I have to admit that I’m suspicious of the infamous mindlessness of housework.
Is it better to be a coal-heaver or a nursemaid; is the charwoman who has brought up eight children of less value to the world than, the barrister who has made a hundred thousand pounds?” asks Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own. Woolf comes to no conclusion. But if we wanted to finish her argument, how would we do it? Woolf herself found certain aspects of domesticity easier to recommend than others. She took pride in her slowly growing knowledge of basic cookery, but doing the dishes she found hard to bear: “I’ve been washing up lunch—how servants preserve any sanity or sobriety if that is nine 10ths of their lives—greasy ham—God knows.”11xAlison Light, Mrs. Woolf and the Servants: An Intimate History of Domestic Life in Bloomsbury (New York, NY: Bloomsbury, 2010), 233.
Woolf’s private consternation reflects the problem with any merely public evaluation of housework. Cleaning is mindless work, we say, and a task we are happy to leave to others; should we have the money, there are maid services or one of the many “Uber for housework” services to take the work off our hands. The repairman, the electrician, the carpenter, and so on, earn our respect because of the intelligent skill they put into their labor; but the sting of domestic work is that it appears to require no particular skill: doing the floors, the dishes, doing the corners, picking up all the things strewn about the house; taking out the trash not once, but again and again, on down into the grave.
Such work, when it is paid for at all, is among the lowest of the low, economically speaking—we have more civic and monetary respect for garbage collectors. But worse, the very character of the janitor or the charwoman is suspect. Their grumpiness and meanness of spirit is catalogued from the fairy tales of the Grimms to the lyrical dialectics of Kierkegaard. In the grip of mindless, endless repetition, the temper and even the soul are said to suffer permanent distortion. The best that can be said for housework is that it is unavoidable, and so someone or other will have to decide to do it.
It’s not easy to speak up for the charwoman. Unless I can argue that housework is more than a utilitarian good or a necessary evil, I doubt whether my arguments will do much to dignify the worker, or to persuade others to pick up the work themselves. Furthermore, the question requires phenomenological honesty. It would be a great mistake to consider Woolf uniquely blameworthy for the disparity between her official inquiry into the worker, and her secret lament at the deed. We can’t afford to leave ourselves out of the argument.
But I’m suspicious of the infamous mindlessness of housework. Having been persuaded that our best thoughts are at their best when most rooted in the world they profess to describe, I find I’m very much interested in it. I suspect we can do more than praise its necessity, and that our inability to make a better case reflects an impoverished understanding of the nature of work, and of thought itself. Housework is a job in which our things and possessions become unavoidably concrete. So why should the work that forces us to reckon with things we usually ignore be mindless? Why would the most concrete work be the most absentminded?
In Martin Heidegger’s later essays, he turns to the notion of dwelling to consider the nature of things and houses and work in all their concrete, present glory. For Heidegger, what we are as humans, the way we are in the world, is manifested in our dwelling; we are gathered into being by the houses we raise up for ourselves, and by the things we make and hold on to; these things allow the world to be present to us as world.22xIn what follows, I’m largely dependent on and inspired by two of Heidegger’s later essays, “Building Dwelling Thinking” (1951) and “The Thing” (1950), both found in the collection Poetry, Language, Thought, trans. Albert Hofstadter (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 1971). My particular thanks and gratitude go to Richard Velkley, who was kind enough to hear me out about housemaids; his suggestions helped me think through the tension between Heidegger’s aporetic mode and the mode of thoughtful, grateful dwelling. If dwelling is what we are, then surely the daily care of the houses we inhabit is important.
But when Heidegger has occasion to speak of housemaids, he appears to make the same accusations against them as everyone else. He tells the story of the famous accident of Thales, the first person to philosophize, who, out walking one evening and looking up at the stars, fell into a hole. The Thracian maid standing nearby burst into laughter, because, as she said, “while he might passionately want to know all things in the universe, the things in front of his feet and nose were unseen by him.” Heidegger considers this moment to be decisive: “Plato added to this story the remark: ‘[Her] jest also fits all those who become involved in philosophy.’ Therefore the question ‘What is a thing?’ must always be rated as one that causes housemaids to laugh. And genuine housemaids must have something to laugh about.”33xMartin Heidegger, What Is a Thing? trans. W.B. Barton Jr. and Vera Deutsch (South Bend, IN: Gateway, 1967), 3. First published 1962.
The housemaid, the genuine one, who knows her trade and has all its virtues and vices, is perhaps all too at home in the house. Such a one is forgetful of being, lacking something to jolt her out of the ordinary, lacking the sort of anxiety that would allow the house to become uncanny, and thus a matter of question.44xOn the jolt out of the ordinary, see What Is a Thing?, 2; on anxiety, see Heidegger’s discussion in Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 1968), 233, first published 1927. In Heidegger’s later work, there remains a need for some kind of philosophical re-orientation if one is to begin to reflect at all (“Building,” 146). The presence of things is old hat, and so the philosopher looks foolish in his childish questions. Thought and housework remain distinct and opposed.
But Heidegger remarks that we can learn from the housemaid this much: When we set out to inquire, we should first “look around thoroughly in this round-about-us.”55xHeidegger, What Is a Thing?, 7. Instead of looking off into the stars like Thales, we have to recover a sense of both heavens and earth together. We dwell as humans in the very immediate sense of the sort of buildings we put together to live in and around, that mark off the horizon; we dwell with things, the beds and tables and chairs that keep us up off the dirt. We take our fundamental orientation as humans by our residency in the world, between the temptations of the stars and the holes we might fall into. What we are not is something infinite, immortal, limitless; we are mortal, temporary, in the sense that even Achilles is temporary. Our thoughts may leap beyond mere things and dwellings into godlike musing, and so leap beyond our mortal plight; but if we could turn our thoughts back around and give attention to what is near and to dwelling itself, we might pause in our restlessness and find some peace in our day.
Now, Heidegger is accused of many things, some justly and some perhaps unjustly. The most dangerous charge, for our purposes, is sentimentality or nostalgia; that by praising dwelling, he praises old ways of living without a better reason than their antiquity, and so is not a trustworthy source on houses that we, these days, would hope to live in. But Heidegger’s careful attention to language and things can help us refocus our attention on what’s in front of our noses.
Take, for instance, the difference between saying “domestic work” and saying “housework.” “Domestic work” is the official name for what I’m trying to talk about; it’s more accurate in that it encompasses the whole field, albeit in a rather impersonal way. But this impersonal quality—achieved by the substitution of the Latin domus for our English house—is suspicious, because it obscures the problem’s immediacy. Domestic work is something that many people do in and around houses that may or may not be somebody else’s; as such, it turns into somebody else’s problem. Housework, by contrast, is the daily problem I have to solve, either by myself, or by persuading someone else to do it, either out of long-suffering affection or for pay.
To speak of housework as domestic work obscures our dependence on houses: that all of us, unless houseless by misfortune or by choice, have some specific building where our bed sits, right now, made or unmade; the place where we are, at the end of the day, housed. It obscures our dependence on other human beings, the necessity that someone, somewhere, is doing what it is necessary to do (the laundry, the dishes, the floors, the toilets) for all the houses and for the residents who require their houses to be in working order. When both the house and the workers are hidden in this way, our dependence on dwelling is hidden indeed.
You might think that “housework” sounds too much like something women, particularly those long-suffering women, do; to frame the problem as domestic work sounds like an attempt to discuss the work as that to which either sex might turn its hand. But this is just the problem with such abstraction; for beneath our agreed-upon terminology rests the truth that nearly all of the work we officially classify as domestic in America is done by women: the cleaning, the care of the very young, the care of the very old.66xIn 2014, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 95.5 percent of childcare workers, 88.6 percent of maids and housecleaners, and 88.5 percent of health care support aides for nursing, psychiatric, and home health care were women (“Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey,” February 12, 2015; http://www.bls.gov/cps/cpsaat11.htm). A nonprofit advocacy organization, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, reports that 95 percent of all domestic workers are women, based on a study done in 2012 (Home Economics: The Invisible and Unregulated World of Domestic Work; http://www.domesticworkers.org/homeeconomics/). And so, to have a little Heideggerian attention on hand will not lead us too dangerously near nostalgia; for it’s hard to be sentimental about the fact that someone has to scrub the floors.
The Feminist Dilemma
Perhaps the simplest way to give more respect to housework is to make it a better-paying job, with all the fair-labor standards that give the rule to other professions.77xDavid Bornstein notes that the current precarious state of basic job protections for domestic workers has its roots in the “concession to Southern lawmakers” that caused domestic work to be omitted from the original 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act; most domestic workers in the South were black women (“A Living Wage for Caregivers,” New York Times “Opinionator,” July 10, 2015). But because those who do housework are almost universally women, more is at stake than how better to honor it. The moral of the marriage of second-wave feminism with quasi-Marxist logic is clear: Housework is something to be liberated from, and something to liberate others from in their turn. The house itself is an oppressive structure, from which we hope to be free.88xFor the radical second-wave perspective, see Silvia Federici’s charming article “Wages against Housework” (Bristol, England: Power of Women’s Collective and Falling Wall Press, 1975). Such reasoning certainly influenced the principles on which I was raised: Women can do whatever they want, and so there were certain tasks (traditionally relegated to women) that I shouldn’t have to do, professions I should avoid because my talents and education fitted me for better. The impracticality of these particular principles became immediately apparent once I lived in a place of my own, with dishes to do; there was no escaping the domus after all.
But beyond impracticality, the first and second principles contain a more troubling contradiction: What do we do about the women who nevertheless find themselves at work in the so-called traditional tasks? And if women can do whatever they want, what if they say they want to do something that looks neither properly liberated nor ambitious? This was a real problem for the second wave, and the contempt for the housewife-by-choice evinced by many of its passionate voices was no less infamous than unsisterly—or rather, all too wicked-stepsisterly, considering the movement’s forgetfulness of the women among the poor and women of color, as well as the poor, at home and abroad, in their own right.99xFor the limitation of the liberal second-wave discussion to white, middle-class women in America, see Charlotte Kroløkke and Anne Scott Sørensen, “Three Waves of Feminism: From Suffragettes to Grrls,” in Gender Communication Theories and Analyses: From Silence to Performance (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2005), 1−25. See also Rachel F. Moran, “How Second-Wave Feminism Forgot the Single Woman,” Hofstra Law Review 33, no. 233 (2004): 223−98. Also worth considering is Leslie Loftis’s “Feminism and the Razing of the Village,” The Federalist, October 13, 2013; http://thefederalist.com/2013/10/23/feminism-razing-village/.
The “third wave” of feminism set out to amend these troubles with the recognition that even if the desires of other women look foreign to our own, we all must be let to desire on in peace. But the problem remains, just how to navigate this arrangement of mutual respect, and the underlying tension hasn’t gone away. The charge of sentimentality or nostalgia against women who still, in our day and age, claim to enjoy housework looms large, because it looks like a regression simply to praise a choice that looks traditional; and worse, it looks dangerously postfeminist—the danger being, that we might fall into nostalgia for the house in a way that threatens to ratify some lingering tyranny in its very structure.1010x“Discourses proclaiming the advent of ‘post-feminism’ are in danger of yet again putting men ‘centre stage’ and diverting the attention of feminism from more pressing matters” (Ingrid Richter, Vicki Coppock, and Deena Haydon, The Illusions of Post-Feminism: New Women, Old Myths (London, England: Routledge, 2014), 184. Fiona Tolan attempts to steer clear of such dangers in “‘Housecleaning Gives Me Pleasure’: House Cleaning and Feminism in Carol Shields’ Unless,” Australasian Canadian Studies 28, no.1 (2010): 1−15; Tolan’s interest in praising the love of housework without praising it for the wrong reasons was particularly helpful to me. But here’s the revenge of the house: While we middle-class women are off pursuing the various professions of lawyer, businesswoman, and so on, who picks up the household slack? Other human beings; usually other women; and, most likely, women of color.
The contempt for the house cultivated by this history is not easy to do away with. Personal ambition alone, and especially money alone, won’t solve the underlying problem. Although we don’t pay people enough for housework, the real problem is that we think that money will be enough to cover over our contempt and forgetfulness for the work itself—that we can somehow avoid our forgetfulness of the house itself. This forgetfulness is written into all our thoughts about the properly ambitious work outside the house that people are meant to desire; and the most pressing result is that, again, it obscures the simple practical necessity that someone—a human being—did or will do the domestic work that orders the space around you, right now, both for the place you sit to read this, and if you’re lucky, for the place you’ll sleep tonight.
But perhaps the oversight or even distaste might be justified. Consider the difference between making a dish and doing the dishes; between making a bed and making a bed, which is to say building it; or even the difference between a thorough spring cleaning and the endless daily picking up of the out-of-place. While a certain hardship is involved, skill, for the most part, is not.
For a floor to be well cleaned, it needs to be scrubbed by hand and not just mopped; but while scrubbing requires the use of knees, the back, the forearm, it does not seem that thought is required. Indeed, thought appears to fly elsewhere after enough scrubbing. And while a certain kind of attentiveness is required—reaching the corners, the baseboards, and nooks—the classic failure is that of laziness; intelligence doesn’t seem to enter into it either way. Nor does housework seem to offer the same satisfaction that skill possesses, in all its intelligent tasks of making, repairing, shaping, cutting, and placing just so; and in the beauty of and delight in the finished thing itself.
When Mike Rose argues in The Mind at Work on behalf of such skills as waiting on tables and carpentering, we understand that these tasks require the intelligence which, given a moment to consider, we immediately recognize as such: the remarkable memory for ever-mounting details, the quick ordering and nesting of tasks that the waitress possesses, or the carpenter’s profound grasp of spatial geometry. Rose succeeds in resurrecting the honor of these professions for us because he can show the familiar intelligence we somehow (appallingly) have overlooked.
Matthew Crawford’s argument in Shop Class as Soulcraft takes such thoughtfulness a step farther. For it seems that not only do building and fixing require intelligence, these stand to be rather more intelligent than the sort of “postindustrial” jobs we’ve been, probably disastrously, shaping our economy around; more intelligent, in fact, than the flimsy abstractions perpetrated by those who answer to the hideous coinage “knowledge worker.” Indeed, Heidegger’s own thoughts about human house-dwelling and human “giving-thought” often turn to the builder, the poet who makes the poem, the artisan: “All the work of the hand is rooted in thinking. Therefore thinking itself is man’s simplest, and for that reason hardest, handiwork.”1111xMartin Heidegger, “What Is Called Thinking?,” trans. J. Glenn Gray (New York, NY: Harper and Row, 1968), 16−17. First published 1976. See also Heidegger’s praise for the builder of the Black Forest cottage in “Building Dwelling Thinking”: “A craft which, itself sprung from dwelling, still uses its tools and frames as things, built the farmhouse” (158). But here’s my worry: If we make skill such a far-reaching measure for work, we still stand to forget the house, and perhaps something of thought as well. Whatever the thoughtfulness of housecleaning involves, it is different from skill; but to honor the builder of the house without respecting its maker—that is, its keeper—is to see less than half of the whole.
Interchangeable and Anonymous
And so, if we attempt to explain why we pay so little for domestic work, it seems all too reasonable to reply that such work doesn’t require skill—anyone can do it—and so anyone will do. The notion that anyone can do it leads to a certain interchangeability among the potential workers. In the 1980s and 1990s it was maid services—some one woman in charge of many other women who came and went—that gained applause as the prescient business of the age.1212xPamela Sherrod, “Maid Services Clean Up As Lifestyles Change,” Chicago Tribune, July 11, 1988.
A recent development of our own decade is housecleaning companies, which, like Uber for taxis, are merely an organizational platform assisted by charming young managers on laptops who put clientele in touch with an ever-changing mass of part-time workers (“independent contractors,” who are explicitly not trained by the company) who drop everything to answer a call to clean someone’s bathroom in some far-flung corner of the city.1313xLydia DePillis, “At the Uber for Home Cleaning, Workers Pay a Price for Convenience,” Washington Post, September 10, 2014. Needless to say, not only are they interchangeable, their work is highly unpredictable, their time is at the mercy of the algorithm, and they are utterly without security.
Consider the oddity that the worker who walks among your things would be considered largely interchangeable; when you pay for anonymity, you pay for a worker who will never know where things go. Yet those who hire prefer not only to be absent when the cleaner is present, but also even prefer to speak merely to middlemen, so as never to have to speak to the worker at all.1414xEllen Huet, “Apps Let Users Hire House Cleaners, Handymen without Talking,” SFGATE, February 11, 2014; http://www.sfgate.com/search/?action=search&firstRequest=1&searchindex=gsa&query=apps+let+users+hire. We purchase the anonymity in the arrangement of our houses that is already present in the places that are not houses; the workers who clean offices, hospitals, and assisted living facilities tend to come at night, all gone in the morning. In fact, a complaint of domestic workers in America is that they lack the basic standards that workers not associated with the house find it easier to gain; without overtime, sick leave, leave of absence, or a contract, time is more than unrecompensed, it’s done away with. When a woman or man does stay at home to arrange and marshal the house, they receive less than honor in recompense for their unpaid labor.1515xThat the invisibility of the household art is not merely our problem, but a perennial human problem, is why Aristotle takes such trouble, in Book I.8−10 of his Politics, to argue that household management is prior in honor and sovereignty to mere acquisition of wealth. The length of his argument speaks to the difficulty he had in persuading his audience; nor would he find an audience composed of members of the American middle class any more sympathetic. I’m very indebted to Aristotle for my own first sight of this problem. The irony that only the very rich can afford to pay for a proper housekeeper should not be lost on us. For most of us, if those who live there have other work, often no one is in charge of this most governing task; and so the task itself disappears.
Somewhere between our affection for skill and our aversion to staying put at the house, it seems that even the border cases of child minding and looking in on the aged are threatened by association. While in our better moments, we’d admit that care for the very young and the very old involves a certain skill, or at any rate emotional flair and patience, these professions nevertheless are ones in which anyone will do; the ill effects of which are as obvious as they are overlooked. Among those with more money to spend, infinite care is spent on the choice of worker for children; but national standards for early childhood care are so low as to be nonexistent.1616xJonathan Cohn, “The Hell of American Daycare,” New Republic, April 15, 2013.
Even knitting a sweater is considered salable or marketable, while the desirable ability to watch children, for which we pay, is not. There’s an analogy, perhaps, between our respect for the centrality of human ingenuity, and our temptation to see the world as made up primarily of adults in the prime of life.
The Grumpy Sisyphus
But perhaps we could still find respect for these domestic tasks—if it were not for the final sting of the business. For not only is domestic work mindless, it also appears to require the absorption of mindlessness; it may even make you lose your mind. It’s not that hard to mop the floor; what’s hard is to mop the floor again, and most of all, when it’s just been mopped. Simone de Beauvoir has it: “few tasks are more like the torture of Sisyphus housework, with its endless repetition: the clean becomes soiled, the soiled is made clean, over and over, day after day.”
Once you’ve built something, it’s done; at least until it needs repair. But after cleaning the house, you have to witness your work undone in that same day, by the ordinary use of the very things you came behind the other people to clean. All work involves repetition, but cleaning rehearses the doing again and again, without doing anything—except, perhaps, for the state of the house. And not for nothing do people find early childhood work Sisyphean as well: Children in the house don’t merely multiply the work, they constantly undo it; and they themselves require ever-renewed, constant cleaning.
Such Sisyphean motions make the notorious ill humor, grumpiness, personal slovenliness, even the spite of the charwoman intelligible enough; the charwoman being employed by several to do the rough work of floors and lavatories, going in and out of many houses and rooms.1717xConsider the sharp-tongued Mrs. Blockson in Charles Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby (1838), the downright cranky Mrs. Gusterson in A Glimpse of London Labour and London Poor, proud of all the “gin and beer she used to get” and quite nasty to her tenement roommate (Toronto, Canada: Methodist Publishing House, 1891, 197), or the housekeeper who refused to clean Allen Ginsberg’s Columbia University dormitory windows and reported him to the dean for writing something shocking on the dust-covered windowpane (The Letters of Allen Ginsberg, ed. Bill Wood (Boston, MA: Da Capo Press, 2008)). Kierkegaard, writing pseudonymously in Fear and Trembling, counsels us to wish always to be more than the charwoman in our posture and words when we attempt to speak humanly of the great; we are to be happy to bow before them, but—unlike, it comes out, that charwoman of the intellect, the scholar—we are always to have dignity, confidence, and freedom of spirit. The grumpy charwoman, it seems, drags through even the halls of a king without care for man or beast. Needless to say, sufficient pay could soothe but not humor such a worker; as Virginia Woolf implies, in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Britain, at least, those who hold these jobs were known to turn to drink.
Women themselves, when they speak these days about housework, either of their boredom or their pleasure, often speak of it as thoughtless or mindless in some sense. “About once a month,” Beth Hersom writes in Real Housekeeping,
I have to drag out the carpet cleaner. I get down on the floor with soap and a toothbrush and I scrub. And, here is the secret: I really, really enjoy it. It is quiet mind time. The vacuum is blaring, so I cannot hear anything. (Which means I only do it when someone else is responsible for the kids.) It is just me, white noise, a mindless task and my windy mess of a tangled mind.1818xBeth Hersom, “Housekeeping Wars, or How I Keep My Carpet Clean Using Lavender Essential Oil,” Real Housekeeping, June 15, 2015; http://housekeeping1092.rssing.com/chan-53276617/all_p1.html.
But what this passage describes sounds to me not like absence of thought, but merely absence of what passes for thought. I recall seeing the look on my cousin’s face, when I came upon her after she’d been picking up fallen branches from the yard for an hour or two. Looking up from her work, she was lost, both rapt and absent; absent, that is, from me. Human beings had receded from her gaze; her thoughts were very much with the branches; or rather, her thoughts were branches.
Some of our thoughts come in moving parts, sentences, phrases we skillfully move around to make a point—in a word, they are discursive. Other thoughts, however, are rapt upon one thing at a time. Best of all, in the phraseology of Heidegger, is the thing we do when we turn our attention to the thingly-ness of things in service of our dwelling. I’d argue that what the lady is really experiencing—the one who works in the house, who governs the house, who keeps the house and perhaps in some sense is the house as it dwells—is thought, or being, in its immediate sense.1919x“Dwelling, however, is the basic character of Being in keeping with which mortals exist” (Heidegger, “Building Dwelling Thinking,” 158.)
Consider again the laughter of Heidegger’s housemaid. In Plato’s story, the maid is not bad tempered at all, but “graceful and witty.”2020xPlato, Theaetetus 174a. What if, in our confusion over the proper task of thinking, in the temptation to behave like Thales and look only at the stars, we have gotten the nature of housework wrong? If we can only really understand ourselves as humans when we think on our dwelling, then the laughter of the maid is perfectly reasonable, because her thoughts were already resident there. The view of thinghood available to the housemaid has the potential to be deeply satisfying; and she laughs because the philosopher displays willful ignorance of what ought to be intuitively obvious. After all, the housemaid isn’t laughing because Thales is trying to philosophize; she’s laughing because he’s doing it wrong, and, notably, is wise enough, and generous enough, to offer advice to the profession in its infancy.2121xPlato’s insistence on the gracefulness, the elegance (χαρίεσσα), of the Thracian maid, as well as his record of her insight, offers a clue to why Socrates asserts that some of the very few things he claims to know were learned from a pair of women, Diotima and Aspasia. Housemaids and philosophers are not distinct as opposites, but in a sense as rivals; and it is only when we are confused about what philosophy ought to be working at, that we confuse the thoughtfulness of house-minding with mindlessness pure and simple.
But to be present with being in its immediate sense has its dangers. The task of cleaning is, after all, no less immersive than the task of building; in fact, the evidence against it is that it is so immersive one finds it hard to surface again. Beauvoir is contemptuous toward housecleaning as such because it “provides no escape from immanence and little affirmation of individuality.” (“Immanence” is her word for the insistent loud silent presence of things.) But it gets worse, for “every time transcendence falls back into immanence, stagnation, there is a degradation of existence.” But her hopes for the freedom attainable by the individual, I think, get in the way of her proper evaluation of what she hopes to name by invoking immanence, and not coincidentally, these hopes get in the way of respecting the immanence the house provides.2222xBeauvoir perhaps depends too much on the Hegelian narrative of Aufhebung (“sublation”) here: I would argue that the presence of things is not something to transcend neatly in confidence of ultimate sublation and a reasonable share of the best of immanence once we know better; “immanence” itself is an abstraction from the thingly-ness of things.
Housekeeping Is Thought
See before you the messy house, with your possessions and the possessions of all who live with you littered about the floor, piling on the sofas, spoiling the chairs, making the desk invisible. All our human ends, recorded by our things, in all the visible failure of half-done purposes; the book you put down, the toy abandoned, the bill not yet paid; the thing you wanted, lost. To face all this, with the intention of somehow setting all in order, of separating the tangled strands of purpose back out into a working household, brings upon us nothing less than a spiritual terror.
Such a terror is not born simply of lethargy, or the anti-momentum of procrastination, but spiritual terror at the spiritual energy required to set things up once again out of the dusty scatter. To clean the thing is to care for the thing; to clean well is neither giving it a flick that leaves the edges obscured in dirt, nor scrubbing the thing away into nothing. All of this work raises up the house out of the confusion of its strands back into one single thing, the bulwark, the thing that makes the rest possible, both leaving and coming back; the sort of place where you could consider resting your head. Housekeeping doesn’t just enable us to dwell; housekeeping is dwelling, and also it is thought.
There is anguish in looking at housecleaning as a thing apart from us, something that we’d rather not do, a task that from the outside looks almost infinite in scope. I suspect that much of it is born of the distance that comes simply from paying (or getting) others to do it. This is the very distance we put in place in order to busy ourselves with the centrality of the adult world; the life that is after all interesting, the places where we have all the clever arguments with each other about the public affairs of the day. I think our sense of the mindlessness of housekeeping comes about because we see it as that which makes these so-called important life-things recede before the immanence of our daily tasks like eating and sleeping—not to mention the immanent reminder that children and parents present, that we once were very young, and only with luck will be decently old.
My own grumpiness, I suspect, comes from the sense of being half in, half out of the adult world, that I’ve been distracted needlessly from my proper work and proper thoughts. Putting an end to spite and recrimination involves understanding just what it is that I am doing: allowing the world hell-bent on worldliness to world. My hopeless devotion to thought comes to light as something of a tragic flaw. It’s not a coincidence that in our attempt to liberate ourselves from houses and indeed from all bounds, we have become, if less careworn, more anxious and depressed. In depression, we become careless of things, and lose our rapport with them, Heidegger writes; in anxiety, we no longer feel at home in the world.2323xHeidegger, “Building Dwelling Thinking,” Being and Time, 155. In Heidegger’s earlier writings, anxiety is a boon, but eventually it becomes a part of the problem to be solved. When I recover my respect not simply for domestic work but also for the task of keeping a home, I have taken a step toward ending my homelessness, not as modern, as thinker, or as woman, but as mortal.
The danger of sentimentality, however, at this point is real. For while I could counsel you to take up a craft, if not as a profession but at least more than a hobby, I can hardly advise you to become a janitor, in order to take on this sort of thought for your own—unless you already professed the desire for a hermitage. Nor can the wistful nostalgia that might counsel you to stay at home without desire, interest, or cheerful goodwill to do so, offer sound advice. That most human beings over our history have paid or guilted other people to clean house if they possibly, possibly could, should be enough evidence as to the limits of human goodwill.
Kierkegaard, writing as “S.K.” in Works of Love, eloquently describes the attempt and projected failure to point out to the charwoman that although she works for wages, she could do her job carefully for the sake of the duty of conscience alone; well might she grow indignant, Kierkegaard writes, for “no one wants to listen to such talk.” The first important practical discovery, outside of sentiment, is that housecleaning, when it’s not the house where you sleep, and worse, when none of the inhabitants are known to you, and worst of all, never even talk to you, as a job, is a terrible job.
The special ugliness of this arrangement ought to strike us the more, considering that until the Revolution or the Last Judgment, as long as we are dividing the labor, everyone will be putting some of their care into the hands of others. Such arrangements are part of why we live in cities rather than villages, in villages rather than alone, somehow, on a one-man farm, at all. It therefore particularly behooves us to care for domestic workers and allow them the sort of standards allowed for professions in which the workers are able to look into the eyes of those who employ them—standards such that they would be able to pay for, and have time for, houses of their own.
This is what we have gained with an economy that gives preference to daycare workers, over the nanny who lives with you, devoting even her final days to your care; the women who care for your children at daycare don’t live for your convenience, but get to go home to their own place, to children of their own. Likewise, some sort of acknowledgment in the tax code that a spouse who stays at home is doing a job, and, as such, ought not to destroy the household economy, would not be amiss.2424xConsider the locus of problems dubbed the “marriage penalty” in the current American tax code. See Tax Policy Center, “Marriage Penalty,” accessed January 6, 2015; http://www.taxpolicycenter.org/taxtopics/marriage-penalties.cfm. As an antidote to our native restlessness, housecleaning is easier to take up than carpentry, if more spiritually difficult—always keeping in mind the danger or temptation of too much immanence.
But thinking of the ladies and men of Bloomsbury, who never lived a day without others arranging those little but crucial things of their lives, I think they missed something, perhaps the very thing they sought—something of life, something of freedom. To leave the ordering of our house to others, I think, is not merely to leave behind an interesting opportunity for reflection, but to abdicate the very ground of thought. It risks leaving behind our thoughts’ very integrity. And so I for one counsel you to take up the mop, or at any rate to make your bed, not as nostalgia or from sentiment but, lest you in the rush of days lose your mind, the thing you wanted, after all.