The common notion about Marie Kondo is that she wants you to throw out nearly everything you own. But the truth is that she never says this. Not once is the notion suggested in her masterwork The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Thankfully, I don’t have to go over every paragraph of the book to prove this, because evidence can be found in this adorable video, where she tells an interlocutor that if owning 50 pens really matters to him, she thinks he’s required to do so.
It’s remarkable that such a popular author is completely mischaracterized. Why is this meme about her so widespread? I think it’s evidence of avoidance. People want to characterize her as a rabid minimalist because that would make her work less vital, and her process less terrifying. If the KonMari method were just about throwing out some percentage of your junk for the sake of it, it would just be a harmless lifestyle fad.
But it’s not like that at all. KonMari is fundamentally about killing your own falsity, about holding a funeral for all the remnants of old, illusory perceptions of yourself that you’ve been too afraid to give up. All she asks is that you say goodbye to the person that you thought, at one time, you were. She is fine with you keeping whatever survives this departure.
She doesn’t say it quite like that, however. What she says is that you should throw out things that don’t “spark joy,” a phrase whose present status as a corny cliche obscures its power. Sparking joy is a profound phenomenon—but you kind of need to try it to see how interesting it is. If you haven’t, you should give it a shot, right now. The process is simple: touch an object, focus on it, and pay attention to what comes up, mentally and physically.
You’re not looking for a blinking light on your inner dashboard that says “RETAIN THING” or “CHUCK JUNK.” You are not asking that your tofu press give you a spontaneous orgasm, or expecting a rush of hallucinatory joy from a brief contact with your toilet brush. It’s a little more subtle than that. What you're looking for is a general reading of the web of thoughts and associations that cling to that particular object.
I’ll do it right now, with objects on my desk. This transparent stapler, for example. It’s not superficially impressive. It's mass-produced, can’t do more than about 20 pages at once, and it squeaks like a sad mouse. But, upon examination, I find that it’s important to me. I bought it during an emotional revelation—one day, I realized that I was hesitating to make my space pleasant because that would be incompatible with my dormant self-loathing. The stapler was an earnest attempt to defy this lurking melancholy. I thus associate it with the decision not to be a slovenly, self-pitying person lurking in filth and disarray. So that, I keep.
How about this red journal, which was going to house weekly to-do lists? Not so much. I bought it during a spurious attempt at self-optimization. It’s not helpful and I don’t care about it—everything I was planning to do with it can be accomplished in my Notion workspace. It’s immediately obvious that this object is dead to me in a way that others aren’t.
This generalizes. Upon examination, it turns out that many of my possessions don’t trigger any real feeling within me at all. I have some flimsy justification for why I own them. But in the face of the simple, uncompromising power of intuition, these justifications disappear.
Does this matter? Of course it does. Our possessions affect our self-perception. And despite what Brad Pitt might tell you in a movie, there’s nothing wrong or specifically capitalistic about this. Human beings are creatures of setting and costume, period. It’s true as far back as human civilization goes, everywhere you look. As Heidegger pointed out, we make inferences about our identities based on what we find around us—this is a vital source of information. I am the person who applies that lotion, who wears these papyrus sandals, who places this fruit upon the altar table.
The only novel thing is that we can own so much so easily, and, not coincidentally, that this has occurred at the exact same time that identity has become a personally mediated and curated category. In the post-industrial era, we face vast possibilities for personal expression, the implicit demand that we become special, and Amazon Prime. This is a tricky combination, which Marie Kondo is here to address.
In 1915, T.S. Eliot wrote, “There will be time, there will be time / To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet.” Now it seems like there hardly is time, assuming that we go along with the implicit demands of our era, which asks us to assemble shifting personae for our myriad social contexts, with supplementary materials for each. Books for our book clubs, outfits and meals for our Instagram, tasteful art for our Zoom background, and so on. We can resist these injunctions, but not easily. It’s no wonder that, when we look around us, we find records of countless purchases made hurriedly, out of a sense that we ought to ‘be something’ or ‘do something,’ evidence of how thoroughly leisure has become a kind of costly ‘productivity.’ The bread-maker. The minimalist running shoes. Perhaps classical records we bought despite not liking classical music or records. Not accruing piles of stuff requires constant vigilance.
We can keep this charade hidden, to an extent. We can shove everything in the closet and ignore the half of our wardrobe we don’t like and the three-quarters of our library we’ll never read. We don’t necessarily have to confront the fact that we’re surrounded by waste material, evidence of our strained attempts to staple some jots and tittles onto our identities.
But if we do as Kondo says, and touch them, each in turn, we have no choice but to face the truth: that we are living in a muddle, that so much we professed to care about, to value, we do not. We have to ask the question: is it possible that I didn’t ever need to play these games? Can I face the fact that I don’t actually care about Thinking Fast and Slow? Can I own up to the hours I’ve wasted in pursuit of hastily-believed phony answers to the unanswerable mystery of being alive?
Most of us recognize that we’d live lighter, freer lives if we had less stuff surrounding us. But it might be hard to recognize the lighter, freer thing that could emerge. We might have trouble believing that we are enough, as we are. What would it be like if it we didn’t need another board game? What would it be like if it were all okay?