On Cleaning House 11 June, 2013.
Why is the expression “cleaning house” so equivocal? On the one hand it means tidying up or, more extensively, scrubbing down your home to get rid of dirt and dust. At the extreme, a premise is made that space pure and free of adulterated matter or pollutants is highly desirable. But cleaning house can have an aesthetic dimension – getting rid of all the chachkas and paraphenalia that clutters your home. More radically, it suggests a goal of streamlining your furniture and belongings in obeisance to the aesthetic dictates of modernism. Cleaning house can be an economic or, at the very least, accounting expression – make sure all your bills are paid or all your receipts are properly filed. It certainly has an ethical dimension when one declares one’s intention of getting rid of all the “bad apples” in the Senate and restoring principles of integrity and frugality in the dispensation of government funds. “Cleaning house” also has a military dimension; a newspaper depicted Assad’s counter strikes against the rebel forces as “cleaning house”, meaning that the Assad forces are currently purging the route to Lebanon of all rebel militias (as well as many innocent civilians) as he takes back one stronghold after another. The expression can have a religious dimension as when Jesus cleaned the Temple of Jerusalem and drove the merchants out. “Jesus entered the Temple and began to drive out all the people buying and selling animals for sacrifice. He knocked over the tables of the money changers and the chairs of those selling doves.” (Matthew 21:12-14)
In all of the above uses, the emphasis is on three things: what is yours; what of yours you want to dispose of; and the final remaining purified state. But if one is a gambler and cleans house, the expression means the very opposite – taking what is theirs – the money of the other players. It means adding not detracting from what is yours. Finally, and possibly most importantly, it means, not working like hell to make your home spick and span or becoming obsessively focussed on getting rid of all crime and corruption, but, rather, to take everyone else’s money as fast as one can, including the casino’s, without any seeming effort. Contrary to the normal use of the phrase that esteems the Protestant work ethic, this use of the phrase idealizes ease and leisure and deprecates hard work. The expression is used derivatively to combine both senses when a cop in a movie observes a den of thieves leaving their abode and running off with their loot. “The rats are cleaning house.” It means they are taking only the proceeds of their crime and abandoning everything else.
I have been cleaning house for the last two weeks, but especially during the past four days. In part, I have been cleaning house in one of the various meanings of the first sense and eliminating and discarding what we no longer want to own. I put those items in the garage sale as part of our Casa Loma community this past weekend. But calling the 25 of my 40 file drawers that I put in the blue recycling bins what was undesirable does not seem quite correct except in comparison to what was kept. I just wanted to make space and get rid of things in spite of my desire to hold onto them. Some of those items included undergraduate essays that I wrote almost sixty years ago.
But I also got rid of 2000 books, perhaps 15-20% of my library. Eight large boxes went as donations to the libraries of three research centre at York University. Some were sold in the garage sale. Others went for resale in a used bookstore on Bloor Street. I gave away many. The largest by far – two dozen boxes – went to the University of Toronto library, the vast bulk of them for the UofT book sale that helps the library buy more books. Getting rid of old files may be a humanitarian act to save some poor shlob when I am even older the problem of going through my files and selecting anything worthwhile. Or perhaps that is too arrogant. What I am really doing is simply saving the files I still can or may reference as well as trying to reduce the risk that I will not be dispensed to a recycler altogether.
In any case, cleaning house when you are disposing of your intellectual property and production seems so much harder a task than simply disposing of goods you no longer value. You both hold them in high value, but no longer enough to keep around in your old age. The greatest pain does not come from the physical exertion expended. In my case, it was far harder to dispose of the books than the files.
I have several other observations. One can get donation receipts for giving away books and these can be even more financially valuable than actually selling them directly or through a used book store. Secondly, and I noticed this most acutely at the garage sale, whereas when I sold off a lot of books at a garage sale ten years ago, I was swarmed. The numbers who came were very large. There were very few relatively who came this time and, surprisingly, not that many who appeared when the books were widely advertised as being free. In the electronic age, having a print library seems no longer a valuable; given the costs of real estate, space is valued more highly.
All this is to say that I have been very busy and have neglected my comments on Jeremy’s biography of Albert Hirschman. I have neglected them for a second reason – the little feedback that I have been getting. I wanted the reading of the book to be a conversation. However, very few have participated. In talking to two of you, it has been suggested that my long winded comments, however interesting they are, are intimidating. Those who want to offer a few brief impressions feel out of place.
So I will try a few chapters using a different response – by asking a few questions rather than writing a small essay.
What do you think?