An untidy accumulation of objects, or the confused overcrowded state caused by it. From an Old English variant of clotern, meaning ‘to form clots, to heap on,’ which was derived from clott, meaning ‘a round mass or lump’. You know…clutter.
Most folks don’t like clutter. It makes them uncomfortable, uneasy, anxious, unsettled. Clutter, we’re told, “creates indecision and distractions, consuming attention and making unfettered happiness a real chore.” We are told, “Order is Heaven’s first law.” The problem, of course, is we fear disorder. We fear chaos. So we attempt (and to some extent, succeed) to impose a sense of order on…well, everything.
I confess, I can find “unfettered happiness” in cluttered spaces. Other people’s cluttered spaces, I should say. Not my own. I like to visit clutter; I don’t necessarily want to live or work in it. And it’s not just cluttered spaces in general that I enjoy. I’ve no interest at all in well-organized clutter. A room encumbered with stacks of old newspapers and magazines, a cellar jammed with tins of food, an office filled with dusty ledgers and technical manuals–no thank you.
No, what I like–what I find stimulating, what brings me some perverse joy–is random clutter. Clutter that contains surprises, clutter that holds unexpected stuff, clutter that’s arbitrary and unpredictable, that’s what I’m after. It’s a fairly rare phenomenon. I’ve encountered it occasionally in old sheds or farmhouse mudrooms, a bit more often in old school hardware stores. I found it at West End Architectural Salvage and Coffee Shop before it became a sort of high-end esoteric antique store. I found it at Fairground Hardware before it closed.
Everywhere you turn you find yourself saying, “Wait…what? Why are there taxidermied Canada Geese next to the Allen wrenches, which are beside the cans of spray paint? Who puts PVC pipe and vintage Melmac dishes together, along with toy trains and light bulbs? Putty knives and puppets and metal screws? What? Halloween decorations? And…wait, canned goods?
A couple of weeks ago I stumbled across an antique store/junk yard/plant shop/maze that was a celebration of clutter. Poorly lighted narrow aisles of overfilled shelves with often random semi-related stuff accumulating on the floor, sometimes forcing you to walk sideways. I say ‘random semi-related stuff’ because there was a sort of micro-taxonomy occurring–small clusters of items that belonged in the same (or a similar) category, but scattered among wildly unrelated clusters. Stacks of wooden boxes beside a stockpile of china dishes; a pile of wicker baskets under a shelf of brass candlesticks, under a shelf of religious figurines; a collection of antique toy trains next to a group of chamber pots and jugs sitting on a cabinet containing china bells.
The place was…well, disordered, to be polite. Everywhere you looked you saw something that somehow both belonged right there and yet was completely out of place. It was like walking through some other person’s dream-state–or perhaps wandering through a stranger’s memories; you recognized almost everything you saw, but even though nothing was quite where you thought it ought to be, you sensed it was where it was supposed to be. Which, I realize, doesn’t make any sense.
The poet Czesław Miłosz wrote about the “mystery of things, little sensations of time…all infinity can be contained in this stone corner, between the fireplace and the oak chest.” That’s how I feel in these cluttered spaces…as if thousands of people have dropped moments out of their lives onto all these dusty shelves, and I get to wander through them, sampling them, touching them, knowing that they’re real…or were real at one time…and now would be entirely forgotten if not for the curious people who look at them, wonder about them, then move on.
Miłosz was talking about ‘mystery’ in the older sense of the term–not as a curiosity to be explored and understood, but as a phenomenon that transcends the rational world. These baskets and bowls, these canisters and candlesticks aren’t physically imbued with some mystical connection to their previous owners. These objects aren’t haunted. But they do spark the imagination. Each of these things has a story. They remind us that those previous owners existed, that they lived lives and those lives intersected with these things, and somehow these things eventually made their way here, to these dim and dusty shelves.
I admit, it would be oppressive to spend a great deal of time in such cluttered spaces. It’s too dark, it’s too dusty, it’s too gravid with memory. But for a measured chunk of time, noodling through these dim aisles can be just as entrancing as it would be to wander like Kai Lung “unchecked through a garden of bright images.”