Sunday, March 22, 2009

We Like to Pile Things Up

The human tendency to make piles of things does not differentiate us from our brothers and sisters in the animal kingdom but reveals our oneness with them. If there are any differences about the human tendency to place a small stone on a larger stone, they reside first in our tendency to feel guilty about having done so (see the Tower of Babel); second in our interest (obsession), and our potential delight, in observing the result of our labors (hey, wouldja look at that!); and finally, in our competitiveness about the result (mine is bigger than yours).

I would argue that a large percentage of all human activity comes somewhere under the heading of piling things up and reacting to the product. Dr. Johnson's "No man would have wished it longer" is another way of saying "Just don't make it any bigger" while admiring the magnitude of the thing. Milton had no more desire to restrain himself than Dickens or Whitman or John Irving; Dickinson's corpus is an enormous pile of pebbles, all of which are startlingly uniform (sometimes making a gigantic heap of very tiny things is the most startling project of all).

We could likely make a system of psychological typing out of the nature of the piles an individual creates and cherishes (or hates). Do magazine editors secretly love their so-called "slush piles" because the magnitude of them is a badge of importance? If an artist makes endless drawings of the same subject, is it because she is trying to get the lines right, or because the accrual of images is a sure sign of her industry? Do you have heaps of dirty clothes in your bedroom, or stacks of folded laundry? Why is Scrooge McDuck so fond of going into his vault and sitting on his money?

And where does the recent financial bubble, and its implosion, fit into this theory? It gives some of us so much satisfaction to make great heaps of imaginary money that we are willing to sacrifice reason to achieve the seeming of the thing.

We have, maybe, just witnessed the fall of our fiscal Tower of Babel.


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