
(Flood Editions, 2012)
In There Are Things We Live Among, Jennifer Moxley sets out to write “true essays, in the tradition of Montaigne,” which draw on “personal experience, literary example, and philosophical question.” Using the “object world” as her theme, she does this in a way both accessible and intellectually robust.
Moxley writes in the preface about choosing her topic:
I remember much of my childhood as emotionally shaped by my imaginative projection onto objects, which served as company as well as vectors for fantastical narratives. In a young adulthood marked by grief through the successive loss of both parents and a dear friend, objects became keepers of the lost life, what I could hold on to.
She takes as a guide the opening words of Objectivist George Oppen’s poem, “Of Being Numerous”: “There are things / We live among ‘and to see them / Is to know ourselves.’”
There’s interplay between Oppen’s poem and the story of Robinson Crusoe (for whom objects also become keepers of a lost life) woven through Moxley’s text. Early on, she quotes these lines from Oppen: “Crusoe // We say was / ‘Rescued.’ / So we have chosen.” She goes on to discuss how both the quotation marks around ‘rescued’ and the use of the word “chosen” raise a series of questions. First, there is the implication that we, as readers, have agency to interpret the story and have traditionally chosen to see Crusoe’s rescue as a good thing. From there, she asks whether perhaps Crusoe’s rescue was in fact a different kind of shipwreck. She suggests that “Perhaps Crusoe could only know himself when he lived alone with his things” and questions what that implies about what it means to be denied ownership of one’s possessions.
She immediately challenges the very idea of such ownership:
But the diction of the poem’s opening is precise: we do not “own” things, we “live among” them. We are separate from the world of objects, though our identity is reliant upon it.
It is this paradox of separation and reliance that Moxley explores throughout the book. Not physical reliance on necessary objects, but emotional reliance on familiar and comforting objects: the saddle she keeps for years after her last ride on a horse, the sewing machine on which she learned to sew, the old pans she is reluctant to get rid of even after being gifted a new matching set of cookware.
These objects all have stories, all provide anchors to Moxley’s past. As we read Moxley’s essays, we can’t help but think of similar objects in our own lives, the things we have no rationale for keeping but nevertheless cannot quite let go of. In this sense, we might conclude that sometimes the objects own us.
Another passage from Crusoe that Moxley finds worth exploring is his reaction to finding writing materials on the ship when he is able to salvage things from it; he describes them as “of less value, but not at all less useful to me.” Moxley’s assessment of this is that “Usefulness, it seems, even on a desert island, includes things that aid Crusoe in living a contemplative life.”
Similarly, the objects Moxley explores in the personal narratives woven through the essays provide her (and readers) with opportunities for contemplation. In the context of a discussion about how the objects around us “solidify” our lives (make them more real), as two unremarkable objects from her mother’s everyday life did in the wake of her death, Moxley writes:
Others, though I knew they were hers, managed to return to a state of generic anonymity after she was gone…. But the brush and the magnifying glass destroyed me…. Twenty years later these objects no longer hold the same pathos as they did right after she died. I no longer tear up at their touch. Yet they have never become mine. Next to the myriad “rubbish” in which my own life has solidified, they still bespeak another’s.
In addition to the Oppen/Crusoe thread that runs through the book, Moxley is in conversation with writers from Proust and Simone de Beauvoir to Plato and Socrates. There are no citations for the works to which she refers. The essays read like a conversation between friends with shared literary knowledge who therefore don’t need to explain the references to authors or works. The result is that the essays avoid feeling academic, though they may send some readers off to research unfamiliar texts.
In an essay about Proust’s description of mémoire involontaire, Moxley explores how objects trigger powerful involuntary memories. The objects need not even be ours. Perhaps we encounter a mass-produced toy that we remember from childhood; the one on the store shelf can trigger the memories as easily as if we were looking at the one from our own past. Moxley celebrates this phenomenon:
And thus, as long as there are analogs that can provoke the old sensations, our access to transcendence is not threatened by the decay or destruction of our material past…. Our past is in us, locked away, waiting to be released by some seemingly innocuous material thing.
Moxley also considers less innocuous things and invokes not memory but unwelcome imagination. One short essay called “Waiting for the Other Shoe” is about how the discovery of an abandoned item of clothing in an unexpected place disturbs us, leads us to imagine terrible scenarios:
Three examples from my own life: crumpled among the decaying leaves lining the retaining wall, a child’s panties, white with pink rosebuds; on the shoulder of the interstate, a single wingtip, old, bent; in the crawl space of the rental property, blue satin pants with black polka dots, one cigarette burn. What are the stories behind these things? Why were the panties removed? The shoe cast out? The pants thrown under the house?
[T]hey call to mind the bodies they are missing from. They are emotionally connected to someone who is no longer there. Clothes given to thrift stores, or for purchase in a yard sale, are willingly surrendered. Lost clothes, mute and haphazard, seem always to bring to mind a scene of violation, separated from their wearers before the time for separation as come.
The clothes themselves, of course, do not tell the stories. Our imaginations provide answers to the questions. It is this interplay between object and human intellect and emotion that is central to what Moxley has to say about the object world. Writing about Elizabeth Bowen’s The House in Paris, in which things both have feeling and convey them to the human characters in often frightening ways, Moxley refers to “a new sort of emotional physics, one in which objects bear the burden of the silences made by what the humans cannot bear to say.”
It is, ultimately, this emotional physics that lies at the heart of Moxley’s text. In an excerpt from a poem about items that once belonged to her mother, she writes, “Time was not trapped in / these things as I, would had loved their user, / would be…” Moxley’s skillful balance of personal stories and literary examples invites us to spend some time with her and these things and in contemplation of significant objects in our own lives. Whether we feel trapped or liberated by the experience is, ultimately, our choice.