For some years I have come to think of neatness as the Western version of Feng Shui. It is an ethic of lining things up and setting them in just the right way for the preservation of harmony. The similarity with Eastern superstition could not escape me, its arbitrary rituals seemed like ceremonial obeisance to some celestial denizen. While Chinese folk traditions are brimming with colorful language and portents of auspicious days and locations, the Western Feng Shui clearly lacked similar imagination and vitality. My comparison between the two philosophies derived solely from their shared emphasis on mystical knowledge of the proper way of things. There was an element of irony in thinking of neatness in this way, I could think of all the wise sages exhaustively sorting out every item in their possession.
For a time I was content with this cool, bemused, relatively indifferent stance towards the neat, but there was something about their ways and Western society’s widespread encouragement of such habits that continued to bother me. Not only did something strike me as fundamentally wrong about it, but I ceased to dismiss it as purely irrational and began considering the issue more closely.
In the professional environment, it is necessary to have a rigid structure to keep track of every order, plan around a just in time inventory, and make sure every cent of revenue is spent as prescribed. In the workplace a strict system of organization and cleanliness has a clear place and function. Adopting a philosophy of neatness is most effective in the corporate world, but inappropriate as a personal creed. When individuals adhere to such a method, they end up spending more time and energy maintaining their system than they could ever gain from it. Supporters of neatness often make claims about the time saved by organization without taking all the upkeep into account. Keeping everything placed perfectly straight, always in the same place, and spotlessly clean is a boon when a hundred people are using the same resource and sharing the burden of maintenance, but detrimental and pointless when there is one person. For an individual to maintain such a system is a constant thankless chore that brings joy to no one and which fails to achieve its declared objective of saving time. There is ultimately no clearly defined end goal or fulfillment, so it is hard to imagine that neat persons can feel much satisfaction with their labors. Furthermore, a neat person must be perpetually dissatisfied with all other human beings. When a system of organization defies reason, those who are not mind readers are hard pressed to conform to a neatnik’s imaginary kingdom of order. It is unsurprising then that such an eternal spring of dissatisfaction tends to spill from one life into others.
Most people are content to live and let live. They could care less how other people arrange their personal matters, less still about their personal spaces. One trait in common among neat people is that they believe themselves endowed with the right to waste the time and energy of others as well as their own for the sake of their philosophy. A messy person doesn’t care if his neighbor is neat. A neat neighbor probably experiences a significant rise in blood pressure every time they see the lawn next door getting too long for their taste. It seems characteristic of neatness to be aggressive, even invasive in nature. It is such patronization and presumptuousness that make the much praised proponents of cleanliness so often obnoxious. They behave in their informal, personal life as though they are still at the office and hold others, who desperately desire time away from work to similar standards. Their preferred style of living is contrary to the spontaneous nature of relaxed human beings and inevitably clashes with the personalities of almost everyone around them. The supposedly successful routines of rectal-linear persons are in fact anti-social and outright rude.
The behaviors of the neat send a message of contempt and dismissal to the rest of humanity. Both delicate and inflexible, their system is perfectly conceived for regular disruption at the slightest intervention of an outside force. The involvement of people is thus practically inimical to their way of life. They get upset at fellow human beings for so much as moving a single item out of place, a reaction that suggests they hold their arbitrary order in greater esteem than their guests, relatives, neighbors, and roommates. One must also consider the very fact that neat people like everything to be set perfectly straight, in perfect rows, in perfect order. The place they like for themselves and for others to live in is something that might be created by a machine. The rectal-linear in effect strive to erase all that is typically human from their vicinity. Organic materials, including people are unwelcome in their sterile environment. When a host is bent on eliminating any sign of their guest’s presence with all possible speed, the guest must begin to wonder if in fact he is welcome. It comes across as impersonal and dehumanizing when one treats people the same way they do their paperwork: something to be cleared out of the way. The rectal-linear find the irregularities and idiosyncracies of individuals to be fundamentally odious and
offensive. Any element that they cannot control to the utmost degree of precision rankles them to no end.
The residence of one who is neat is typically empty of personality; one could possibly wonder if anyone even lives there. A clean and tidy domicile is more of a barracks than a home. The vast majority of the space is empty and what items cannot be thrown out are stored away in specially designated boxes and drawers. Messy people, understand that the floor is the best storage place. Every available surface in fact is to covered with every conceivable item of use. This way, everything is out in the open and instantly accessible. No effort at all is spent systematizing; there’s no need when one makes full use of available space. An empty floor serves no function at all, it is simply undeveloped real estate. So long as one is able to walk across the room, there is no problem. The eight foot long journey has to become rather difficult before it merits thought, let alone effort.
A messy person never searches for dust and dirt. If it can’t be seen or smelled without actually looking for it, there are undoubtedly more important, more fulfilling uses for one’s time. If chasing dust is the best activity one can conceive of, it is necessary to seriously reflect upon one’s life. Besides, a little dust adds scent and character to things. Where would old books be without a little dust? The neat of course have no room or time for old books; they are thrown out with everything else that is not of immediate use. Messy people like to have miscellania on hand that can give ideas, inspiration, memories of times gone by. They understand that one cannot always predict what will be of use in the future. Ultimately, the messy approach entails both minimal effort and regrets. Possessions are cleaned up or thrown out only when there is a clear reason to do so. Cleaning brings joy to no one, it takes up time, it is never to be done for its own sake. The spontaneous, informal way actually is a system of organization, one that is flexible, varies widely from person to person, and requires minimal maintenance. It is thus far better suited to the needs of an individual.
Neatness, having no clear justification is ultimately practiced to for its own sake. The full absurdity of this condition becomes clear in certain instances of paradox: Rectal-linears go through great effort to see to it that their lawns are perfectly cut, trimmed, and manicured. A reasonable being would suppose that they would then enjoy the fruits of their labor by spending ample time out on the plot they worked so hard on. Perhaps they would go out to play horseshoes or set up tables and chairs for an outdoor picnic. Astoundingly, the contrary is true. The neat person avoids so much as touching the lawn and becomes absolutely livid if anyone so much as steps on this pristine piece of green. The neat person completely forgets that the very purpose of a lawn is to have a place to feel soil underneath one’s feet and have an area for recreation even in the city. There is also no reason that stepping on a lawn should inspire any great ire. One could walk on it all day without causing any damage at all. It’s grass. Such an instance demonstrates both the arbitrariness and petty spitefulness of the neat. For little more than groundless superstition they treat both themselves and others with a poor and miserly spirit. Rather than promoting neatness as correct conduct in Western civilization, neat people should be encouraged to seek counseling and instruction in basic social skills.