The Ruricolist is now available in print.


Some people feel a certain nameless pleasure, sharp-edged and sexually tinged, in stripping others of their individuality, in shoving them back down into the uniformed background. Their principles are their expectations: what they do not expect insults them. They love the rough squaring of the round peg. This goes with Schadenfreude, but something is left over. Could it be the subconscious version of an eye for health, where aberration implies sickness? But their pleasure is not a healer’s.

Consider soldiers’ short hair and uniforms. The scheme of military alchemy which produces a soldier is to break down and build up. It is the difference between the warrior, who fights alone with his own strength, and the soldier, who fights as part of a hierarchy of units, each with the aggregate strength of its members. One of the few clear lessons of history is that soldiers beat warriors, one to hundreds: think of the British warriors under Boudica slaughtered by Roman soldiers, the British soldiers at Rorke’s Drift slaughtering Zulu warriors.

But why are businessmen short-haired? Why the uniform of the suit? Certainly, business organization is borrowed from military hierarchy, and the idea of the businesslike descends from the armed worldview of the period of universal conscription. But while it is a given, these days, that it is not the company man who creates the future of the company, the easiest way forward in life is still through the barber and the tailor. As for politicians, we are seriously considering in this country that a black man, or a woman, could now become President; but who can imagine another president with a beard?

The soldier and the careerist are both told to feel liberated in being shorn. Certainly, things are easiest for those of us who are easily categorized. That much is true of bohemianism and conformism, of tattoos and ties. But the majority mark themselves with the absence of marks. It is left to the minority to assert themselves by signs (clothes, symbols) and performances (slang, gesture).

To be human, even human, only human, is to be complex, to be distractible, to be various and try many things; to have, to keep, to pile up, to hoard. To declutter is more than just organizing and sorting out. It requires the discarding, not of what you cannot justify to yourself, but of what you cannot justify to another – to someone who takes money for this kind of work – someone who finds their nameless pleasure in taking things away from you.

The moralistic disapproval of possessions is only one blade of the declutterer’s scissors. The other side is the idea that what is to be valued in life are not things, but experiences. “I value experiences,” they say, “because I want to be able to look back on them in old age.”

There is no debate here. On the one side are people who assert the superiority of experiences over things; on the other side are people who stubbornly keep having things. There is of course a dark side, which is class. People for whom contingency is credit value experiences; “I can always buy another.” People for whom possessions are contingencies value them; “What if I need it later?” But there is a great deal of room in the middle.

For the young, to be distracted, or to be cluttered, is to be open to surprise. The act of decluttering declares that the season for hope is over; that the last contraction of possibilities has taken place; that the path is chosen and mapped to its end. Since your future is known, you should keep only what the future will call for. You will hear that these are just things – which they are, if you can replace them. But if you cannot replace them, then these seemingly useless things are more than things: these are chances that you are throwing away. Only tomorrow, or whenever it is too late, will you discover what you could have done with them.

The days of old age are long. Time murders sleep. There are so many hours, they are so hard to fill. Once you have finished with the hours you set aside for reminiscence – then what? In old age the memories we formed in youth become distant and alienated. Who was that? I am not that person. But our things, being with us, are never distant, and having taken the same road, are never strangers.

The things we have, the things we have inherited, are the things we want to pass on. They link us into a chain, and in that way give us meaning and perspective that a solipsistic horde of memories cannot.

For the old, who live beyond hope, who know that it is only the inertia of their routine that carries them forward, it is only their possessions that let them claim some connection with a human race without further use or patience for them. As the memory grows porous and ghostly, everything that triggers and proves it becomes precious.

I do not have to be old to see that the nursing home or the Florida house is haunted with more than loneliness, regret, and despair. When the day comes that yours is just one more failing body among other bodies in a room among rooms in a building among buildings; when your thoughts begin to twist on themselves, skip like a scratched record, jump like disordered movie reels; when all your thoughts are not your own and even your doubt is uncertain – you do not have to be dead to be a ghost.

Postscript 2011

My father hated having things. He loved to throw them out or, better yet, give them away. Anything he did not need he got rid of: not always his own. The rooms he lived in looked unfinished. Once they were empty, there was nothing to suggest they had ever been lived in. But somehow I carried out box after box. There was so much of it, and every item meant another decision: what to keep, what to sell, what to give away, what to throw away. I am still making those decisions.

I have become uneasy with my own possessions. For me the fear of not being able to get what I need when I need it has always outweighed the inconvenience of leaving room for what I do not need today. But now in the back of my mind I feel my heirs, and dread the burden of decision I am preparing for them. Getting rid of things used to be hard for me. Now it is easy; it brings relief. I wrote an essay a few years ago against decluttering. I still recognize a pathological form of declutterer whose practice is among the insidiously moralistic cruelties. But I cannot condemn declutterers any longer; the truth is that I have become one.