Notes on the Thrifting Sublime

I believe we all have our personal version of the sublime: a moment, supersaturated with meaning, which comes upon us with magical suddenness and lets us feel plenitude. Barbara Herrnstein Smith describes something she calls the “senile sublime” that arrives for some artists when they reach ripe ages. They begin to lose, but find that they no longer care about what’s lost. All flows away in a giving up, a loosing of bonds, and they come into their own as artists, perhaps for the first time. William Wordsworth describes a timeless instant in his poem “Tintern Abbey,” when the natural world is fully known, is entirely present, and through this point of access the speaker discovers transcendence. The self becomes infinity, expanding into universality. Wordsworth writes of “that blessed mood” when “we are laid asleep / [i]n body, and become a living soul.” When we are fully in the sublime moment, we “see into the life of things.” I want to pay attention to the “things” here, although I suspect Wordsworth is writing of something far loftier than my interest here—quotidian objects like clothing and food.

          How can we reach the sublime through things? One contemporary way of doing this I call the “thrifting sublime.” A feeling that doesn’t come from nature as a vehicle or opening into immanence as with Wordsworth, this sublime unfolds from a sense of transcendence found via the material object, something like stepping into the wardrobe in C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which leads the children into a new world. The thing (here, furniture) springs to life, suddenly giving them a personal door into full abundance. Gaston Bachelard writes of “wardrobes with their shelves, desks with their drawers, and chests with their false bottoms” as “veritable organs of the secret psychological life. Indeed, without these ‘objects’ and a few others . . . our intimate life would lack a model of intimacy. They are hybrid objects, subject objects.” The thrifting sublime happens when we find an object (for some of us, clothing) in a thrift, second hand, or antique store, that somehow calls up forgotten memories or obscure emotions and links them together, like pearls strung and then pulled taut on a string. We look into our own past and have a mysterious sense that we’re connected to a unique and previously unknown history, suddenly in contact with our own. In this moment, it’s as if we recognize ourselves in the object; we see ourselves, uncannily, in something that is strange to us. The feel of the thing, its very texture, speaks of our existence to us and our connection to all that is around us. In other words, every shirt, dress, or chest is a dwelling place.

          Thrifting can feel like the personal story we create for ourselves interweaves with other stories, such as the past of the original owner of a 1940s summer dress I found at the Salvation Army on 46th Street in New York City a few years back. The dress leads me to imagine a woman, leaning over a picnic table laden with food, and, in the sun, a man approaching behind her to touch that dress, the one that I have worn, too, and had my own experiences. The thrifting sublime is a Proustian moment, but it is even more complex than Proust’s famous scene with the “petite madeleines.” The narrator dips a piece of his small pastry into a cup of tea and brings it to his lips, suddenly feeling a delight that, he later realizes, comes from a revivification of a whole fragment of his past that he had forgotten:

An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory—this new sensation having had the effect, which love has, of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was me.

          Called an “involuntary memory,” one of many the narrator of In Search of Lost Time experiences, this epiphany is also a sublime moment, something like Wordsworth’s mentioned above. It also has much in common with the thrifting sublime, particularly because it comes from an interaction with a sensual object—here the tea and the cake. The finding of the object brings on the sublime largely because it seems to be a piece of oneself externalized, just as the cake and tea seem somehow to contain the memories of Combray. Yet the joy that comes with a thrift find also includes the added obscurity of the irretrievable history of the object, the other. I really know nothing about the past of the 1940s dress, although I know it has one. Perhaps someone even died in the dress and it embodies both life and death? Thus if we find ourselves fully present to our pasts—through clothing, food, whatever—then we discover something about ourselves from within the heart of the unknown.

          Much of the “exquisite pleasure” of the thrift find stems from the thrill of stepping out of the lonely shell of subjectivity and into an atmosphere alive with personal meaning, even if it’s someone else’s meaning, forever dark. Perhaps this sublime radiates from an impossibility—a self we either don’t know yet and are on the edge of creating, or a self we’ve lost, because it’s become the seemingly irretrievable past, or because it’s now on the other side of the divide of death? Proust describes this special kind of animism: I feel that there is much to be said for the Celtic belief that the souls of those whom we have lost are held captive in some inferior being, in an animal, in a plant, in some inanimate object, and thus effectively lost to us until the day (which to many never comes) when we happen to pass by a tree or to obtain possession of the object which forms their prison. Then they start and tremble, they call us by our name . . . Somehow, our name is called out by objects; we are named by them. We are peopled by their presence. Perhaps the sublime of discovering the 1940s dress brings me, inexplicably, into the presence of female kindred spirits, of women I’ve never met with whom I may have felt some relation. Objects take on a ghostliness, a possibility of being haunted: by previous owners, by past settings, even by ourselves. If we somehow haunt our own lives—a feeling of “my life without me,” as Rainier Maria Rilke describes it—then perhaps something of us will remain after we die, in the matter we leave behind?

DEBORAH LUTZ is the Thruston B. Morton Endowed Chair of English at the University of Louisville. Her books include The Brontë Cabinet: Three Lives in Nine Objects, which was shortlisted for a PEN biography award, and Relics of Death in Victorian Literature and Culture, an ACLS fellowship winner. She is the editor of the Norton Critical Editions of Jane Eyre and Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.