An Apology of Hoarding

First, a disclaimer: I am not going to talk about hoarding as a clinical condition, since I’m not qualified to tackle medical issues. What I mean when I say “hoarding” is the opposite of “minimalist living”, which has become so popular of late and is often cited as a kind of mantra. Either implicitly or explicitly packaged as “an intentional search for happiness” by its proponents, “minimalist living”  is essentially a guilt trip for hoarders. It tells us that if we don’t relinquish most of our material possessions in search for a kind of miraculous 21st-century urban Buddhism, then we we are entirely to blame for our unhappiness, failures, and general ills. “Minimalist living” is also often put forth as the cure for the capitalist evil of consumerism, suggesting that people who buy and collect things that they don’t strictly need are bowing down to the global market. A taste for acquiring bric-a-brac is condemned as unhealthy, materialistic, and leading to disorganisation and inefficiency.

Via substance over stuff

In an article published fairly recently in The New York Times, Kyle Chayka offers a brilliant refutation of the minimalist mentality, whilst also showing how “minimalism” (d)evolved from revolutionary art current to over-the-counter life philosophy, where the “less is more” motto is less a slogan and more a meme. Chayka writes about the not-so-hidden absolutist side of this lifestyle movement:

Today’s minimalism […] is visually oppressive; it comes with an inherent pressure to conform to its precepts. Whiteness, in a literal sense, is good. Mess, heterogeneity, is bad — the opposite impulse of artistic minimalism. It is anxiety-inducing in a manner indistinguishable from other forms of consumerism, not revolutionary at all.

He dubs it “fetishistic” and “arrogant” as a project of “[self-] optimization [that] is expensive and exclusively branded by and for the elite”, quite the opposite of the non-consumerist, guilt-free lifestyle “minimalism” would like itself to be. He also cites the curious gap that is formed between the well-to-do (if not wealthy) who fetishise de-cluttering because they can quite literally afford to, and the “less-empowered people like refugees or immigrants” who, through financial lack, appreciate the abundance of “junk”

Iancu Flondor Street, Chernivtsi (date? probably between the two world wars) via Portretul Romaniei Interbelice

when it is present. In fact, the sometimes all-too-vocal protests against the accumulation of clutter tend to put me in mind of my late paternal grandmother. As a young woman she was forced to flee her hometown of Chernivtsi (now Ukraine, formerly part of the Kingdom of Romania) fearing the arrival of the Red Army (her own grandparents had been sent to an internment camp in Siberia, never to be heard from again) and eventually ended up as a deportee in south-east Romania. Her story is long and sad and deserves more than a couple sentences in a paragraph, but for now the point I want to make is this: following her early hardships, my grandmother became obsessed with her possessions later in life. She never threw away any clothing that I knew of, locked some of her most prized possessions away in leather suitcases that she stored under beds and at the back of wardrobes, and much later, when she began to suffer from dementia, took to hiding some of the smaller objects she was keen on under the pillow she slept on, for fear they would be taken away from her. Now, to most people watching her from the margins – myself included – her prized possessions looked like clutter, and her attachment to them seemed baffling and unhealthy. For someone who owned nothing more than a suitcase of essentials for a long time, though, being able to acquire things and keeping them must have meant the world. Those small things that she never used but that she stored away religiously, the clothes that no longer fit her but which she refused to get rid of – they had become symbolic. They had become markers of safety: her space, her things that no one could take away. They meant not abundance, but stability, reassurance that she wouldn’t have to move, or starve, or be cold. They were a lifeline, and it would have been cruel to take this lifeline away from her.

My own “hoarding” habit, however, is very different, and I believe that my “patterns” are the ones most commonly shared between your regular lovers of clutter. And they don’t have much to do with social status or consumerism per se. If we take almost any given

My satisfyingly cluttered telephone table.

article about why and how to lead a minimalist life, there are a number of pro-minimalism reasons that resurface all the time. Let’s take Joshua Becker’s “10 Reasons Why Minimalism Is Growing”, for instance.”Minimalism offers a life with less stress, less distraction, more freedom, and more time”, he claims. Fewer possessions, fewer things to worry about, fewer things that claim your attention, leaving your mind free to focus on what’s “really” important. Freedom from consumerism, and freedom from attachment to material possessions. But are “hoarders” really enslaved in this way, and is “minimalist living” really conducive to a lifetime of happiness and achievements? Well, clearly I can’t speak for everyone, so I’ll talk a little about my own experiences and why I am an unashamed “hoarder”, lover of clutter, collector of junk. After all, other people’s clutter is often my treasure hoard. I am absolutely in love with old things, from photographs and postcards, to clothes and toys. I collect vintage photos, old toys, and vintage board games that few people have heard of. My hunting grounds are the charity shops, flea markets, and vintage fairs. And there’s a special place in my heart for small objects that other people lost on the street, like pens, small plastic toys, or tennis balls. In my endeavours I am driven by these things: curiosity, the yearning for a good story, nostalgia, and an unstoppable need to create and re-purpose. So what about the reasons we find everywhere against “hoarding” and for “minimalism”? How do I relate to those?

  • Time. Does my hunt for things to collect take time? Sure. It takes a lot of time to browse through charity shops and flea markets in search of the hidden gems and perfect deals. It takes time to research my vintage objects and sometimes write about them. It takes time to re-purpose some of the old junk I get my hands on. But this is time I invest in myself, in developing or acquiring skills, and in my well-being. It is time that makes me feel happy and fulfilled, and that helps me learn continuously.
  • Stress. Is it stressful to worry about all my things? Sometimes. Especially, as “minimalists” love to point out, when I have to move around, because hell yes, I have tons of stuff! But in my case, moving doesn’t happen so often, and in the rest of my time, those tons of stuff are what help me de-stress. There’s little more satisfying than sitting at my re-purposed telephone table of an evening, working on a new story on my typewriter, or reading a good book.
  • Distraction. What do  my possessions really distract me from? From doing “useful things”?  Well, relaxation is useful too. But this is not all about relaxation. My
    My  typewriter, Matilda.

    typewriter, for instance, is the ultimate useful tool for me, especially in writing fiction. I have a harmful tendency to obsess over the content and style of my writing, to the effect that it gets incredibly hard to even finish those first drafts. But my typewriter has made everything better. I of course can’t go back all the time and correct things, so it’s forced me to just write down my first drafts without obsessing over things that I’ll get to fix later, anyway. Plus, the materiality of a typewriter is entirely different from that of a PC, or a laptop, or a tablet. Its sounds, smells, and the sensation of the keys under your fingers all combined are the best ASMR experience, that makes focusing on writing so much easier. My typewriter also happens to be a portable, so I don’t have too much trouble carrying it around with me, depending on where I want or have to work from.

  • Freedom. Perhaps owning fewer things makes it easier to move around, but I don’t think it would make me feel free. A feeling of spiritual and intellectual freedom comes with owning the things that make you feel good, which in my case are all sorts of old objects that most people, I daresay, would consider obsolete. My possessions, that I have hunted and collected with so much care and dedication, free me from boredom and lack of imagination. And also, in many cases, from the very clutches of the standardising capitalist market. Charity shop or flea market clothes are normally much cheaper than most branded clothes, it is more likely that they will be one-of-a-kind, and it is often likely that they will be more customisable. Same goes for furniture items, or crockery.

And another thing. “Hoarders” like me are curious explorers, we find unexpected things in unexpected places and we learn: about history, new skills (DIY-related but not only), and about ourselves as individuals. And sometimes, things are useful purely through their uselessness: mysterious objects inspire stories, or lend themselves to the creation of something new and unique.

Domenico Remps, Cabinet of Curiosities, c. 1690

The Victorians perfected the art of hoarding things, and while this, sadly, had much to do with colonial tendencies, it had even more to do with a desire to learn and understand: where do we come from? Where are we headed to? Who are we, as humans? The Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford is an excellent example of all these tendencies. The love affair with “clutter”, with “useless” objects, didn’t start in the 19th century, though. As early as the 17th century, the cabinets of curiosities had become popular with collectors striving to get their hands onto strange, rare, or aesthetically striking objects. Unnecessary, but oh so satisfying. Why, then, do we now have to demonise “hoarding” tendencies and advertise “minimalistic living” as the cure for all ills? Living light is not always the answer to our modern misadaptation problems. Getting rid of some things, sometimes, is timely and necessary, but the extreme, faux-Buddhist purging of all attachments seems to me not just a mark of privilege (we choose to renounce because we have something we can renounce in the first place), but a potential ill in itself. Sparseness in our homes, our virtual repositories, and our lives  – why so much austerity? “Clutter”, like archaeological strata, documents the stages of our lives and gives us material to build anew from. I, for one, am proud to be a “hoarder”, and I won’t be parting with my “junk” anytime soon.


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