messy: has a word about dirt and grime ever been so sanitizing? messy is one of those words that is used to suppress the existence of the phenomenon it purports to describe. it goes along with words like complexity and nuance (the latter of which the Cool Kids have turned against these days).


you’ve read hundreds of passages on messy, complex, flawed[1], glorious reality, probably. it’s a highly cliché sort of passage that people somehow always think is saying something unique. by use of the word messy, one can avoid talking about the actual mess. it generates a consoling, fuzzy feeling of embracing the evils of the world without actually facing them. mess is no big deal – nothing permanent – easy to undo, potentially totally fixable. it’s not like dirt, which brings disease and shame, and which you can never quite get rid of.


now dirty does operate in the same way, sometimes (“getting your hands dirty”), but even then it retains some more of its real content, has a slightly harsher, darker connotation than getting messy.


As Louis (one of the finest metaphors for American liberalism in fiction)[2] explains in Angels in America, “Messy, not dirty. That’s an important distinction. It’s dust, not dirt, chemical-slash-mineral, not organic.”[3]


a messy reality is a reality which seems bad but is in fact safe, solvable, and even sort of quirky and cozy. to speak of reality as messy means to deny the real horrors of the world.


[1] Flawed: an even worse word than messy.

[2] Essay on this forthcoming, possibly.

[3] Angels in America: Perestroika, Act One, Scene 6.

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