The world is obsessed with clutter. Today, untidiness is seen as a moral failure and messy people are cast as incontinent reprobates lacking in all self-discipline. In his new book, Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life, Jordan Peterson tells readers that cleaning up their homes and offices is nothing less than a ‘moral obligation’.
Brits seem to agree. Princess Anne was recently criticised and urged to declutter after viewers glimpsed her living room at Gatcombe Park, whilst Channel 5 is planning a new TV show in which Nick Knowles helps messy homeowners tidy up. With the end of lockdown in sight, UK charity shops are expecting a huge boom in donations as Britons rush to declutter.
For Peterson, ‘mak[ing] one room in your home as beautiful as possible’ is the first step to taking control of your life. But he equates beauty strictly with tidiness, arguing that ‘proper order’, at home or in the office, not only helps you ‘take care of yourself more effectively’ but is ‘an invitation to the divine’. Peterson maps the difference between mess and tidiness not just onto the political spectrum (conservative discipline versus liberal disarray) but onto a cosmic battle between order and chaos, fundamental expressions of the eternal Manichean struggle of good against evil.
The urge to purge isn’t new – remember Kim and Aggie’s How Clean is Your House? The most recent bout of mania for decluttering was triggered in 2019, when self-styled ‘tidying expert’ Marie Kondo told us to get rid of everything and keep only what ‘sparks joy’.
Kondo’s hugely popular Netflix series, Tidying Up With Marie Kondo, based on her bestselling 2014 book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, proselytised an extreme form of household puritanism. ‘My mission is to spark joy in the world through tidying’, she beamed. But make no mistake. Kondo was on a crusade, waging a bitter war with her sworn enemy: clutter.
‘Tidying is not just about cleaning’, she opined. Like the other self-professed ‘experts’, ‘consultants’ and ‘gurus’ dominating our screens and bookshelves, Kondo was a charismatic cult leader, a priest for a new religion.
Accordingly, she worked by converting untidy people—their messy houses symptoms of an excessive, sinful, and immoral character—into born-again minimalists. These intemperate hoarders assimilated Kondo’s creed: chuck away your stuff and become a better, happier person. Ultimately, these reformed heretics became evangelists for a new ideology of domestic austerity.
The series was cannily timed for release in January 2019, when the guilt at December’s excesses crept in and we resolved to impose more discipline on our lives. People zealously answered Kondo’s call, dispatching bin bags of books, clothes, crockery and bric-a-brac on local charity shops and bemused relatives.
Two years on, however, the ‘KonMari’ method has aged badly. Millions have been confined to their homes, more or less, for a whole year. Many will continue working at home in the future. What now sparks more joy: a few decorative pots and a Muji diffuser or a bookcase creaking with well-thumbed, dogeared novels? (Especially as reading remains high up the list of permissible entertainments.)
I consider myself a fairly organised person. I make lists. I order my books. I even hang my clothes up. But in March last year, as lockdown loomed, my girlfriend and I moved to her parents’ rambling, ramshackle, rented farmhouse out in the country.
In all my life, I’d never seen so much stuff. Every surface (we must assume the existence of surfaces down there, underpinning it all) is occupied by things jostling for position: letters, books, folders, photographs, mugs of tea, Ziggy and Sukey (our two cats), ornaments, stationery, old birthday cards, vintage glassware (unused in decades, of course, and dimly reflecting the room from beneath a thick patina of dust). Piles of unfolded laundry erupt like molehills in the hallways, on the staircase, and in front of radiators. Scarves, coats and jackets hang five, six, and seven-deep on the backs of chairs, a sedimentary record of the week’s excursions.
Moving here was a test. Would I give in to Kondo, Peterson, and the other self-help didacts and condemn the vice of clutter? Instead, I’ve come to see the sheer joy in mess. I realised that all this stuff was not simply superfluous, inert matter but a material witness to life itself, a testament to a long, rich and ongoing family history. Taken together, this superabundance of things is more than the sum of its parts. Each odd and end is saturated with meaning, combining to form a record of the lives they index and signify. By contrast, extreme tidiness now seems a form of unfeeling asceticism: life-denying, austere, and emotionally impoverished.
Peterson binds beauty too tightly to order. He borrows his aesthetic theory from Aristotle, who said that beauty ‘present[s] a certain order in its arrangement of parts’ and insisted that ‘the chief forms of beauty are order and symmetry’. But later Enlightenment philosophers such as David Hume saw beauty as subjective: whatever ‘give[s] a pleasure and satisfaction to the soul’. To me, unmooring ourselves from our things is to disenchant the world and drain the life, soul and pleasure out of the spaces we live in. Too much order can also dampen our sense of the sublime. What does Peterson make of the importance the likes of Coleridge and Wordsworth placed on being overwhelmed or overawed? There is nothing tidy about a rugged mountain range and yet few would argue it isn’t beautiful.
The vogue for disparaging clutter seems pervasive - but it is beginning to be challenged.
Jane Bennett, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, researches the stigma surrounding hoarding and the pathologisation of hoarders in the media and public discourse. For Bennett, our stuff has a magic of its own, a power and a hold over us. She sees hoarders not, like Kondo, as delusional or dissolute reprobates in desperate need of re-education or, like Peterson, as incompetents lacking self-discipline, but ‘people who are preternaturally attuned to things’.
‘The things with which [hoarders] live and that live with them in close proximity are less possessions’, Bennett tells us, ‘than pieces of self.’
And this, I think, is where the joy of clutter lies. Those bits and bobs are parts of us: traces and extensions of kinship and family, signs of communion between people, spaces, and their histories. Simply put, clutter is what makes a house a home. In the end, our things are the threads tying us to the world and each other, and it is these connections, relationships, stories and memories that ultimately and enduringly spark joy.