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Decluttering

Some 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 take pleasure in the squaring of the round peg. This goes with Schadenfreude, but something is left over. Could it be the subconscious abstraction 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 of the warrior, who fights alone with his own strength, from 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 always easier for those of us who are easily categorized. That much is as true of bohemianism as of conformism, of tattoos as of 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).

Saints and sages are admirable, but not because of their simplicity; their simplicity is only the proof of their devotion. They travel light because they are going somewhere. This word Simplicity evokes Walden Pond and cloistered gardens; but think rather of Newton or Handel in stale little rooms, unwashed, unfed, swept up in the brittle frenzy of the Messiah or the Principia. Think of Edison, catching naps in a coffin-sized niche in the wall of Menlo Park. Think of wandering hermit-beggars, melting away in slakeless need to find some posture of self-abasement absolute enough to make bearable the burden of their worth-opposing abjection. To live in the flame is to be smelted by it; to practice simplicity is to be on fire. But people do not do great things from simplicity; their lives became simple once they are pledged to great things.

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 because it requires the discarding, not of what you cannot justify to yourself, but of what you cannot justify to another—especially to someone who takes money for this kind of work—someone who finds their nameless pleasure in taking things away from you.

For the young, to be distracted, or to be cluttered, is to be open to surprise. The act of de-cluttering 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.

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 new 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 moral cruelties. But I cannot condemn declutterers any longer; the truth is that I have become one.