Humanities Moments

Neruda and the Shimmering Lives of Lifeless Things

Contributed by Sarah (Sadie) Warren, 31, PhD Candidate, Instructor, and Digital Scholarship Associate
Pill
Reflecting on growing up as a clumsy child with two rambunctious brothers, two phrases immediately come to mind, burnt into my memory like a brand from their ceaseless repetition: "make your bed" and "they're only things." One of these ("make your bed") never failed to inspire in me a blood-boiling rage of the Sysiphean sort: after all, what was the point of making your bed if you were just going to unmake it a scant twelve hours later? The other ("they’re only things") was less affectively charged, but the well-meaning platitude applied like a balm by my mother after this or that was broken never seemed to sit right. I understood the moral sentiment, which underscored the relative importance of social relations over material goods. Yet, while I lacked the language to articulate it, it never seemed fair to cast some of these goods as inert, inherently meaningless "things." Scraggly blankets, favourite markers, even the contours of secret nooks tucked away in the crevices of the basement: these beloved things seemed to occupy some special, understated liminal space between person and mere object, between meaningful language and the absolutely mute.

Reading Pablo Neruda’s Odes to Common Things was the first time that I found myself experiencing that electric connection between self and materiality through the mind of someone else—through the eyes of a poet. For Neruda, the life of a chair invokes a rich ecosystem. It is not a utilitarian object, easily cast aside and replaced with another: it is a dynamic actor in a vibrant and distinctive jungle lifescape of sounds, smells, stories, and—ultimately—symbolism. Soap, not just a cleansing agent, is the "pure delight" of ephemeral fragrance as it sinuously winds its way through the world, impressing itself on us. And all of these things, taken together, constitute more than an inert backdrop for human life: as Neruda says, "they were so alive with me/ that they lived half my life/ and will die half my death."

It is Neruda's appreciation for the vitality at the heart of the seemingly mundane, the shimmering lives of lifeless things, that I try to channel whenever I am trying to philosophically express our place in the world and all of its unexpected dimensions—or trying to come to grips with the loss of a favourite coffee mug.

Title

Neruda and the Shimmering Lives of Lifeless Things

Description

Reflecting on growing up as a clumsy child with two rambunctious brothers, two phrases immediately come to mind, burnt into my memory like a brand from their ceaseless repetition: "make your bed" and "they're only things." One of these ("make your bed") never failed to inspire in me a blood-boiling rage of the Sysiphean sort: after all, what was the point of making your bed if you were just going to unmake it a scant twelve hours later? The other ("they’re only things") was less affectively charged, but the well-meaning platitude applied like a balm by my mother after this or that was broken never seemed to sit right. I understood the moral sentiment, which underscored the relative importance of social relations over material goods. Yet, while I lacked the language to articulate it, it never seemed fair to cast some of these goods as inert, inherently meaningless "things." Scraggly blankets, favourite markers, even the contours of secret nooks tucked away in the crevices of the basement: these beloved things seemed to occupy some special, understated liminal space between person and mere object, between meaningful language and the absolutely mute.

Reading Pablo Neruda’s Odes to Common Things was the first time that I found myself experiencing that electric connection between self and materiality through the mind of someone else—through the eyes of a poet. For Neruda, the life of a chair invokes a rich ecosystem. It is not a utilitarian object, easily cast aside and replaced with another: it is a dynamic actor in a vibrant and distinctive jungle lifescape of sounds, smells, stories, and—ultimately—symbolism. Soap, not just a cleansing agent, is the "pure delight" of ephemeral fragrance as it sinuously winds its way through the world, impressing itself on us. And all of these things, taken together, constitute more than an inert backdrop for human life: as Neruda says, "they were so alive with me/ that they lived half my life/ and will die half my death."

It is Neruda's appreciation for the vitality at the heart of the seemingly mundane, the shimmering lives of lifeless things, that I try to channel whenever I am trying to philosophically express our place in the world and all of its unexpected dimensions—or trying to come to grips with the loss of a favourite coffee mug.

Source

Pablo Neruda's Odes to Common Things

Date

Approximately 2014

Contributor

Sarah (Sadie) Warren, 31, PhD Candidate, Instructor, and Digital Scholarship Associate

Identifier

neruda-and-shimmering-lives-of-lifeless-things

Referrer

National Humanities Center Remote Summer Residency Program

Location