In the remake of The Fly Geena Davis asks Jeff Goldblum why he never changes his clothes. “I change them every day”, he says. “Look in my closet”; and there neatly racked are three suits, shirts, ties, and shoes – all exactly the same.
Einstein apparently had the same habit. Why should he be distracted, he said, from understanding the universe ?
Hindus adhere to the same philosophy. Since the world is only illusion, then any attempt to dress it up would be vain and purposeless. The goal is to understand the mirage for what it is and expand one’s consciousness beyond it.
Of course only true ascetics can keep trivia and mind clutter at a distance. The Carthusian monks documented in the film Into Great Silence live a spare, meditative life high in the French Alps. Everything is simple, practical, and essential. Homespun robes and shawls for the cold, bread and plain but nutritious food, usable but far from accommodating chairs and beds, light suitable for reading but not display.
Hindu sadhus who have renounced the world live in caves in the high Himalayas. There rejection of maya is absolute and irrevocable. They have rid themselves of all earthly encumbrances and maintain a bare existence only to extend their prayerful search for God.
The rest of us, however, seem quite happy in a world of trivia. Clothes make the man. Fashion is a statement of quality, creativity, and personal style. Food should be an art form not simply sustenance. Plated food should have color, design, composition, and architecture. Ingredients should be combined to accentuate unusual, stimulating pairings and to invoke culture and ambience. They should be relevant to source and producer so that the meal is a balanced combination of the most artistic with the most down-to-earth.
Rene Redzepi is a world-class chef whose restaurant Noma is consistently given four stars. Redzepi’s creations are all foraged from the shoals, marshes, eddies, and grasslands of his native Denmark and put together as a visual hymn to nature.
An Indian friend once called American expatriate homes in Bombay as ‘cargo boats’, filled with items of little value, little relationship to each other nor to the residents. There was an Indian theme to it all of course, but with only decorative purpose. Statues of Siva, Madhubani folkloric paintings, calligraphic depictions of the word Om, brass pots, wooden sarangis, Kashmiri prayer rugs, and clay incense-holders were arrayed in no particular order or according to any internal logic.
What surprised my friend was not the cluttered collection, ,but the purposeless of it all. Each of the items in a traditional Hindu home would have a reason for being. The incense for worship, the statues of the gods for adoration, the musical instruments to be played, the rugs to be knelt upon, the pots to be drunk from.
While some expatriates collected with taste and the artifacts and art they collected had intrinsic artistic value, my friend had a point. Was a living room appointed with taste and culture any different from a cargo boat?
There is a thread of connectivity that runs through traditional Hindu culture – the religion itself. The music, the icons, the prayers, the daily ablutions and family rituals; human interactions or solitude; animals, the prescribed hours for practical and spiritual affairs, arranged marriages, caste, and attitude are all organized around spiritual principles.
There is no connectivity in Western life, my friend observed. Not only are we awash in things; not only did the things have no inherent spiritual relevance; but they have no thematic reference to one another. No matter how well-chosen or cultured the choice of items in a house might be, they would always be pieces on a cargo boat.
There can be nothing farther from this spiritual, ascetic Hindu view of life than that of America. Even the oldest families from Philadelphia, New York, or Boston have their own clutter. It may be in the form of Chippendale chairs, Townsend cabinets, Victorian silver, English crystal, and Persian carpets but it is still a collection of unrelated things which more than anything is intended to reflect not only good taste but a respect for early English ancestors who founded and built this country. It provides a comfortable in-dwelling of a particular regional patriotism. The outside world may be turning pluralistic and plastic, but inside these walls, it is not.
From a Hindu or even Christian perspective, such collectiveness has no real benefit or reward. It celebrates the past, idolizes social status and propriety, displays wealth, and encourages insularity. Things, no matter what their value, provenance, or workmanship are still things.
No segment of American society is exempt from things. From the cottages at Newport to Mississippi trailers, homes are decorated. Whether plastic flowers, calendars, family photographs, souvenirs, fancy lampshades; or Christofle, Turner, or Revere they are decorative. At the high end they are symbols of wealth, taste, and status; at the low end a statement of basic worth – we are not yet at the bottom of the ladder.
Yes, America is a consumer-driven, materialist culture promoted by corporate interests and sold by Madison Avenue; but we have to buy what they sell. At every rung of the ladder there seems to be a good reason to accumulate things. Things that we do not need, that we will never need, that are irrelevant to our lives.
There is a new phenomenon among millennials to exchange things for experience. They prefer to spend their disposable income on exotic vacations, adventure travel, or food instead on the stock-in-trade of American commercialism. Yet, this is no more than transference – palpable, concrete things, for less tangible but no less valid ones which are recorded and displayed on social media no differently than tea in a Beacon Hill drawing room.
There are those who dismiss these ascetic, moralistic arguments. Trivia is what make an otherwise ‘solitary, brutish, nasty, poor and short’ life bearable if not pleasurable. Hollywood, Las Vegas, tchotchkes, a rack full of dresses, potted palms, Indian turquoise, trinkets and odd toys are fun. They are necessary distractions in a life in which even religion doesn’t completely satisfy. Days and years are too long to be consumed only by prayer.
And then there is simply taking the sting out of Tuesdays, making the daily grind just a little more chipper and upbeat. Not to mention assuagement, making one simply feel better. Retail therapy.
Finally where would we be without life’s real trivia – raking, getting the car inspected, watering the plants, going shopping, grouting the tub, paying the bills. Normal human beings – i.e. those who have not bought into monasticism or maya – need to fill the day somehow. The little things are the bits and pieces that keep the ship afloat, but also keep us busy. These things – the wood fence, the ceramic tile; deeds, shares, and notices – fill up the void.
Nietzsche is famous for his understanding of Will as the ultimate and only valid expression of the individual in an otherwise meaningless life. His Supermen rode above the herd and proclaimed their humanity.
Alas, for the rest of us in the herd, we simply have to get through life with as little pain and disruption as possible but try not to be surprised at death as Ivan Ilyich was.