Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Sherlock Holmes on Decluttering

A few days ago an acquaintance of mine suggested a post on decluttering, after I had been extolling its broad benefits at all levels of the human ladder: physical, emotional, mental & spiritual. I shall candidly avow that by nature and by inured habits I tend to be a hoarder, so only quite recently I came to realize the importance, indeed the absolute necessity of letting go.

At the very moment when I decided to follow through with the cited suggestion, a chunk of memory emerged rather abruptly to the surface of my consciousness: it was none less than an entire passage from A study in Scarlet, first novel of the wildly successful Sherlock Holmes series.

To be sure, I could not recollect the exact words, only their gist and flavor, but a quick look up over the net came to rescue (I was away from home, where on my library's shelves loom large the two stately volumes of The Annotated Sherlock Holmes). Here is Doyle's text, in all its sparkling elegance and wit:

-His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge. Of contemporary literature, philosophy and politics he appeared to know next to nothing. Upon my quoting Thomas Carlyle, he inquired in the naivest way who he might be and what he had done. My surprise reached a climax, however, when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System. That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to me to be such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.

"You appear to be astonished," he said, smiling at my expression of surprise. "Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it."
"To forget it!"
"You see," he explained, I consider that a man's brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones."
"But the Solar System!" I protested.
"What the deuce is it to me?" he interrupted impatiently: "you say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work."

As you can see, there is more to decluttering than getting rid of that nasty heap of junk mail on the couch. This often neglected activity must be quietly and persistently carried out across the board, day by day: everything that is not useful must be disposed of, not excluded bad habits, stale friendships, ill-digested information, and, of course, physical trash.

Decluttering is a large component of the subtle metabolism of life: let us thus boldly embrace it, and we shall feel healthier, lighter and smarter too, voire the inimitable and unforgettable Mr. Holmes.


andrew said...

The question is, how much information does a person need at his disposal in order to successfully predict whether any new piece of information will be useful in the future? It seems, paradoxically, that the less he throws out, the better equipped he is to determine what to throw out.

Polymathicus said...

There is something in what you say. However, the simple fact is that our knowledge is only good to predict the KNOWN. As long as what the future throws to us belongs to the the realm of the known, our background is all right. But, what about the unknown, the unexpected? There, what counts is agility of mind, flexibility. There, a big baggage, particularly if quite loose, does not help. Better have a smaller bag, and carefully chosen...

Sobre Todo Verdad said...

By Jove! I think I've forgotten it!

Seriously, I believe that the more knowledge you possess, the more synergistic linkups occur. Linking together different facets in new ways leads to discovery and invention.

However, I also agree that a lot of the things I have accumulated in my home and office can safely go into recycling or the landfill.

Sobre Todo Verdad said...

Does posting comments on a blog add to clutter on the internet?

What about blogs themselves?

Do they add to carbon emmissions?


Greg Pass said...

As Blake says in All Religions are One (Principle 4):

As none by trave
ling over known
lands can find out
the unknown. So
from already ac-
quired knowledge
Man could not ac
quire more. there
fore an universal
Poetic Genius exists

Polymathicus said...

1) For Sobre Todo Verdad. I agree 100% with your remark, but notice the noun you used: knowledge. More KNOWLEDGE is always good, but not more INFORMATION. Knowledge is distilled, well digested information. It is like food: you eat it, extract the good stuff, and throw away the rest. So it is with raw information.
PS No, adding good comments (like yours) is most definitely not cluttering the web. With silly comments (and blogs) is another story..

2) For Greg: Holy Words! Thanks. Yes, what is needed to envision the Unknown is Poetic Genius, i.e. the eternal power of imagination (Los in Blake's jargon). A mind free of
clutter is a sine qua non for a safe journey into the the Land of the Unknown.

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