The Last Temptation of Things

Zero Waste Solution, Wareham, MA

“I cling like a miser to the freedom that disappears as soon as there is an excess of things.” – Albert Camus, Lyrical and Critical Essays.

Let me tell you a story about a haunted house and all the thoughts it evoked in me.

Do we believe we can save ourselves by saving things?

Or do our saved possessions come to possess their saviors?

Do those who save many things or hoard believe that there are pockets in shrouds?  Or do they collect things as a magical protection against the shroud?

These are questions that have preoccupied me for weeks as my wife and I have spent long and exhausting days cleaning out a friend’s house. This followed weeks of another friend telling me about the hoarding in his grandmother’s house.  So I thought I was prepared. Many huge truckloads of possessions have been carted off to the dump. Thousands of documents have been shredded and thousands more taken to our house for further sorting. Other things have been donated to charity. This is what happens to people’s things; they disappear, never to be seen again, just as we do, eventually.

Tolstoy wrote a story – “How Much Land Does A Man Need’’ – that ends with the answer: a piece six feet long, enough for your grave.  As in this story, the devil always has the last laugh when your covetousness gets the best of you.  Yet so many people continue to collect in the vain hope that they are exceptions.  Ask almost anyone and they will reluctantly admit that they hoard to some degree.

In capitalist consumer societies, getting and spending and hoarding not only lays waste our powers, but it is done on the backs of the poor and destitute around the world.  It is a system built to inflame the worst human tendencies of acquisitiveness and indifference since it teaches that one never has enough of everything.  It denies the primal sympathy of human care for all humans as it teaches that if you surround yourself with enough things – have ten pair of shoes, twenty shirts, an attic filled with things in reserve – you will be safe from the fate of the majority of the world’s poor who have next to nothing. It is an insidious form of soul murder wherein one pulls the shades on the prison-house, counts one’s possessions, and shakes hands with the Devil.  And it is sadly common.

From attic to cellar to garage, every little cubbyhole, closet, and drawer in this friend’s house was filled with “saved” items.  Nothing was ever thrown away.  If you walked in the front door, you would never know that the occupants were compulsive keepers.  While there were plenty of knick-knacks in evidence like so many houses where the fear of emptiness rules (the emptiness that is the source of freedom and creativity), once you opened a drawer or closet, a secreted lunacy spilled out seriatim like circus clowns from a small car.  Like all clown shows, it was funny but far more frightening, as though all the saved objects were tinged with the fear of death and dissolution, were futile efforts to stop the flow of time and life by sticking a finger in a dike.

Let me begin with the bags.  Hidden in every corner and closet, there were bags stuffed in bags.  Big bags and little bags, hundreds if not thousands, used and unused, plastic, paper, cloth bags with price tags still on them.  The same was true for boxes, especially empty jewelry boxes.  Cardboard boxes that once held a little something, wooden boxes, cigar boxes, large cartons, boxes from every device ever purchased  – all seemingly being saved for some future use that would never come.  But the bags and boxes filled each other so that no emptiness could survive, although desolation seemed to cry out from within: “You can’t suffocate me.”

Tens of thousands of photographs and slides were squirreled into cabinets, closets, and their own file cabinets, each neatly marked with the date and place of their taking.  Time in a “bottle” from which one would never drink again – possessing the past in a vain attempt to stop time.  These photos were kept in places where their taker would never see them again but could find a weird comfort that they were saved somewhere in this vast collection.  Cold comfort by embalming time.

It so happens that while emptying the house, I was rereading the wonderful novel, Zorba The Greek, by Nikos Kazantzakis.  There is a passage in it where a woman has died, and while her corpse lies in her house, the villagers descend on her possessions like shrieking vultures on a carcass.

Old women, men, children went rushing through the doors, jumped through the open windows, over the fences and off the balcony, each carrying whatever he had been able to snatch – sauce pans, frying pans, mattresses, rabbits …. Some of them had taken doors or windows off their hinges and had put them on their backs. Mimiko had seized the two court shoes, tied on a piece of string and hung them round his neck – it looked as though Dame Hortense were going off astraddle on his shoulders and only her shoes were visible….

The avidity for things drives many people mad, to get and to keep stuff, to build walls around life so as to protect themselves from death. To consume so as not to be consumed.  Kazantzakis brilliantly makes this clear in the book.  Zorba, the Greek physical laborer and wild man, is different, for he knows that salvation lies in dispossession.  One day he encounters five little children begging in a village.  Their father has just been murdered.  “I don’t know why, divine inspiration I suppose, but I went up to them.”  He gives the children his basket of food and all his money.  He tells his interlocutor, a writer whom he calls “Boss,” a man whom Zorba accuses of not being able to cut the string that ties him to a life of living-death, that that was how he was rescued.

Rescued from my country, from priests, and from money. I began sifting things, sifting more and more things out. I lighten my burden that way. I – how shall I put it? – I find my own deliverance, I become a man.

In the jam-packed attic where there is little room to move with boxes and objects piled on top of each other, I found a large metal four-drawer file cabinet packed with files.  In one file folder there was a small purse filled with the following: four very old unmarked keys, six paper clips, two old unworkable watches, a bobby pin, a circular case that contained what looked like a piece of a human bone, a few old medallions, tweezers, four buttons, an eye screw, a safety pin, a nail, a screw, two ancient tiny photos, and a lock of human hair.  Similar objects were stored throughout the house in various containers, bags, boxes, the pockets of clothes, in old ancient furniture in the basement, on shelves, in cigar boxes, in desks, etc.  Old receipts for purchases made forty years ago, airline baggage tags, ticket stubs, school papers, jewelry hidden everywhere, old foreign and domestic coins, perhaps twenty-five old unworkable watches, clocks, radios, clothes and more clothes, more than anyone could ever have worn, scores of old pens and pencils, massive stacks of old newspapers, hand-written notes with no dates or any semblance of order or meaning, chaos and obsessive account-keeping hiding everywhere in contradictory forms shared by two people: one the neat freak and the other disorganized.  One dead and the other forced by fate to let her stuff go, to stand naked in the wind.

How does it help a person to record that they bought a toaster for $6.98 in 1957 or a bracelet for $20 in 1970 or that they called so-and-so some undated time in the past?  What good does it do to save vast correspondences documenting  your complaints, bitterness, and quarrels?  Or boxes upon boxes of Christmas cards received thirty years ago?  Or brochures and receipts from a trip taken long ago?  Old sports medals?  Scrapbooks?  Four dilapidated and filthy baby strollers. Photos of long dead relatives no one wants?  Fashion designer shoes and coats and handbags hidden in a dusty attic where you don’t even know they are there. An ancient sewing machine weighing seventy-five pounds and gathering dust in the attic?

Nothing I could tell you can come close to picturing what we saw in this house.  It was overwhelming, horrifying, and weirdly fascinating.  And aside from the useful things that were donated to charity and some that were taken to the woman’s next dwelling, ninety percent was dumped in a landfill, soon to be buried.

In his brilliant novel Underworld, Don DeLillo writes about a guy named Brian who goes to visit a collector of old baseball paraphernalia – bats, balls, an old scoreboard, tapes of games, etc. – in a house where “a mood of mausoleum gloom” fills the air.  The man tells Brian:

There’s men in the coming years they’ll pay fortunes for these objects. Because this is desperation speaking …. Men come here to see my collection …. They come and they don’t want to leave. The phone rings, it’s the family – where is he? This is the fraternity of missing men.

Men and women hoarders, collectors, and keepers are lost children, trying desperately to secure themselves from death while losing themselves in the process.  In my friend’s house I found huge amounts of string and rope waiting to tie something up neatly someday.  That day never came.

Zorba tells the Boss, who insists he’s free, the following:

No, you’re not free. The string you’re tied to is perhaps no longer than other people’s. That’s all. You’re on a long piece of string, boss; you come and go and think you’re free, but you never cut the string in two. And when people don’t cut that string ….

It’s difficult, boss, very difficult. You need a touch of folly to do that; folly, d’you see? You have to risk everything! But you’ve got such a strong head, it’ll always get the better of you. A man’s head is like a grocer; it keeps accounts. I’ve paid so much and earned so much and that means a profit of this much or a loss of that much! The head’s a careful little shopkeeper; it never risks all it has, always keeps something in reserve. It never breaks the string. Ah, no! It hangs on tight to it, the bastard! If the string slips out of its grasp, the head, poor devil, is lost, finished! But if a man doesn’t break the string, tell me what flavor is left in life? The flavor of camomile, weak camomile tea! Nothing like rum – that makes you see life inside out.

On the way out the door on our final day cleaning the house, I found a beautiful boxed fountain pen on a windowsill.  I love pens since I am a writer.  This one shone brightly and seemed to speak to me: think of what you could write with me, it said so seductively.  I was sorely tempted, but knowing that I didn’t need another pen, I left it there, thinking that perhaps the next occupants of this house would write a different story and embrace Camus’ advice about an excess of things.





23 thoughts on “The Last Temptation of Things”

  1. It’s interesting how humans adapt to the circumstances of their culture, ever trying to derive moralistic guidelines from changing material situations. When we were still able to believe that such a thing as “the supernatural” could be possible, we created religions to tell us what was “right” or “wrong.” Now our faith is based supposedly on reason, manifesting as psychology/psychiatry/sociology. Yet we still, quite obsessively, dwell on what we might be doing incorrectly and so unwittingly may be missing out on enlightenment or salvation or the newest desideratum, good mental health.

    In a world in which most people worked outdoors, people went so far as to take arsenic to stay pale, and so be seen as “better” than common laborers. In the first culture that has conquered hunger, being skinny is thought more desirable than being overweight. And in our Industrial Age, when our factories turn out floods of manufactured goods, we now fret over how we may be harming ourselves by possessing “too many” objects.

    As Mackay observed in his 1841 book “Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds,” “”We go out of our course to make ourselves uncomfortable; the cup of life is not bitter enough to our palate, and we distill superfluous poison to put into it, or conjure up hideous things to frighten ourselves at, which would never exist if we did not make them.”

  2. Very thoughtful, insightful and poignant piece! I have tried to save a bunch of articles in my browser: hundreds under categories like Ukraine, Covid, JFK.
    Trying to go through and categorize one day I hit the wrong key: Presto!
    Ukraine was gone…
    Anyway, I remember most of the important ones. Our lives captured in these little boxes will be easily disposed of as children and grandchildren toss then out intentionally or carelessly, or just hit delete.

  3. Yes, I have saved too many useless things. Old paint cans in the utility room that leaked and the smell is still there. I will need to pay a professional to help me get rid of many things not allowed for trash pick up. Trouble is I am also a procrastinator which is double trouble. I do save important things but have a hard time finding them when I need them and still are missing. I could be missing in action of life… could be worse.

  4. We exist (live) in a contrived world (economy). It is designed to grow with no limits. Such growth needs consumers and by its nature produces mostly waste. That waste can be disposed of from time to time. Or as you’ve discovered, Ed, it will remain, for the most part in the dwelling of the consumer until that waste is sorted and deposited at a dump or land fill posthumously.

    Whether our neuroses is labelled hoarding or not, the point is not in whether we keep it or not but in the consumption – it’s our role and we may or may not play along.

    No doubt there are hoarders who may stash stuff away to make their home presentable to visitors; while others become hermits and just live in their waste.

    I have visited millionaires who have all of their stuff strewn across the floors and counters. Nothing is tided up. It’s just conspicuous consumption writ large.

    I prefer the minimalist approach. Then there’s the hedonist’s license plate: He who dies with the most toys wins.

    On a deeper level, all of this aligns with MLK, Jr’s three evils: racism, economic exploitation, and militarism. (An inconvenient truth. We’re responsible for our obedience to the system.)

  5. Edward, I also posted this comment to you at Off Guardian, but I wasn’t sure you always read the comments there (which is understandable considering how inane some of them are!), so am also sending it via your website.
    Edward, I usually love your articles –and this one, also, is beautifully written — but I find I must disagree with you most strongly. While it is very kind of you to sort through your friend’s possessions, the way you write about the experience, and about your friend is highly distressing to me on so many levels. I cannot hope to convey all of my distress here, but will give it a try. To differ in character from a person who saves things — or even hoards them — is quite all right, but to condemn them, and in such harsh language for doing so, is just plain wrong. It is beneath you.
    Now, I don’t mean people who buy lots of expensive things, things to show off, those with half a dozen houses, 20 cars (maybe a Mazerati of two?). That, indeed, is “done on the backs of the poor and destitute around the world.” That aspect of your condemnation is generally valid.
    But those who save and collect, even hoard, bits of “junk” do not deserve this sort of blanket attack! People save all sorts of things for all sorts of reasons. They may just fear death, as you suggest (and don’t most of us?). They may find joy in some of these items. I collect rocks; I like to look at them. I like to hold the smooth ones in my palm. I have a rock garden I have built with them. Am I evil or stupid for doing this? Who are you to judge?
    Things that have no meaning for you may have — or once have had — meaning for your friend. Memories have meaning. That receipt for a toaster may have been the first appliance he and his wife ever bought together; a memory of a special day. I also have Christmas cards from 30 years ago, and I wish I had more of them, for they are from people who have passed on or who live far away. I have 2 memory boxes (only 2!) filled with things I want to, or need to, occasionally remember. Among these items are the aforementioned Christmas cards, some poems I wrote as a teenager (very bad poems, I now realise, but I still love them), a ragged stuffed animal I slept with as a young child, the collar from a long-deceased beloved pet. I do look at them, not every day or even every month, but from time to time. Why? Well, why not? They are part of my life. You seem to say such things have no value. HOW DARE YOU!
    To live totally in the past is not good for a person, I know, but to live totally without it is also a problem. My mother-in-law now has dementia. Her connection with “reality” is very tenuous. The present time has little meaning to her. She can’t remember where she is going when she leaves a room. But she likes to look at old photographs, and I regularly thank God that someone in her family had the foresight to collect them (she herself did not — like you, I guess, she was not a collector or hoarder) . Some of these photos are now mounted into a montage which hangs in her room, so she can reminisce about long gone people, places and things. Is this wrong? Maybe you think she is just taking up space on the earth, like her photos are. Is she just using up the world’s resources. I cannot see it that way.
    Now, to move on to “hoarding” or just saving odd bits of things for the sake of saving them, things like bags, or rusty nails, or 10 year old cans of paint that have surely dried out beyond use … and these are some of the things my husband tends to save. I will admit, this to me makes no sense, and (don’t tell him this!) I do sometimes discreetly dispose of a few of these things so that the closet door in his office will shut properly. But the tools and other items in the garage are beyond sacred; I don’t even know what some of them are. Why does he save these things? I’m not sure. I think because he thinks they might one day come in handy, even though they rarely do. But, you see, that is the kind of person he is. That is how he has been since the day I met him. I no longer try to change him. His purpose in collecting/hoarding (call it what you will) is different from mine. And that is okay. It is not a sign of mental illness, or stupidity, or spiritual emptiness. He is the dearest, sweetest, kindest and most forgiving person I have ever known.
    From your previous writings, Edward, I have thought of you, also, as dear, sweet, kind and forgiving. But this article makes me wonder. You don’t collect things. That is the sort of person YOU are; your way of life, your quality of mind, your traits. But don’t condemn those of us who do with your (sneering? or mourning?) comment that “hoarders, collectors, and keepers are lost children, trying desperately to secure themselves from death while losing themselves in the process.” I haven’t lost myself yet. Indeed, I am still finding myself. I see a bit of me over that, in that little enamel box or that perfectly shaped granite rock. You don’t see it, do you? But, Edward, I do. I do.

  6. Ahh, Dr. Gabor Mate discusses this addiction, this compulsion for buying and collecting as part of a complicated but true chain of trauma in our lives, especially those who have this obsession.

    [ ]

    Mad Men and Mad Women, the marketers, have been deploying psychology and planned and perceived obsolescence since before that monster Edward Bernays was used by cancer stick companies (cigarette ad agencies) to sell (sic) smoking to largely an untapped “market” — women.

    They knew that cigs caused COPD, even cancer, way into the late 1890s, but alas, the smoke and mirrors and snake oil salesmen who once had the axiom, a sucker born every minute, now, a mark and victim and sucker born every nanosecond, tattooed on their dirty buttocks.

    With my background in urban and region planning and sustainability, I’ve studied on the ground the idea of bigger homes since 1950 until 2020, with the three car garage out in front of the expensive crappy home, and with the glut of those storage units around the country — dirty, ugly, mindless nothing in terms of what the construction architecture brings to a community. Here, on the beautiful Pacific, Central Oregon, towns allow those ugly metal buildings upon buildings to be built right in the view shed.

    In 1950 the average new home was 983 square feet and the average household 3.8 people. Today it’s 2500 square feet and 2.6 people. That’s a 270% increase in home space per person. However, we have second homes owned by Professional Managerial Class (sic) that are called two-by-four-by two. Two people 4000 square feet for two months. Think Montana or anywhere, even here in Oregon — second homes.

    And, recall the big lying Al Gore, and his home:

    According to the Associated Press, the Gore’s 10,000 square foot Belle Meade residence consumes electricity at a rate of about 12 times the average for a typical house in Nashville (191,000 kwh versus 15,600 kwh). While there are mitigating factors (further discussed in our article about the Gore household’s energy use), this is still a surprising number, given that the residence is approximately four times the size of the average new American home.

    The Prairie Chapel Ranch ranch home owned by George W. Bush in Crawford, Texas, was designed by Austin architect David Heymann, an associate dean for undergraduate programs at the University of Texas School of Architecture. As the Chicago Tribune described the house in a 2001 article:

    The 4,000-square-foot house is a model of environmental rectitude. Geothermal heat pumps located in a central closet circulate water through pipes buried 300 feet deep in the ground where the temperature is a constant 67 degrees; the water heats the house in the winter and cools it in the summer. Systems such as the one in this “eco-friendly” dwelling use about 25% of the electricity that traditional heating and cooling systems utilize.

    A 25,000-gallon underground cistern collects rainwater gathered from roof runs; wastewater from sinks, toilets and showers goes into underground purifying tanks and is also funneled into the cistern. The water from the cistern is used to irrigate the landscaping surrounding the four-bedroom home. Plants and flowers native to the high prairie area blend the structure into the surrounding ecosystem.


    There you have this smoke and mirrors and propaganda on steroids. And the price of all that e-waste and household waste and all the products hoarded and thrown away?

    Life cycle analysis, sure, but from fetus to cradle to grave, too. The price? Dementia, Alzheimer’s and so many neuro issues, inflammatory issue, and hundreds more.

    For many of us studied fools, we know there is no mystery behind the astronomical rise in neurological disorders like Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s: Exposure to environmental toxins that are omnipresent yet poorly understood, that is, never studied, never put through the “do no harm” and “precautionary principle,” leading doctors warn, are the cause of this tsunami of Western Civ (and exported to global south) disease model.

    Just last week, at a conference, the country’s leading neurologists and neuroscientists highlighted recent research efforts to fill the gaping scientific hole in understanding of the role environmental toxins – air pollution, pesticides, microplastics, forever chemicals and more – play in increasingly common diseases like dementias and childhood developmental disorders.

    Human neurons transplanted into rats to help study brain disorders
    Humans may encounter a staggering 80,000 or more toxic chemicals as they work, play, sleep and learn – so many that it is almost impossible to determine their individual effects on a person, let alone how they may interact or the cumulative impacts on the nervous system over a lifespan.

    Ahh, the corporations will not pay for the damage, the testing, the precautionary principle. This is it, the second, third and fourth hand smoking gun of disease and environmental destruction cause by the story of stuff.

    I used to teach this when it first came out, but now? You can’t teach anything against the narrative of buy, consumerism, a system of totalitarian capitalism destroying home and planet.

    And it comes down to carting away “stuff.”

  7. This brings back memories of my wife and I spending several days post retirement shredding box after box of documents and photos we’d each accumulated over literally a lifetime. From grad school papers, to endless reams of insurance documents and all the other documentary debris of modern life. Afterward we felt so light, so free. It was like removing the albatross of “modern life” from our necks and starting life anew.

    Sadly the story doesn’t end there. Over the last few years I’ve found a new method and subject of accumulation to replace the old “paper trail” record of modern life. Now, I daily read endless medical studies and posts on covid and the vaccine damage and then “save a PDF” copy of each on my computer – you know Ed – just in case they all somehow disappear into the cyber-space-void tomorrow never to be seen again. On the plus side this new obsession with the “documentary record” of our ever more insane world takes up no noticeable “space” in our home, since it only involves occasionally adding yet another “computer file” rather than another cardboard box. I suppose I should just chalk up this new “accumulation” obsession to “irony” and leave it at that. Thanks Ed for a thought provoking post.

  8. I got rid of my 5000 sq foot 3 car garage with 3000 sq feet of storage space a year and a half ago for a 650 sq foot home without even a garage.

    Poignant to this article, as well as much more in it, I threw away one full 35 gallon trash can full of pictures alone. Pictures that were my parents, along with pictures were their parents. Many faces I no longer knew, or never new.

    Is it easy? I didn’t find it terribly hard, although after it was all said and done I had deep thoughts of regret.

    Zorba is right.

  9. What individuals horde is problematic enough, but what the wealthy, the military industrial complex and multi national corporations leave in their wake is incalculable.
    The poisonous pollutants of ‘progress’.

  10. There are a number of Clare Daly videos available. Clare Daly is an Irish politician who has been a Member of the European Parliament from Ireland for the Dublin constituency since July 2019. I encourage everyone to watch these videos on current events and other atrocities!

  11. Very nice story.

    Very convicting.

    Please forgive me for bringing two typos to your attention.

    “clothes and more clothes, more that anyone could ever have wear” (worn)

    “This one shown brightly”: I think you mean the pen shone not “shown”:

    All the best,


  12. For me this piece is quite timely. As a man around your own age, I find myself thinking about this subject more and more. My own accumulative phase is about over, but that leaves a lot that needs to go back out that door.

    I have for some time been conscious of the fact that it will fall to some poor soul–probably my daughter–to sort through it all if I do not. But somehow it is a lot more exhausting getting rid of it than it was accumulating it, and I am more easily exhausted than I once was. And it seems like almost every time I succeed in getting something out of here that has been taking up space for 10-20-30 years or more, it isn’t more than a few weeks before I discover a need or a use for that very thing I sold, gave away, or trashed, and I have to go buy another. Ha!

    Thanks for a great piece!

  13. I think a couple of fierce poets like Lionel Rugama ( Nicaragua ) or maybe L. Ferlinghetti might also have enjoyed the funnier aspects of this encounter w/ a suddenly empty house filled to the brim w/ things !

    But they weren’t tasked w/ having to pick through & dispose of the vast collection , either… so I get that the author’s annoyance gains the upper hand.
    On the other hand, cutting DOWN on the steady accumulation of stuff doesn’t mean you’re gonna’ necessarily yank your finger out of that dike of Time, either.

    We also cannot grasp how much sheer joy may have buoyed the former aggregator’s life along… rafting thru Life’s rapids on an improvised flotation device made of anything…. seemingly ‘Everything ‘ to the clean-up crew in the posthumous aftermath.

    Well… a hell of a description & a situation I know I have witnessed the like of.
    Looking about right now, imagining what Curtin would think of my own augustly assembled possessions, one last blink away from being instantly revealed as nothing but another posthumous pile of blatantly obvious junk !

  14. I think people who suffered the Great Depression did this and their children learned to do it as well. It makes sense in a sad way. No one wants to be poor and alone with nothing. Even though there is a good chance the vast majority of people in the world will end up that way, particularly now with the WEF You will own nothing and be happy lie. People have things in excess but capitalism brainwashes you into believing you must. But starving homeless people horde all the time in their shopping baskets filled with garbage…to them it is a way of saying…look I am like you in ways you can not admit. This is a very sad country, eh?

    1. Nice comment. I must admit that the recent WEF antics have exacerbated my tendency to load up on things I think I might soon be unable to get. It’s not a good pathology…

    2. The economic system is rigged in favor of the super wealthy, who are currently represented (in part) by the WEF. If one questions families who “hoard,” say during the 1930s Depression (or even the Irish “Potato Famine”), then perhaps observing a few photos of the dire circumstances Americans found themselves living in would bring their experiences into focus? Observe photos 1-17 in this collection of Seattle Hooverville photos.

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