I learned a lesson from the amazing transformation of a nearby country place when the junk accumulated over decades under the stewardship of a previous owner was removed – a rickety fence, a broken down climbing structure, a mish mash of succulents, weeds, dead branches, garden decorations, and the like. It’s not that the place was especially junky, particularly compared with the rural norm throughout the Western states, where the devotion of at least a corner of every lot to rusted farm equipment, jumbled building supplies, and derelict vehicles seems to be de rigueur. To the casual eye, the place only looked lived in, a work in progress toward some vague goal, that like all our lives was encumbered somewhat by this and that – the detritus of failed or ill-defined projects, stuff that had not yet been gotten round to, or relics of obsolescent ideas. Nevertheless, when all the clutter was gone, the place was far more beautiful, restful, and even seemed more spacious. It looked half again as big.
The lesson: deletion is the first principle in the actualization of value, and therefore of order. We see this in natural selection, in architecture, interior design, landscape, music, writing, public policy, business, art, everything. Confusion is the enemy of value. To be properly and fully themselves, things must stop trying to be other things, must be clearly and only themselves. Extraneities are usually best got rid of.
A corollary principle became evident from the effects of the first: deletion makes possible the discovery and restoration of a thing as it is originally meant to be. When all the junk was removed from the place, a meadow became more apparent here, a grove over there, and aspects to the horizon or to forest opened up on every side. Windows that had looked out on nothing in particular now opened vistas to hidden depths in the landscape. One could see that it would make sense to plant a maple just there, or perhaps add a bench over yonder, or rebuild that stretch of crippled fence.
Deletion reveals order; restoration may then establish it more stably.
The thing to do first then is just delete the modern, at least from your own life and environs; once that’s done, the shape of what came before, and properly, will become apparent. So likewise will the meaning and intent of what came before be revealed. Not that we can ever recover what came before, of course. But we may by an apprehension of its form and structure discern what it meant for what should now be.
It is ironic that the modern – in architecture, anyway – recurs so relentlessly to the deletion of decoration, ornament, and anything else superfluous to function. We find now, too late, that in so doing it has cut away function too, without ever meaning to. The modern world works well, in many respects: just not for human beings as they really are. Modernism cuts with good intentions, but stupidly, clumsily, and too deep.
The achievement of any good order does of course need cutting, which is after all nothing more than the act of decision, for the good and against the bad. But this must be done judiciously, with due care and discernment, and perspicuously. Nature must be cut deftly, and at her natural joints, or there will be hell to pay.
There is the deletion of the bath water, and then there is the deletion of the baby too. How can we tell the difference between the right and wrong sort of deletions? What, e.g., are the sorts of ornaments that ought to be deleted from buildings, and what the sort that should be preserved?
Consider modern ceremonial ritual, which consists entirely of pointless tableaux. We see this in modern dance, wherein so many dances are no more than a series of graceful translations from one arrangement of bodies to another, none of which, nor all of which, are discernibly about anything in particular, other perhaps than the anomie which is their métier and message. We see it also a fortiori in the half-time shows at football games, and in the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympics. It’s all noise and hurry, signifying nothing but noise and hurry.
Ornament that is for its own sake only – that does not indicate or signify anything other than itself – is noise by definition, and almost always deleterious. It ought to be deleted. Ornament that indicates something other than itself, even if only the pure forms of geometry or nature, is meaningful, and even when it calls our attention to difficult or uncomfortable ideas, ought probably to be preserved. This is so even when the meanings of architecture have been forgotten or lost, as with the sacrificial meanings of trophies, laurels, garlands, and the like.
A tableau that points or indicates, that has a meaning apart from itself, is worthy almost always, and ought to be kept. A tableau that does not, or that indicates something evil, ought be deleted.
An inveterate habit of judicious deletion ought to discover to us the lineaments of things as they are, and ought to be. It ought to reveal the proper order of being. We may then shape our acts so as to agree with it more fitly, and thus to restore and reinforce it: to praise, laud and magnify.
The order of being is still after all everywhere out there, hidden under the dross and mess, waiting for us, patiently, relentlessly. As the foundation of all creaturely becoming, it is insuperable. Nothing of that basic order then, or anything it has so far achieved, can ever be wholly lost. At worst, it is only obscured for a time.
So, when we grieve the passing of the West, and deplore the great devastation that will ensue at its fall, we must remember, and keep hope: winnowing delivers the chaff into the fire, and leaves behind the good seed.