“I always have to take a deep breath of it as I go by. Don’t you smell it too, a fragrance given off by the odor of floor polish and a faint whiff of turpentine together with the mahogany and the washed leaves of the plants—the very essence of bourgeois cleanliness, of neatness and meticulousness, of duty and devotion shown in little things. I don’t know who lives here, but behind that glazed door there must be a paradise of cleanliness and spotless mediocrity, of ordered ways, a touching and anxious devotion to life’s little habits and tasks.”
– Hermann Hesse, Steppenwolf
For the brattiest youths, the responsibility of chores might involve clearing a room from top to bottom to sweep away the piles of clothes, the emptied bags of junk food, the dirty sheets; for others, it might only extend to the dishes after dinner, putting the plates down before a meal or taking out the garbage. Whatever the experience, there are few things less popular than chores and the doing of them, being straddled to the tasks of the day and the chain to house and home they represent.
As we age, we become the masters of our own households, free to decide what tasks we must do ourselves and, if we choose to have a family, what must be divvied out. Like Hesse describes in the book Steppenwolf, the small tasks can become overarching, a product of ‘bourgeois cleanliness’ and the need to have the balance of life maintained. While there is no love lost for the necessities of the day when we are children, a time when the imagination runs wild – a time to be in nature and live more in one’s head than one does in reality – they can begin to feel different as one gets older.
It’s funny that, in a world that seems more hyper-‘masculine’ each day, with the likes of Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un angling for military might, the small tasks – the daily things it takes to be human – seem marginalized and unimportant. Certainly, it was women who were once relegated largely to the home, they who were considered the doers of domestic tasks, but in a world that sees robots as labourers, Mars as a viable planet and technology as the yardstick of progress, what adoration is left for the daily things that must be done?
There are few things I appreciate at the end of the day more than the ability to do the ‘chores’. I’m not talking about the arduous scrubbing of bathtub scale, but the natural therapy of cutting vegetables, doing a load of laundry or washing the dishes. Unlike Hesse’s description of bourgeois cleanliness, there is an earthiness that the small and sometimes mindless daily tasks bring to the whole of life. Instead of concocting grand ideas, we are brought back to the essence of ourselves, the tasks – like breathing or eating or sleeping – that must be done and are a part of the stream of life.
In a world laden with ambitious goals, however, the tranquility of domestic tasks often seems loathed. If it can be avoided with maids and take-out food and drivers, all the better. In an article for The Guardian, writer Dan Shewan talks about automation and explores this approach to what might be called the mundane tasks of daily life:
“The McDonald’s on the corner of Third Avenue and 58th Street in New York City doesn’t look all that different from any of the fast-food chain’s other locations across the country. Inside, however, hungry patrons are welcomed not by a cashier waiting to take their order, but by a “Create Your Taste” kiosk – an automated touch-screen system that allows customers to create their own burgers without interacting with another human being. It’s impossible to say exactly how many jobs have been lost by the deployment of the automated kiosks – McDonald’s has been predictably reluctant to release numbers – but such innovations will be an increasingly familiar sight in Trump’s America.”
There is a big picture view that we seem to be infatuated with. The small tasks are unimportant, not worth doing, and perhaps a means to an end, yet – at some point – it is the small tasks, more than anything, that comprise life. It is these tasks that can lead us to other conclusions, and yoke us to the very things that make us human. Dishes and cooking and making a coffee may feel mundane to some, may look ‘unproductive’ from the outside, but they are the things that link us to the minutiae of life.
It seems, nowadays, we must blindly accept the trajectory of progress as a technological one – outside of the cost to humanity, community and nature – but if, say, those our society admires for their big dreams were to do some dishes or spend more time among nature, doing the simple things, perhaps they too would understand the joys found outside of constant glory, the beauty in the mundane tasks that are a natural part of life, even if the robots can do them.