In defence of materialism

The cathedrals were useful in their time; by human standards, for quite a long time. The works of Homer were also useful. One might argue that both still have some use. I mention the latter because I’m a perfesser of literature — a “tweedjacket” — in my spare time (or not, in my spare time). This activity encourages me to think about things. Being alive also contributes to this process. The question, “What is the use of this?” often occurs to me. Too, I ask this question on other occasions: What is the use?

Which is not to say I am a utilitarian, for I’m often able to distinguish broad from narrow. There are people, for instance, and I’ve met them, who find use only in things that contribute to making money and, in particular, for themselves. In my view, Trump’s toadies are a little broader than those who imagine well-paid administrative positions, making, for instance, the regulations that will impoverish others but enrich themselves, and others like them. But I have probably expressed my views on socialism adequately.

My ambitions for influence consist of making things. A cathedral, to give a good example, is or can be an important agent of influence. I may first think of Chartres, but next perhaps of Nidaros in Trondheim, where King Olav is buried; or several hundred others. All of my examples remain splendid, though much altered over the centuries, even when only by wear, or when reduced to ruins. One may calculate only approximately how many devout and pilgrims have passed through or, more recently, how many tourists. Some of those might still be influenced, at least to take selfies that prove they were there.

The purpose of my little sermon this morning is to defend materialism. Modern man has no taste for it. He is thoroughly spiritual, in one sense of the word. He prefers abstractions to real things. He does not build in stone. His works are almost invariably shoddy, and will be soon cleared away. But this does not mean we should build for the ages. We can’t.

Consider, if thou wilt, eggs, wrapped in the traditional Japanese manner, dangling in a chain of five, ingeniously, indeed securely bound in rice straw or hemp twine. This string is as transient as a cherry blossom, supposing the purchaser intends to eat the eggs, rather than have them carefully sucked by his weasel. Each egg itself is, as surely everyone has noticed if only “subconsciously,” a masterpiece of non-industrial design. It is true, one must crack it to make an omelette, although there are people (socialists for instance) who simply enjoy smashing eggs. Note, however, that both egg and omelette are physical objects, whatever they are made to embody. They come and go.

In Kipling somewhere, the suggestion is made:

“Eat, Sahib, eat. Meat is good against sorrow. I also have known. Moreover the shadows come and go, Sahib; the shadows come and go. These be curried eggs.”

Now, I could try to explain that cathedrals last longer than curried eggs, but I’d wager gentle reader already knows that. For balance I might cite my motto from Baudelaire that, “A man can go three days without food, but without poetry — Never!”

We live in a world of embodiment. The spirits are not visible here, unless they take a material form. The form requires a body to exist. My father’s body, to give just one example, does not exist any more. That he still exists I believe — and do embody in declaration of faith — but in what form I cannot imagine.

To be in the world is a material function, as any Zen bonze could tell you, in a brush painting. It serves a purpose. Every material thing does. Let us therefore embrace these things, sacramentally.