One of the worst things about the new year is having to endure everyone's smug announcements about all the ways they plan on being better than you for the next 365 days. This year, it seems gluten-free diets and lemon detox cleanses are giving way to the anti-clutter industry. Spurred on by the "wellness" guru Marie Kondo, people seem obsessed with telling us how "renewed" they feel by having more money but — get this — less actual stuff than those hoarding poors.
Don't get me wrong. I am as fanatically opposed to consumption and possession for their own sakes as any aging hippie in Vermont. I am such a grinch that I don't even buy my children toys for Christmas. I am so rabidly opposed to the reign of synthetic materials in modern life that I would support a plastic tax of 10 or even 20 percent on everything from kitchenware to t-shirts, and an outright ban on things like polypropylene straws.
But thinking that we have too much worthless junk lying around in our landfills and our homes is not the same thing as dressing up a bad argument for minimalism with mystic mumbo-jumbo. By all means, don't be a slob or a hoarder. But don't pretend that there is something inherently virtuous — or aesthetically pleasing — about making your dwelling look like the set of an old iPod commercial, either.
Kondo's defenders have been quick to point out that if you have a strong negative reaction to the suggestion that you should get rid of, say, two thirds of your books, you are proving her point, which is allegedly that you are supposed to have some kind of intense spiritual relationship with every last dog-eared Gladys Mitchell paperback, including the one you found by chance inside the box of discarded audio equipment in the butler's pantry. So far from being a kind of metaphysical argument against consumer fetishism, the anti-clutter movement is actually a sublimated defense of it. Instead of having that extra pair of kitchen scissors because well, who knows why, it is supposed to be because you have decided to ascribe certain religious virtues to your cutlery. I'll pass, thanks.
Why is clutter worth defending then? I can think of several reasons. One is simply that most people do not have time to sit down and painstakingly consider the relative merits of each of the knickknacks on the shelf. Clutter shaming is the latest in a long line of similar reversals in elite opinion. Like buying sliced bread, feeding infants with formula, being overweight, and divorce, having more stuff than you know what to do with is something that only the very wealthy could have managed once upon a time. The pattern is always the same: Once the well-to-do realize an innovation or indulgence is not such a good idea after all, they are able to revert back, thanks to their considerable material and social resources. For decades now we have encouraged people to buy as much as they are able to afford — or not afford — because the American economy depends upon endless undifferentiated consumption. I wonder what we will gaslight the poor over next.
The difference, though, is that unlike Wonder Bread, clutter can in fact be beautiful. When you look at a book of Victorian interiors, you don't see minimalism. You find tasteful Morris wallpapers covered with pictures and engravings, fireplaces topped with busts of dead admirals and gilt rococo mirrors, elaborately carved and upholstered sofas and chairs surrounded by end tables of every size. Books line entire walls all the way up 10- or 12-foot ceilings. Grand pianos choke under the weight of family albums and other memorabilia. Hutches are swallowed by gleaming china. When I look at a Marie Kondo video I see apartments that resemble a cross between a Target ad and the WonkaVision test room: bare taupe or white walls, cage-like shelving "units," plastic faux-woven baskets, an occasional (fake) plant. There is no evidence that people — least of all children — actually live in these places.
Clutter also makes it possible to enjoy the pleasure of stumbling upon some long-lost cherished object. Poking around my office just this morning I found the following: candle holders in the shape of hedgehogs that have belonged to my wife since she was a teenager; a wind-up toy dinosaur that walks like a drunk person; an ancient 10-inch Columbia record of Constant Lambert's Rio Grande; and an old cigar box full of holy cards. What could be more delightful than idly scanning the shelves and happening by chance upon what turns out to be the perfect book for that cozy moment when you settle down to read during the last half an hour or so before bed? If your entire music library is stored, for reasons of "space," on a tablet or some Amazon server, how are you supposed to enjoy the felicity of random browsing?
I can't pretend to argue that clutter has done much for my mental health or that I have had any religious experiences with the 30 boxes of books in our second upstairs landing. But the look on my younger daughter's face when she finds her old rabbit at the bottom of an overcrowded toy box is something I would not trade for anything, least of all a conversation with a stranger about the supposed virtues of something called "organizational consulting."