The bearable lightness of less

The bearable lightness of less

‘Freedom from overwhelm’ — that’s how it has been described by some. At its core, minimalism is about time, space, and understanding of value.

Simple life, high thinking

On August 29, 1952, at a very no-frills space in Woodstock, New York, a piece of music entitled 4'33” was ‘performed’. Once the performance was announced, the musicians sat on the stage with their instruments, ready to play, but without actually doing so.

The entire piece consisted of four minutes and thirty-three seconds of ... well, nothing! 

The composer of this piece, John Cage, was particular that the piece not be misconstrued as four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence, because, in his view, the piece did consist of sounds. Just that the sounds that the audience heard were the ones that they themselves produced — the shifting of feet, a sneeze, heavy breathing even — and the sounds that drifted in from the world outside — a car driving off somewhere, a bird chirping.…

What was Cage trying to do? In part, his piece was a protest against Muzak, the faint instrumental background music that had invaded many American public spaces. Muzak had sold its product idea claiming that its brand of piped music increased productivity and reduced absenteeism. But the annoying invasiveness of its mind-numbing tunes had destroyed the idea of silence and quietude.

Equally, Cage was also railing against the excesses of capitalism — cities choking on the noise of traffic and construction resulting in birdsong and the whispers of trees swaying in the wind disappearing from daily life. He longed to bring silence back to the centerstage though he understood that there was no such thing as total silence. Sounds were almost omnipresent, natural sounds that is, but people had forgotten about them. They had accepted the packed material superficiality that their lives were bursting with. Thus, 4’33 was an attempt to get people to focus on the ‘bare minimum’, a life shorn of too many frills.

This idea, which went by the moniker of minimalism, had been around for a while. In the sphere of music, Cage had taken the idea to its seemingly logical end. It was almost as if he was interrogating the idea of music itself. All sounds can be music, he seemed to be suggesting.

Solitude and simplicity

The dictionary definition of minimalism is ‘a style or technique (as in music, literature, or design) that is characterised by extreme spareness and simplicity’.

While Cage’s performance was something of a seminal event in the minimalist movement, there were precedents. Thoreau’s ideas that insight and enlightenment can be gained through solitude and simplicity, as expressed in his work Walden (1854), can be considered minimalist. Some months before 4’33”, Cage had seen a series of paintings by Robert Rauschenberg — canvasses which were just white streaked with thin black vertical lines. A few years previously, Gita Sarabhai had given Cage lessons about Indian music and philosophy and this had sparked off an interest in Zen Buddhism and its ideas of simplicity. This had helped him conceptualise his thoughts.

From an artistic standpoint, minimalism was about extreme simplicity of form. It was about aesthetics and a way of looking at the world and it came to be identified with musicians like John Cage and Philip Glass, writers like Ernest Hemingway and Samuel Beckett, and architects like John Pawson and Alberto Campo Baeza.

That was before Marie Kondo brought the idea to our living rooms as a guiding principle with which to transact our daily existence.

The decluttering guru

In the last decade or so, Marie Kondo, who is originally from Japan, has come to be known as the ‘decluttering guru’, ‘organising consultant’ and the woman who helps people sort out their overfull lives. She has structured her ideas around paring material things to the bare minimum and orienting people to living spare and simple lives.

Her method, known as the KonMari method, involves the gathering of all of one's belongings, one category at a time, and then keeping only those things that ‘spark joy’. For instance, all the clothes in the house would be heaped up, assessed for the ‘joy’ they brought to the individual’s life, and then either discarded or kept. In addition, an important component of the method is also about identifying a place for things and keeping them there very diligently.

Kondo has written four books on organising, which have sold millions of copies around the world and also been translated from Japanese into several languages. Her book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (2011) was a bestseller in Japan and in Europe. So successful have her ideas and methods been, that in 2015, she was listed as one of Time magazine’s ‘100 Most Influential People’.

The 'Before Kondo' age

It is tempting to think of Kondo as a pioneer in the attempt to simplify our lives. But is that so really? Kondo herself has credited the Shinto religion as partly being her inspiration. American novelist Margaret Dilloway, whose mother was Japanese, has written on the KonMari Method and says, ‘Treasuring what you have; treating the objects you own as not disposable, but valuable, no matter their actual monetary worth; and creating displays so you can value each individual object are all essentially Shinto ways of living.’

Others before Kondo identified certain religious ceremonies for simplification and strove to popularise their ideas. Consider the example of Kannada literary giant, Kuvempu’s Mantra Mangalya, which was essentially a distinct model of marriage. It eschews dowry, caste or religious distinctions, horoscopes, and priests and recommends minimal wedding expenses and a pared-down guest list. It even does away with music, suggesting that all attendees introspect on the event that they were witness to. Kuvempu’s ideas flowed from his philosophy of Vishvamanava (universal man), which encourages people to go beyond narrow sectarian identities and experience the world anew with open minds.

Before Kuvempu, Periyar, the anti-caste activist and pioneer of the Self-Respect Movement, which gave birth to the Dravidian Movement in Tamil Nadu, had attempted to get his acolytes to opt for what he called a ‘Self-Respect Marriage’. These marriages were solemnised without a Brahmin priest and revolved around a simple ceremony which the bride and the groom themselves conducted. In keeping with Periyar’s beliefs, this idea was a calculated assault on brahminical hegemony and also an attempt to encourage inter-caste unions that, he believed, would end the evil of caste discrimination in the country.

Simplify, reduce, rethink

While Marie Kondo’s ideas have largely been confined to material possessions, others have ventured to implement similar concepts in other areas of human activity as well.

Minimalist cooking is a style that aims to simplify meals. This, of course, means saving time and effort in the kitchen. It also involves making conscious choices about one’s values and tastes and paying attention to everything that goes into feeding one’s family or oneself and deciding which aspects are important. This idea is rather open-ended and could mean different things to different people.

A minimalist social life revolves around focusing on social interactions that are truly meaningful and advocates prioritising relationships and activities. The superficial connections that one makes, minimalists contend, often mask the lack of meaningful relationships and it is this sort of social life that minimalism attempts to orient individuals towards avoiding. Social media with its vacuous ‘friends' lists’ and lack of true connection, would, in the minimalist scheme of things, be something of a no-no though some contend that the trick is to replicate real-life minimalist social relationship ideas on these platforms as well. Opt for depth and meaning is the guiding credo.

Minimalist financial thinking advocates a simple lifestyle and keeping track of where your money is going. If this sounds like good old-fashioned grandparental advice, that is because it is. Remember, back in the day, minimalism was the de facto order of the day since the Pandora’s box of material choices hadn’t yet been kicked open. Of course, there are a few ‘modern’ ideas like keeping only one credit card and thinking in terms of ‘experience gifts’ instead of material gifts, which are probably the new grist to the old minimal financial thinking mill.

A clutter of minimalism?

Can a minimalist approach guarantee happiness? The evidence is mixed. At one level, while sticking to the bare minimum can perhaps lead to a better life, it could also result in a life devoid of ambition and initiative, resulting in people not exploiting their potential to the fullest. Humankind has forever pushed against its margins to reach greater heights, often goaded on by nothing but a leap of faith. Could playing safe and thinking small therefore result in diminished progress?

Such critiques can, of course, be countered by contending that minimalism is not about scaled-down ambition, it is about a simpler life.

But with minimalism having taken off as an idea, it is difficult to state with certainty what this ‘simpler life’ entails. The minimalism marketplace is well … cluttered with books, videos, and podcasts. While it began as a revolt against the bewilderingly complex choices of capitalism, minimalism has now almost reached the stage where it mirrors the ideas that it is seemingly against. Far too many minimalists have far too much to say. How then is one to conquer the minimalist clutter that now exists out there? The ennui and exasperation some have expressed about the idea is leading many to wonder whether a forced sort of minimalism is even good for us. Is this fad reaching the end of its life cycle?

While ‘amok minimalism’ is something to ponder about, it might do us good to revisit what led to the idea of minimalism grabbing our attention in the first place. The urge to pile up material comforts is in part a reaction to the uncertainty that pervades our lives. Insecure jobs, unaffordable housing, and the high cost of education and healthcare are constant worries. Stress and tension are rife. To combat this, shopping has come to be seen as a therapy that ushers in brief spells of happiness. In the long run, it results in clutter and the sinking feeling that piling up material possessions does not translate into everlasting happiness.

Presto! The appeal of the minimalist idea and its promise of happiness, shorn of possessions.

It is the economic systems that have us in their grip and have created this insecurity and lack of control of our lives that perhaps need a rethink. These soul-sapping structures need rebooting. The devil is perhaps in this detail.

Minimalism is not above critique. But it is a consequence, not a cause. And regardless of the confounding minimalist clutter, it might help to remember that minimalism, at its core, is about a more benign way of living and that is the bottom line.

The author is a publishing professional who writes on literature, language, and history.