Would you like your desk to be empty or full today?
It is possible that Sherlock Holmes would take out his violin and play, what Watson calls, “sonorous”, “melancholy” chords on May 10 every year. For today, Holmes would remember with a shudder, is ‘National Clean Up Your Room Day’, an occasion on which the young and the old are encouraged to tidy up their private chambers, a task that Holmes, notorious for keeping his Baker Street room cluttered, would find revolting.
But then literary heroes are not the only untidy creatures. Their creators could be as slovenly in their habits. The Salvation Army apparently refused to accept a sofa that W.H. Auden attempted to dump on the do-gooders because it bore wine stains and cigarette burns — telltale signs of the poet’s untidy ways. Ryszard Kapuscinski, the patron saint of literary journalism, once wrote, “I like the room to be a mess”: his table, they say, resembled a flea market. Mark Twain was adamant about being photographed with a cluttered desk while Joseph Mitchell, that gifted chronicler of the Big Apple’s bylanes, was a notorious hoarder of trash.
These artists, undoubtedly, have been instrumental in sustaining the legend that luminous minds — men and women alike — can be seen immersed in their creative pursuits only on a desk or in a room that has remained untouched by the passing of several National Clean Up Your Room Days.
Interestingly, their messy ways have even been valourized. Defying the tyranny of order, clutterbugs insist, is one way of winning over a primeval human fear: the fear of chaos. Another theory depicts these slipshod souls as heroic figures, attempting to fortify themselves against an uncaring world within — yes, you guessed it right — the sanctuary of an untidy room.
Of course, parents who cannot get their offspring to clean their rooms even today can always turn to Gandhi for solace. The brilliance of the man lay in transforming — nay, politicizing — the conception of cleanliness. Reminiscing about his experiences in South Africa in The Story of My Experiments with Truth, Gandhi, not yet the Mahatma, writes, “... ever since my settlement in Natal, I had been endeavouring to clear the community of a charge... that the Indian was slovenly in his habits and did not keep his house and surroundings clean.” Later, upon his return, he would use sanitation as a tool to expose and challenge India’s ugly caste discrimination.
The Mahatma’s fastidiousness would have appalled Einstein, even though the scientist venerated Gandhi. On being asked about his messy desk, Einstein is believed to have remarked, “If a cluttered desk is the sign of a cluttered mind, what are we to think of an empty desk?”