The materialism of people in the United States is axiomatic. Yet Mary McCarthy argued in a 1947 Commentary essay titled “America the Beautiful” that Americans aren’t materialistic; what seems like materialism is actually idealism. Her argument was perhaps the least successful contrarian essay in her 1961 collection, On the Contrary. While acknowledging that the United States “produces and consumes more cars, soap, and bathtubs than any other nation,” she insisted that “we live among these objects rather than by them” and that “the only really materialistic people” were Europeans, who still believed that money brings happiness. (Joan Didion agreed about the Europeans and said so in Slouching Towards Bethlehem.)
For McCarthy, the plenitude of America doesn’t indicate its people’s desire for plenty other than as a reaction to the hunger and want of those same people and their ancestors when they immigrated here. But mainly it’s the frustrated desire to fulfill the American promise of equality that leads to the proliferation of goods: since you can’t really make all people equal, you end up giving them all an equal right to buy a bathtub. (The subtitle of McCarthy’s essay is “The Humanist in the Bathtub.”) But Americans don’t want the bathtub for itself: “possessions… are not wanted for their own sakes but as tokens of an ideal state of freedom,” she writes. “‘Keeping up with the Joneses’ is a vulgarization of [Thomas] Jefferson’s concept, but it too is a declaration of the rights of man, and decidedly unfeasible and visionary.”
McCarthy is wrong, but she provokes bathtubs full of thought about what materialism really is. To begin, her Americans’ transference of aims doesn’t differ from what motivates a “real” materialist. The acquisition of things cannot fulfill the materialist’s dream that having them will make her happy, attractive, and finally content that she has it all. McCarthy’s idealists and the materialists are both always frustrated, never achieving their ends. Why we want the bathtub doesn’t matter as much as wanting it. Substituting a possession for something more legitimately desired is precisely what a certain kind of materialist does.
“A certain kind of materialist” suggests that there are other kinds, and this discrimination is what I’m interested in. Rather than try to referee a Mammon contest between Americans and Europeans, I want to divide materialists into several different bathtubs. Implied in this division is the claim that some kinds of materialism are less corrosive to the spirit than others.
A great many of us seem to agree that loving things is bad for you—that being too attached to possessions is bad for the soul or some other quasi-spiritual entity. You may find it more difficult to get into heaven than it is for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, your class may be destined for sufferings such as those Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell calls “the worst excesses of the French Revolution,” or you may experience a less drastic though no less real coarsening of your character. In his frequently anthologized 1927 essay “My Wood,” E. M. Forster enumerates the effects upon his character of owning property as he finds himself growing avaricious, fussy, selfish, and restlessly pseudo-creative, all from acquiring a small woodlot.
I have friends a little more attached to possessions than I would like them to be. Moreover, sometimes my image in the mirror looks just like them. Are we all doomed? These thoughts and all this fricassee I scribble here are an attempt to think about the question. Among the several kinds of materialists, I’m going to leave alone the absolute or philosophical materialist, who believes not only that “We live in a material world,” but that matter is all there is, that nothing transcends the “thingness” of the world. I don’t think I’ve run into any of these. Even the big money-makers I’ve met do find a kind of transcendent value in the rush of acquisition; for them, things are nice but mainly mark their score. The act of getting is what is important, and has a sort of pseudo-athletic, highly technical, and almost spiritual value. They are in a category of materialists I’m going to look at later, whom I’ll call substitutive materialists. The pure or absolute materialism may be of interest only to philosophers. In any case, philosophical materialism doesn’t necessarily include taking pleasure in material things, which is the common description of materialism and the attitude I’m exploring. Materialism as an intellectual exercise doesn’t interest me; what interests me are the workings of a love of stuff and its effects on the spirit.
I believe the least corrosive kind of materialism is what I call unconscious or normal materialism. It gets one of its names from an oft-quoted passage by the columnist Ellen Goodman: “Normal is getting dressed in clothes that you buy for work and driving through traffic in a car that you are still paying for—in order to get to the job you need to pay for the clothes and the car and the house you leave vacant all day so you can afford to live in it.” Unconscious materialists are Henry David Thoreau’s “mass of men” (and women) who “lead lives of quiet desperation.” They don’t see the lack of necessity in the routine, or, to put it another way, that necessity ought to suffice.
One must be careful here, in a way that Thoreau is not, to separate the grindingly poor, who truly have no choices, from the rest before one admonishes them all indiscriminately to get a grip, to simplify, and to “live simply and wisely.” Goodman knows she writes for readers capable of making choices, possibly settling for less, and being happier without the clothes and the car but with more time for what they deem important. George Carlin, too, in his amazing five-minute riff on “stuff,” is performing for an audience that can recognize itself in his satire. A house, he says, is just “a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get more stuff.” If this isn’t the least harmful sort of materialism to the spirit, it’s at least the sort these writers agree is the most susceptible to reform. Perhaps it’s the only sort of materialism susceptible to reform.
More conscious of their materialism are the Hammacher Schlemmer sort, the gadget guys and gals. (For the more literarily minded, think Hemingway’s alter-ego, Nick Adams, and the fly fishing depicted in his short story, “Big Two-Hearted River.”) The gadget may be a Home Depot nail gun, a Hämmerli 208 .22 caliber target pistol, or a Lamborghini 700hp Aventador. “I take as much pleasure in contemplating the tool and enjoying its aptness for the job, the rightness of its design, and the quality of its materials and construction, as I do in anything it can accomplish,” one of my oldest friends said to me recently.
Having grown up in Arizona, I know a lot of gun owners who have this particular form of appreciation for their firearms. For them, guns are not primarily weapons that can kill, and in fact most of them have stopped hunting or never hunted at all. For them, guns are mechanisms intricately put together and machined to fine tolerances, each capable of a given accuracy to be asymptotically sought, each pleasant to heft and to aim, satisfying to fire, and even more satisfying to punch holes into a tiny portion of a target. These are people for whom the full-color, larger-than-life photos of gleaming pistols in Guns & Ammo are as bright and attractive as the carnations in a Brueghel still life.
Certainly with the more elaborate and expensive machines, an element of showing off is inevitable; a Lamborghini owner isn’t likely to be just an appreciator of a superb machine without being aware of the status it confers. But when Nick Adams lays a dry fly ever so gently onto the Big Two-Hearted River, no one else may even be around to see what sort of rod or reel he uses. When the concern with status becomes predominant in the enjoyment of things, we’re no longer looking at the Nick Adams materialist but at the substitutive sort (more on them in a bit).
In nearly the same place as the Nick Adams materialist is the comfort materialist, who takes pleasure in material things because they make him or her feel secure, content, and peaceful. I’m not talking about the security of knowing one has money in the bank, but rather the feeling of the goods themselves—the cool greens and blues of old Asian ceramics, the warmth and smoothness of four-ply cashmere, for example. Aesthetic pleasure characterizes the materialism of the comfort girl and the gadget guy both.
Substitutive materialism is the most complicated sort because of the variety of objectives for which material things can be a substitute. Compensating for an earlier deprivation is one, for genuine creativity another. Indeed, acquiring or pointlessly modifying possessions as a substitute for creativity is the aspect of materialism that makes Forster wax sadly poetic in the aforementioned “My Wood.” “If you own things,” he asks in the beginning, “what’s their effect on you? What’s the effect on me of my wood?” And one of the effects he explores is the pseudo-creative impulse to modify things, cut down trees, plant more trees, and put his mark on the property somehow:
Creation, property, enjoyment form a sinister trinity in the human mind. Creation and enjoyment are both very very good, yet they are often unattainable without a material basis, and at such moments property pushes itself in as a substitute, saying, “Accept me instead—I’m good enough for all three.”
The most trivial manifestation of materialism trying to scratch the creative itch is the conviction, in the midst of a creative urge, that going shopping will work instead.
Compensatory materialism—spending money indiscriminately as a way to try to fill a psychic hole created by early want or hunger, is another form of substitution. This is what McCarthy has in mind when she writes about the European traveler who “views with distaste a movie palace or a Motorola [radio],” but who’s really only looking at Americans’ attempt to make up for the poverty they experienced before emigrating; the European, she writes, “is only looking into the terrible concavity of his continent of hunger inverted startlingly into the convex.”
My mother, who’d been widowed with three children under the age of five, struggled to raise us on a nurse’s salary for five years before she remarried. Later she had plenty of money, and for a while she set out to spend it as lavishly as she could, on several new houses, on Cadillacs and Lincoln Town Cars, and on clothes and accessories. I think her acquisitiveness was purely a reaction against a time of terror when she wasn’t sure she could keep her kids eating hot dogs and wearing Levis. But whatever its cause, her materialism went far toward the destruction of her second marriage. This variety of substitutive materialism has the same pernicious quality of other varieties because it is unquenchable; we can’t ever replace what is no longer missing or fill a hole that only exists in the past. The best we can do is turn plenty into a celebration—a feast.
The attempt to turn stuff into respect is perhaps the saddest of substitutive materialisms. Here the quality or the number of acquired things is equated in the mind of their owner with intelligence, discrimination, power, judgment, or success generally. “The primary value of possessions, for diehard materialists, is their ability to confer status and project a desired self-image,” writes James A. Roberts in his book, Shiny Objects (2011). The thing and its qualities substitute for qualities in the owner. Often a clue is the use of words applied to objects that are usually reserved for persons, such as “admirable” or “trusted.”
The last, and most egregiously malevolent form of materialism, is best labeled entitlement. While some who inherit money do their utmost to maintain and increase it, there are others who come by their money without effort who feel most entitled to its use. The Great Gatsby’s Daisy Buchanan is one example of the sort in whom a sense of entitlement replaces gratitude. Wealth in such people, though unearned, seems to belong to them by right.
A recent study indicates that the effects of entitlement may include some unpleasant behaviors. In a series of experiments conducted by psychologist Paul Piff in the Berkeley laboratory of Dacher Keltner, subjects with real wealth, relative wealth, or virtual wealth (as established by the rules of a game) were more likely to steal candy intended for others, cheat at games, and lie about what they had done than other subjects with less money. Moreover, the entitled are liable to be unhappy as well as nasty. For many years now the evidence has been accumulating that happiness does not positively correlate with consumption. (The documentation abounds in Roberts’s Shiny Objects.)
I have friends who have raised two daughters. The younger has only a few tinges of her parents’ materialism. She’s the one who learned several languages, worked abroad in the Foreign Service, and then took up a career in journalism. She’s generally embraced being and doing rather than getting and having. The older girl turned the more or less benign materialism of her parents into a caricature. Her acquisitiveness came close to killing her husband and wrecked her marriage, but these developments didn’t faze her sense of being entitled to the enormous houses she acquired while she was in the chips. Her parents are appalled at her unblushing greed. “We don’t know where she came from,” her father says to me.
We live in a culture that conspires to turn us into one or another of the kinds of materialists I’ve described here. That we should escape unscathed is almost impossible, and surely no one would agree with Mary McCarthy’s 1947 assertion that “the virtue of American civilization is that it is unmaterialistic.” Indeed, practically no one agreed at the time, though if we are to believe Alexis de Tocqueville, that generalization could have been made about America, with the possible exception of the “aristocratic” South, a hundred years before McCarthy wrote. Now the good old U.S. of A. might serve as a clinic in materialism and its varieties, effects, and the study of mass media techniques to produce it. All of us in our own bathtubs, surrounded by the objects we love and simultaneously feeling comforted and entitled, yet still clamoring for more.
What can we do? Well, perhaps tolerance toward the less corrosive forms of materialism would help. We can listen more to our own critics than we usually do. And we can do everything to turn off the voices from the screen, the billboard, and the page that insist so eagerly that having the next great thing will finally make us happy.