This is an expanded transcript of a talk broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on January 9th and January 12th 2000, as the first in a series of four 'philosophical adventures in the everyday' entitled Rough Magic. The programmes were produced by Tim Dee.
If you were to arrive on this earth from another planet, what would be the thing that would strike you most about humans, compared with other species? It would not, I think, be the possession of language, the capacity to laugh, or to remember, or to use tools, or any of these more traditional prerogatives human beings like to accord to themselves. It would be our need, aparently unshared by any other species, to carry things around with us. We are not homo erectus, or homo sapiens, but homo ferens. If we like retrievers and gundogs, it is because we have taught them to share our tenderness about the act of carrying things.
On the isle of Laputa, Swift's Lemuel Gulliver encounters a people who are so mistrustful of language that they carry around in a sack all the objects to which they may need to make reference during the day, producing and displaying them as the occasion arises. Human beings have evolved a fantastic and still-expanding set of ways of dispensing with having to carry our worlds around with us, language being the most important of them. Yet the need persists to bear the weight of things around with us. I am a light traveller by preference; my heart droops at the thought of having to cram my possessions into bags that I will then have to lug around with me wherever I go. I look forward to the day when I can step off the aeroplane in shorts and trainers, have my security details scanned via subcutaneous barcode and walk straight out of the airport. And yet, like everybody else, I also find travelling without luggage intolerable. We are beings apt to feel unbearably light without 'our things'. We don't seem to be able to transport ourselves without transporting things with us. Bags mean this possibility. Bags mean ownership, identity, self-possession. They are memory, the weight of all we have been. Bags I! children used to say. That's not my bag, as jazzmen and hippies had it.
Human beings are given to conceiving of themselves in terms of bags and receptacles. The mother's breast is perhaps at the origin of the sense of promise and secret goodness attaching to bags, and embodied in Santa's bulging sack. Our stories are full of the excitement of delicious and dangerous powers hidden away in bags; letting the cat out of the bag is a dangerous and exciting proceeding, as is letting the winds out of the bag of Aeolus. Sausages and saveloys were sometimes known in the nineteenth century as `bags of mystery'.
Because they are in essence such fleshly or bodily things, bags enact as nothing else does our sense of the relation between inside and outside. We are creatures who find it easy and pleasurable to imagine living on the inside of another body; we ourselves come into independent existence very slowly, being carried, like bags, for long enough to come to know this intermediate condition intimately,and never to be able to forget it. Independence literally means not hanging. Human beings make the world into bags, because holding things together, holding things up, and being ourselves held and held up, is so important to us. Infant human beings are carried for longer than any other creature. For no other creature, it seems, are carrying and being carried so inextricably a part of one's identity. This is indicated clearly enough in the many different senses in which carrying and carriage are threaded through our language. Carrying things is important for how we carry ourselves. The fact that we understand so well what it is to be carried, what it is to be in a bag, or to be like one, accounts for our concern for and even tenderness towards bags. We carry bags, but we design them also to be able to cling on to us, our shoulders, or the crooks of our arms, or even to hang at our waists. When we give bags handles, we give them hands. Bags are the little people we once were and still are. We love portable property because we were it. Since the months I spent carrying my babies in slings, I have been unable to see or hold a bag without tenderness. Bags must be treated with care, because of the life there is in them. It is impossible to be wholly without grace when carrying a bag.
Bags join space to time. We do indeed, in every sense, `bear children'. Both `bearing' and `carrying' conjoin in the same way the meanings of holding up and holding out: of supporting, holding and transporting through space, and enduring or lasting out through time. You bear an ordeal, or carry out a task, or hold on through suffering, as though time were something we experienced as a kind of weight. 'Time', we say, 'hangs heavy'. To bear, to carry, means to endure, to last out; to carry and to carry on, to carry over, to endure: weight means time: so weight means waiting. Samuel Beckett puns lengthily on the two different kinds of wait in his play Waiting for Godot, which contains a memorable bag-carrier in the person of Lucky, the slave of the tyrant Pozzo, who spends most of the play encumbered by his master's enormous bags. Because he is kept at the end of a long rope tied around his neck, Lucky is himself a kind of bag, more or less. Estragon, one of the two tramps who meet Pozzo and Lucky in the indeterminate landscape of the play, is tormented by the question `Why doesn't he put down his bags?', asking it again and again. The question itself holds up the action, which in this play of ultimate inaction, actually means keeping it going. When eventually Lucky does put down his bags, in order to start incomprehensibly thinking out loud, the others find his monologue intolerable, and beat him to the ground. Carrying not only weighs us down, it also, it appears, keeps us up.
And is not Beckett the great, hitherto uncelebrated dramatist of bags? In his play Happy Days, the first act of which is the monologue of a woman buried up to her waist in a mound of earth, the action is punctuated and parcelled out by Winnie's plunges and sallies into her bag - for lipstick, toothpaste, mirror, medicine, and all the possibilities they bury of beguiling the vicious time they embody. ('Perhaps just one quick dip', she says, as a boozer to his tipple.) When, in the second act, she is inhumed up to her neck, the horror of her situation is signalled most of all by the bag which lies on the mound, tauntingly gaping just in sight and to hand, though for the handless Winnie now unreachable; as though all the resources of life and memory and history were held inaccessibly in it.
Lives are full of bags. Bags are full of lives.
Bags are female-seeming objects, and have strong associations with female experience in many cultures. Few women are able to bear the horror of male fingers rummaging in their handbags; there is no man who has never itched to do this. In Britain and America, subtle, untaught but unbreachable rules still govern the kind of bags that men and women can feel comfortable holding or carrying. One of the rules seems to be that the floppier the bag, the less male it seems. Another bizarre rule concerns the length of the handle. The longer the handles of a bag, the more effeminate the bag, perhaps because the more handle there is attached to a bag, the more it can appear to be something hanging on to you, rather than something that you are actively holding. And then, for reasons which I cannot easily explain, a man's masculinity seems more compromised by a string bag than any other kind. But then why do women, whom men delight in imagining to be made up almost entirely of dark recesses and hidden cavities, usually have no pockets? My father used to say that somebody or something was 'as useless as a pocket in a singlet'. But such a thing has only to be named for me to be able to imagine its marsupial comfort and utility. I would willingly wear a singlet in secret if only to have such a thing close to me.
In every household I know, there is a special place where plastic carrier bags are hoarded. A drawer, or a box, or, nine times out of ten, a bag of bags. What is it for? What is the meaning of this? Perhaps because there is always something ruthless or insulting about simply throwing away a bag. In our cellar, we have an even more marvellous contrivance. It is a luggage nest. On the outside, there is a large, firm, capacious suitcase, snapped shut with latches. Inside that, there is a slightly smaller suitcase; unzip that, and there is an aptly-named holdall, clasped tightly round a vanity case, and then a series of ever flimsier, but more tightly-budded pouches, purses and something I cannot forbear calling a reticule, though I do not know what this is. And round the whole thing, holding together the whole bursting, visceral contraption, there is a sheet of polythene against the dust, swollen skin-tight. It is a body we have got down there, a cannibal organism that binges on and breeds itself. I have just remembered that, when I was at school, the girls used to bring in anatomical dolls, that you could fold open to reveal their inner organs. Kneeling in front of our luggage nest, my hand plunging through the layers, groping for the little overnight bag I want right in the last level, I am doing the same play-surgery as they did in the playground.
If bags irresistibly suggest wombs, bellies and breasts, and may suggest an identification with women in their containing function, they have some distinctively male ingredients, too. For the shape of bags is rhythmic. Bags are defined by a rhythm of alternation between rigidity and collapse. Held, or worn, or carried, bags come into their own, assume and hold their own shapes. Put down, bags sag and crumple, their rigidity and definition ebbing from them. And bags offer quickening excitement in the contrast between hard and soft shapes; the pillow-case on Christmas morning, jutting with exciting knobs, elbows and corners, or the inverse, the impermeable outer casing containing folded softness.
You can think of bags as concrete meditations on the nature of human weight and shape. The principle of a bag is that it runs from the skimpiest form, which does nothing but wrap its contents, through to the sturdiest skeleton, which gives no clue as to the size or shape or weight of what lies inside. It is the operative difference between men, who may think of themselves as impermeable and undentable, but who nevertheless know, perhaps even more intimately than women, the bag-like rhythm of tumescence and collapse, and women, who cannot give birth without having to change their shapes. Bagmakers and bag users relish the jokes this contrast allows: a lock on a floppy bag is the most lovely futility imaginable.
How we carry bags is important. Bags are carried in the hand, in the crook of the arm, over the shoulder, on the back. In the form of pockets, bags can blister out on chests, thighs and hips. Our care for baggage extends to our means of transport, which have bags attached to them, from saddlebags to the boots of coaches and cars. We carry bags on our fronts, on our heads, to the side, on our backs. Bags are a way of keeping and displaying connections between our fronts and other parts of us, less visible, more vulnerable. A couple of years ago, do you remember, girls took to wearing tiny, exquisitely functionless little rucksacks, like a ganglion in the middle of their backs. It was as though they had a third eye, or a little growing homunculus clinging to them. Bags are our most intimate selves, even when we wear them most casually strung around our necks or on our backs.
Just as we sleep in sleeping bags, we have a need to restore ourselves to bags and sacks when we die, just as we come from bags and sacks in getting born. This is why we find the idea of putting a body straight into the ground so difficult to live with, and why bags and sacks are associated with death just as much with life. Nineteenth-century resurrectionists, who dug up newly-buried bodies for the purposes of medical dissection, were known as `sack 'em up men'. The more like bags we become, the more we sag and dangle, the more we are weighed down with ourselves, rather than carrying ourselves, the closer we are to death. War means servicemen coming home in body-bags. The First World War poet Isaac Rosenberg refers to the body of a soldier about to be reduced vilely to mere matter as the 'soul's sack'.
So, as well as goodness and wealth and plump incipience, bags are also the sign of indigence and indignity. uselessness, indignity and superannuation. Giving somebody the sack derives from the phrase 'to give someone the bag to hold' common in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. A woman who left a man at a dance to flirt with another would give him the metaphorical bag to hold, the idea being, I suppose, that to be left holding somebody's bag, left uselessly hanging on, or hanging around, you have beenn reduced to the condition of a bag. Holding her bag, the jiltee would have become it. Similarly, to be given the sack and made useless is to become a sack. No beggar so poor as to be unaccommodated with a bag of some kind; in the late sixteenth century, to 'turn to bag and wallet' meant to become a beggar. Tramps and bag ladies need bags to make the nothing they have and are into a kind of portable property.
Bags are antique and aging things. You can call someone an old bag, but it would be ridiculous to call someone a young bag. We carry more and more bags about our persons, which themselves become more and more baglike, as we age. Clothes enact our relationship to this ageing into the state of baggage, rags, luggage. Our very clothes keep us clear of death and age only as long as they hold us, the function of clothes not at all being to cover, but to contain and sustain. Is there a grimmer witness to our good riddance than our clothes when they are emptied of us - a flung sock, or a tangled brassière?
The absurd uselessness of baggage at the approach of death identifies baggage with death's ultimate beggary. Perhaps this is why packing, even in the midst of life, is always a bit like picking over and putting away the possessions of the newly dead.