Two children’s books come to mind when I think of Marie Kondo. Fitting, too, as ever since she’s become a sprightly, life-simplifying phenomenon, people on the internet have voiced fears that she would come for their books. We iGents, though, knew better. She (or her distaff converts) are coming for our #steez. Already listings on the resale website Grailed proclaim that the vendor’s been forced to sell by a girlfriend who’s watched Marie Kondo. And no less a luminary than the irrepressible, unimpeachable @paul-lux has worried about “getting Kondoed.”
I’ve written that the popularity of Iron Chef Japan and of Chairman Kaga in particular reflected Western stereotypes and prejudices, if not fears, about Japan in the 1990s. Marie Kondo – bright, charming, cute, creative yet disciplined, twee – reflects our current racism, as much as a show like Aggretsuko… According to this new paradigm, she enters our messy American houses and dispels our XXL hoarded possessions with a sort of new wisdom of the East: not the supposed inscrutable Zen that our old bigotry expected, but an enlightenment of smaller habitations, higher costs of living, greater consciousness of what really matters, more realistic expectations for a straitened future.
For a long time I considered writing an Alternative Style Icon piece about Eustace Clarence Scrubb. That was his name, “and he almost deserved it,” wrote C.S. Lewis in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. I wanted to write about him not because of his “special kind of underwear” that Lewis mentioned, but because of what happens to Scrubb when he thinks he’s discovered all he could ever want, a dragon’s horde of treasure. Putting on a gold armlet, he falls asleep on his new riches. He awakes to discover that “sleeping on a dragon’s hoard with greedy, dragonish thoughts in his heart, he had become a dragon himself” and the armlet that had been loose on a human arm had turned into a tourniquet-tight choke on his dragon leg. That suffocation of greedily amassed possessions resonated with me, what we accumulate thinking that they will make our life better by answering to some internal, extremely naïve image of what we think our lives should be. I was reminded of that when, my partner having watched several Kondo episodes, I was prompted to get rid of the antique Goyard trunk that had held the bulk of my hoard, the trophy that held trophies. Even in the pursuit of those things that I thought could render meaning to what had been a horrible life I knew. What we hoped could complete us would choke us. And I write “we” because I’m a cowardly bastard and don’t want to be alone.
Alone. The trunk is just an item. An ancient, somewhat rusty, bulky item. Like Scrubb with that unnatural dragon hide, I’ll soon slough it off to be a better person. What is worth it? What actually can bring me joy? It’s pursuing the few things that actually did make my life better and make me feel more like me. The late Karl Lagerfeld famously said that the last thing he would give away was a Hilditch & Key shirt. In my case, the pieces of clothing I’ll make sure to hold on to are these rollnecks from Caerlee Mills. H&K’s longtime competitor Charvet has had an ancient stock of them for years, and knew how to price them. My first one cost me $17 off of eBay, was soft, dense, tensely knit, warm and amazing. I learned the hard way that quality isn’t fungible, as I tried and got rid of versions from other makers that just didn’t measure up. Nor in any case could I find the light lavender one that Charvet had – and had had on its shelves for at least 16 years, to judge from the label – anywhere else. So on a rainy January evening right before closing I popped in and braved the price, many, many times that of my first eBay sweater. Worth every cent – and irreplaceable now that the maker’s gone out of business, its machines literally smashed up. I later hunted down versions in every color I could find: functional, warm, easy to wear, some even a half-century old.
What was the other book Kondo reminded me of? One of Frank Baum’s many sequels to The Wizard of Oz, in which the Scarecrow and Tin Man, fast friends out of power, are told that they have found the greatest riches of all: the riches of contentment. To get to a point in life where you can have a heart and a brain, can make space in your life for the needs and hopes of a partner, and find time to read The Wizard of Oz to the ones you love, requires a change in our calculus of what really does bring joy. After all, those trophies of yesterday so easily become regretful reminders of overreach, irrelevant weights on our current lives. If we can accept those truths and let go of what no longer matters, we may not need to welcome ambassadors of new stereotypes into our houses in order to find a sort of mature but rueful joy.