A Canadian writer and video artist based in Montreal
In a 2014 interview with The Australian, home decorating (or, de-decorating) guru and Netflix star Marie Kondo revealed that when she was younger, she fainted during one of her compulsive tidying sprees. She was out for two hours. When she awoke, she heard a “mysterious voice, like some god,” who revealed the key to the true and holy “work of tidying up.”
To which I ask, you need the voice of God to tell you to pick up your socks? I’m all for mystical visions, supernatural or medicinally induced, but most people who experience glimpses of the divine have the good sense to start money-making, insidious cults. Oh, wait.
Ms. Kondo is just the latest clever person to cash in on the downsizing, anti-clutter, tiny-house, live-with-less craze. She’s a natural follow-up act to the more grim One Foot in the Grave Cleaning fad popularized last year by author Margareta Magnusson, who wrote a bestselling book titled, without irony, The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning.
In her book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Ms. Kondo pitches the idea that people should keep only the things in their homes that prompt happy feelings, or in her words, “spark joy.” My recycling bin prompts the certainty that humanity is doomed. Test failed. And what if having a house crammed full of oddities and many, many amusing but useless artifacts is my joy? I do dust them.
Furthermore, Ms. Kondo’s zero-tolerance aesthetic fails to recognize that what you have in your home and what you decide to keep are, at their core, class issues. Poor people don’t throw things away so casually. And minimalism has always been a convoluted ideology only too-educated and/or too-rich people understand, because it argues – follow closely now – that removing any trace of individual or idiosyncratic expression is the best way to convey how truly unique you are. Minimalism is anti-identity, yet flashy and vain, and thus attracts two types of people: show-offs and neurotic perfectionists.
The death-purge business, on the other hand, is all about the opposite of joy: Prepare, it sermonizes, for your inevitable demise, which may indeed be more welcome when your home is reduced to two pieces of furniture and one plate. The subtitle of Ms. Magnusson’s book is telling, as it promises to teach you how to “free yourself and your family” from the alleged burden of having too much. How judgmental.
First off, I refuse to feel guilty about having a lot of junk. My things are not a shackle, and – let’s unpack the real psychology at work here – neither am I. My brother’s kids will take my treasures when I’m gone, or put them in the bin. That’s why people have kids, or at least know kids. And you can’t feel guilty once you’re dead; you can’t feel much of anything. Secondly, if freedom comes from having nothing, our cities are teeming with liberated people. They live in boxes, on the street.
The binge-eliminate cycle sold by Reaper-ready philosophies is just decadent value/worth signalling with disappearing sets and props. After you’ve spent your working life building up a fine home augmented by fine things, you then, oh you whimsical creature you, decide to cavalierly throw it all away in order to boast about clean sight lines and airy foyers? Why, because you can? Or because you can always buy more?
The “death clean” is also a waste of time. If you have a lot of things, you are the kind of person who likes to have a lot of things. You will not change. Whatever you toss out you are guaranteed to replace. I have seen this up close, when I cleaned out my mother’s large and very, um, decorated home. A decade later, I cleared her much smaller, “downsized” home, which was even more, shall we say, full of style. She learned nothing from the first round as she watched me go back and forth to the dumpster, and neither will you. Accept who you are, all 200 fridge magnets worth.
Furthermore, your loved ones will fuss over your belongings no matter how many you leave behind, because what they are really trying to figure out, if they love you, is how to go on without you. The objects are mere symbols, the number is irrelevant.
I got to know my mother better while I was emptying out her houses, and I’m thankful for the experience. The sorting process became a way to understand her anxieties, her tastes, her history and what gave her pleasure. Granted, I was far less rhapsodical when I discovered the basement cupboard crammed with dozens of Styrofoam trays.
The real lesson from Ms. Magnusson, Ms. Kondo et al is that spoiled Western boredom always makes for brisk trade. In about two years, expect a new decorating/lifestyle movement to buy into; one celebrating the exact opposite impulse, the thrill of heirlooms, of collecting and cherishing. And expect nobody to notice the con.
Meanwhile, If you can reduce your home down to one perfect vase, one perfect chair, etc., congratulations: you are now wildly overvaluing that particular vase and that special chair. Just like a hoarder.
Saints and convicts live in empty rooms. Aim higher.