The Sacramentality of “Things”

“What I was really getting at in Running Dog was a sense of the terrible acquisitiveness in which we live, coupled with a final indifference to the object. After all the mad attempts to acquire the thing, everyone suddenly decides that, well, maybe we really don’t care about this so much anyway.”

—From a 1988 interview with novelist Don DeLillo in Rolling Stone

Just under a decade later, DeLillo gave us Underworld, his epochal novel whose first 84 pages contain an almost hypnotic, you-are-there account of the seventh game of the 1951 World Series and the pursuit of the Bobby Thomson home run ball that capped the New York Giants’ improbable comeback against the Brooklyn Dodgers. The ball plays a pivotal role in the novel as it is pursued across time, geography and mystery by would-be possessors who have barely a glimmer of what fuels their own obsession.

Later in Underworld, a small group attends a Dodger game in 1973, and one of them, Nick, possesses what he thinks is the Thomson home run ball (the proven existence of which has been lost to history). Another group member, Sims, challenges the authenticity of the ball, suggesting Nick got duped in paying $34,500 for it. “What do you do, take the ball out of the closet and look at it? Then what?”

Another group member, Glassic, answers on Nick’s behalf:

“He thinks about what it means. It’s an object with a history. He thinks about losing. He wonders what it is that brings bad luck to one person and the sweetest of good fortune to another. It’s a lovely thing in itself besides. An old baseball? It’s a lovely thing, Sims. And this one’s got a pedigree like no other.”

“He got taken big-time,” Sims said. “It’s a worthless object.”

So here we come to the heart of the matter regarding the nature and value of things, of stuff, of one person’s “worthless object” and another’s treasured talisman. Sims challenges the authenticity and thus the “value” of the ball—from a monetary, materialist perspective—while Glassic cites its emotional or “inner” value as a projective tool for Nick’s imagination to roam.

What makes the ball—or your spoon collection or my first edition books—important? Is it the cash they’ll eventually bring from the antique store as we plan how to finance our retirement? Or is there something more profound going on with the things we revere in our lives, something deeper and even, dare I say, sacramental?

All of it saturated with meaning, memory, sanctity—courtesy of our imagination and its mysterious marriage with things.

Look around your house right now. Consider what’s on your walls, stacked in closets and stuffed in drawers. All manner of things, many of them utilitarian and unimportant but many others dear, possessing inestimable emotional value (even as your heirs will be carting most of them off to the thrift store or landfill upon your passing). Maybe that partial set of your grandmother’s china will fetch decent money at the estate sale, but it may be just junk, too—to other people. To you, it means history, generativity, love, the world itself.

Is the Thomson home run ball’s function as a reflective tool for Nick to contemplate the vicissitudes of life reduced because it may be a phony? One minute we think it’s the “real” ball—or the “real” painting, or the “Authentic Signed First Edition” of Underworld—imbued with all manner of mystical power (and serious cash value!). The next minute, when it’s revealed as a “fake” and a fraud, all its power and value plummet. Same ball, same “thing.” But is it?

When we thought the ball “real,” we were imagining it leaving the pitcher Ralph Branca’s hand, seeing it meet up with Bobby Thomson’s bat and then sailing over the fence as pandemonium breaks out at the Polo Grounds and on the radio waves. (“The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!! THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT!!!”) We buy the ball, we finger it, we observe what we surmise are its tell-tale cracks. We are transported to that moment, that meeting of ball and bat in time.

Then we discover it’s a fake, and our cord to the past, to that moment, is broken, our imagination robbed. Same ball we had just beheld in reverence and awe, now stripped of magic and power, which is to say, the magic and power of imagination.

Truly, imagination is all. The peculiar human ability to imagine is the basis of all sacrament, all reverence for the things and rituals of this world. This ball, this communion wafer, this Buddha statue perched serenely in my garden, this photo on my refrigerator of my late and beloved brother and I laughing loudly in each other’s arms…All of it saturated with meaning, memory, sanctity—courtesy of our imagination and its mysterious marriage with things.

Yes, Buddhism and Christianity both note that all things in this world are perishable (though they failed to foresee the notable exception of Hostess Twinkies, especially in their original wrapper). But both also take incarnation—the “thingness” of our bodies and beings moving through and loving of this world—with utter seriousness and reverence. In the Christian narrative, God thought enough of this world to send his only begotten son down to redeem it. Buddhism posits that release from the karmic wheel of suffering comes only via utter, absorbed attention to the world in front of our eyes, the stark reality of our moment-to-moment experience. Both traditions posit world-absorption as prelude to seeing into the fathomless depths behind and beyond things, and ultimately to a catapult beyond the world and time itself.

But here, things matter. Things imbue our imaginations, trigger memories, inspire admiration and conversation and communion. Your delicate wind chime, my old mitt, this liquid in a glass on the counter that will soon be poured into this other thing called my stomach—all of it represents the only world we know, offering up its visceral pleasures, its sensory delights, its scratch to our sacramental itch.

It doesn’t mean we need a lot of things, in the endless addiction of acquisitiveness to which DeLillo alludes in the quote leading off this post. It just suggests that the things we do have, whatever their material value, can become pregnant with meaning when inseminated with the eminently powerful force of the human imagination. Which, paradoxically enough, isn’t a “thing” at all…

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Many thanks to the photographers whose work so enlivens this page: Rotating banner photos top of page courtesy of Elizabeth Haslam, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/

Old baseball and glove photos courtesy of Sean Winters, Michigan, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more of his work at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/theseanster93/

Jackie Robinson bat courtesy of Ewen Roberts, San Diego, CA, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more of his work at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/donabelandewen/ 

4 comments to The Sacramentality of “Things”

  • Dr. Walt McKeown  says:

    I've often heard it said that "novelists create their own reality to work within it" like a monkey in a monkey cage. It seems to me any intelligent lifeform would have member(s) that would tend to do the same thing.

    I was watching a pod of some 70 dolphins frolicing along near the shore the other day while whales went by further offshore. I wondered if whales and/or dolphins would have novelists. I realize that a written record is crucial for such things, but also know that, in the days of Homer on up to Gutenberg's day, people memorized cultural comments and either sang or recited them to the populace.

    So do you think that creatures that can never write down anything could write (and share) novels with THEIR own reality? Crazy question, I know, but these are crazy times…

  • candied  says:

    Love the essay. Thank you for stewing in such rich juice. I believe imagination is an undervalued character. One shared by all humanity. Yet no one shares my personal imagination.

    Dr. Walt, I think creatures share stories in some instinctual way…

  • ahidas  says:

    This is a great question—and likely unanswerable, at least for now, with the tools at our disposal—regarding the extent of consciousness, communication and imagination in animals. I think I fall on the speciesist side almost by definition, given my carnivorous, pet-owning ways, but have read enough about dolphin, whale, chimp, elephant, etc. behavior to know there's some powerful stuff going on there among highly sentient creatures. But I think all our attempts to understand it suffer from our anthropomorphic tendencies. Certainly the elaborate, incredibly nuanced nature of our language, painting, and storytelling don't have many observable correlates in the animal kingdom. (My cat and my dog are on either side of me as I type, looking pretty chilled and, I am guessing, not thinking anywhere near as hard as I am right now…) When I am absorbed in a master storyteller or lost in a song or painting or celestial light show, it's hard to fathom animals, with their smaller brains and more limited behavioral repertoire, either creating or experiencing anything too similar. (The only way monkeys have made it to outer space is when we have sent them there.) That said, I suspect you're right, Candi, that some kind of more instinctual, baseline level sharing/storytelling does go on in animals. I'm just suspecting it doesn't have quite the sophistication and nuance of Marilynne Robinson or Don DeLillo! (And perhaps I'll be proven wrong with better tools that crack the code of animal talk in the future.)

  • JP  says:

    Oh, the fickle fate of somethingness. Just the other side of the same coin, I say. Whatever catches our attention (really, no pun intended… well, maybe) seems to be an inkblot of some sort, no? Whether it's Bobby Thompson's home run baseball or one of our endearing pets just being present. It's all good stuff to ponder on. JP :)

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