Today, as I crawled under the bed to retrieve a pair of socks that had fallen into that netherworld months before and were now covered by a liberal coating of dust, I was reminded of one of the weirdest articles I have ever read in the New York Times.
I like to think of myself as a thoughtful person, someone who is open to the myriad ways in which the little, mundane things that we do every day point us to life's greater realities. But I had never really given much thought to the action of dusting — until I read a strangely delightful article by Michael Marder, a professor of philosophy at the University of the Basque Country in Spain, all about the existential implications of dust.
Dust isn't just a thin film that accumulates on everything in our homes, Mader argues — dust is us. According to the Bible, we are made of dust and shall return to such; according to scientists, we are composed of the dust of long-dead stars. And part of the dust that covers our homes is dead skin cells, literal remnants of ourselves. Eliminating dust could be construed as a way of erasing traces of our own mortality — a sort of rebellion against the temporality of our lives.
Does this mean that not dusting makes me an especially well-balanced person? All this time I thought it was just because I think dusting is terribly boring, but maybe my laziness has led me, unconsciously, to make peace with the fleeting nature of life.
But wait! The thoughts on dusting don't end there. Dusting can have another purpose: it can serve as an outward reminder of a sort of inward housecleaning, something Marder (and Thoreau) call "dusting the furniture of our minds." According to Marder:
Inner dusting entails a constant interrogation of the suppositions we either hold dear or fail to notice because of their obviousness; it draws its inspiration from the ancient Greek injunction “Know thyself!”
In this way, dusting becomes a beautiful metaphor for the examined life, with the objects in our homes, and our minds, all restored to a sort of shining clarity, the very essence of themselves.
Whichever explanation appeals to you most, this article provides, if you need it, excellent justification for dusting, or for not dusting. If you're a non-duster, like me, you are accumulating reminders of your own mortality, making peace with the fleeting nature of life: if you're a passionate duster, you're restoring clarity and truthfulness to your home, and perhaps to your mind. Or maybe you're like Michael, from the comments on the Times, who asks: "Is it OK for me to dust because it reduces my allergy symptoms, without having to confront my existential anxieties?" And that's ok too.
Read the entire piece in The New York Times.