My favourite part of any life stage is the one when I toss lots of stuff, give away bags of clothing to charities and recycling centres, take what I need in a couple of suitcases and go live somewhere else. I’ve done that quite a few times by now, and it never loses its appeal. However, the other day I began to regret selling (for way less money than it was worth) an item in a flea market years ago, while reducing my worldly possessions in preparation for moving to the UK. Let me emphasise here that I’m not someone to care for stuff and that the item in question was a perfectly ordinary, replaceable one—it was the symbolic significance of giving it up that I came to grieve almost four years later. It was an easel. By selling it I admitted that I was not, and would never be, a painter.
I told myself and others that the quest to give up stuff was only practical. In fact I could have, as I did with many other things, left it in my parents’ house. Although they were planning at the time to move to a smaller one, an easel and a few brushes wouldn’t have been a big deal in the moving process, and since it was foldable, probably not taken too much storage space either. Practicalities were excuses. The truth was that I had a lot going on with everything that does go on when moving to a new country, I was a bit anxious, and giving up painting felt like a way to clear up some of life’s inherent messiness. Painting equipment simply took up space, risked carpet stains, cost money—and I think one of the main reasons I gave up was because I wasn’t gaining technical skill quickly enough and therefore decided that my shit paintings would always be a waste of space and natural resources.
I’ve been an advocate of the minimalist lifestyle for a while, but on some level, I guess I’ve misunderstood the philosophy. If a house is too messy and full of stuff, donating some old clothes and books and throwing away broken gadgets solves the problem. When human life is messy and full of stuff? I used to think the solution was similar. Messy relationships? Cut contact. Too many projects going on? Abandon. Conflicting worldviews and beliefs? Choose one. Mismatched aspects to personal identity? Simplify. Hobbies require too many materials and create mess? Give up.
And then I made friends with another dead guy, and read in Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra words that made me question everything I had considered the correct conduct for a respectable, minimalist life. Be on thy guard against holy simplicity! At the heart of Nietzsche’s early work lies appreciation for the complexity of existence, Dionysus, and the composure of the human being of many souls and sometimes conflicting drives. Reading him I realised I had turned my unhealthy, skewed idea of minimalism into a completely unrealistic life goal. Decluttering a storage space is one thing; decluttering a life is not possible, at least without serious consequences. Who would want an empty life? I certainly don’t. The steps I’ve taken towards one have been anxiety symptoms, desperate attempts to control mental space through methods that have proved successful with physical space. Be on your guard against holy simplicity, because life is messy. If anything in this crazy world is sacred, it is the beauty that comes out of mess: a beautiful painting after years of crappy practice ones emerging from a room full of linseed oil grease stains and loose brush hairs; a novel composed from the chaos of handwritten notes in dozens of notebooks and torn bits of paper; a moment of joy from the intersection of innumerable experiences, memories and sensory perceptions within the incomprehensibly complex human consciousness.
To be honest, I doubt I’ll ever be an excellent painter. But I have to paint, just as I have to write poems (the quality of which isn’t guaranteed, either). If I stop doing either, I become even more anxious, and sometimes apathetic, and lose touch with everything that is good in this world. Both activities are storm drains for my craziness, which will have terrible consequences without a healthy outlet. Human life is messy, uncontrollable and sometimes a bit crazy, but it is only by embracing mess that it can be channelled into something beautiful.