The recurring pleasures of simple

Kevin Murray

15 March 2024

A batik workshop in Semarang with the lights out.

In a dark space, redolent of wax, Sara Thorn discovers a minimal beauty.

It was a typically humid day on the coast, of central Java. We entered a batik workshop that was as dark as night. The air was redolent with the smell of wax. We could make out mysterious rays of light moving within. It turned out that the power was out and artisans used the light of their phones to guide their work.

I was with the textile maker Sara Thorn for a batik festival that I’d helped organise in Semarang. We were exploring possibilities for collaboration. They showed us some of the vibrant floral batiks they’d recently completed. But one piece in particular caught Sara’s eye. She found a cloth that had been freshly waxed but had yet to be dyed. It was white with an ornate pattern in golden wax. To the surprise of everyone, Sara said how beautiful the undyed cloth was. Could she buy it?

This region of Java is known for its rich colourful imagery. While more traditional batiks elsewhere are characterised by dark browns and blues, those of the central coast reflect a diversity of Dutch, Indian and Chinese influences.

There’s something quite pleasant about the shock of simplicity. In a world flowing with consumer goods, the occasional ebb of simplicity is a blessed relief. Apple products were initially heralded with the phrase “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” Steve Jobs’ legendary commitment to simplicity seen as inspired by his time practising Zen Buddhism.

Simplicity is now beginning to pick up steam as a movement. Marie Kondo offered us a dignified path of simplification, by expressing gratitude to the many goods we chose to abandon. Simplicity Parenting counsels parents to limit the amount of stimulation their children receive by offering fewer toys and richer stories. A minimal play environment exercises the child’s imagination and stimulates the limbic system. Subtract: The Untapped Science of Less  is the latest self-help book to help with the challenge of downsizing our lives. Dopamine Nation is a sobering account of the spread of addiction of all kinds in a hyper-consumerist world. The author advocates for “dopamine fasts” that can help reset our reward pathways to enjoy life as it is, rather than what we crave it to be.

In more apocalyptic terms, the Great Simplification environmental advocacy platform by Nate Nagens presages a societal collapse that will necessitate a radical lifestyle change.

But in an age when retail therapy is the answer to our worries, the idea of simplification connotes loss. What’s the benefit of taking something away?

But simplification need not be a one-way journey. At the time of writing, much of the world is fasting: Christians are observing Lent and Muslims Ramadan. Our most enduring cultural traditions involve periodic deprivation. Like the seasonal cycle of growth and decay. simplification can become part of a regular process of cleaning out.

The sociologist George Bataille famously noted that traditional societies usually wasted their surplus by hosting elaborate festivals. These events brought people together by loosening attachment to material goods. It was only in capitalism that the surplus had to be accumulated. Rather than burnt off each year, profits were invested back into industry. Instead of annual festivals, we had instead the ever-expanding military-industrial complex.

Simplicity is always relational. The beauty of the Beatles’ White Album was set by the precedent of the psychedelic Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

I don’t think Sara Thorn would have gained as much pleasure from the undyed batik if we hadn’t already been saturated with the rainbow of colours in finished cloths.

Make it simple, again.

See also

Safed: The beauty of simplicity

Harry T. Morris ✿ The spirit of fuzei in furniture


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