March 23, 2011
Idleness—that beautiful, historically encumbered word. Beautiful because childhood is its first sanctuary and still somehow inheres in its three easy syllables—and who among us doesn’t sway toward the thought of it, often, conjuring what life might be like if it were still a play of appetites and inclinations rather than a roster of the duties and oughts that fill our calendar—indeed, make it necessary that we keep a calendar at all? Encumbered because the word has never not carried the taint of its associations. Idle hands, the idle rich, the downturns that idle workers. Idleness has been branded the obverse of industry, a slap in the face to all healthy ambition. So-and-so is a layabout, a ne’er-do-well, an idler . But for all that, we have not made the word unbeautiful; there is a light at the core, to be remarked, gleaned from the righteous attributions of the anxiously busy.
It is a confusing concept, though, and to find that pure and valid strain, it would help to say what it is not. Idleness is not inertness, for example. Inertness is immobile, inattentive, somehow lacking potential. Neither is idleness quite laziness, for it does not convey disinclination. It is not torpor, or acedia—the so-called Demon of Noontide—nor is it any form of passive resistance, for these require an engagement of the will, and idleness is manifestly not about that. Gandhi was not promulgating idleness, nor was Bartleby the scrivener exhibiting it when he owned that he would “prefer not to.” Nor are we talking about the purged consciousness that Zen would aspire to, or any spiritually influenced condition: idleness is not prayer, meditation, or contemplation, though it may carry tonal shadings of some of these states.
It is the soul’s first habitat, the original self ambushed—cross-sectioned—in its state of nature, before it has been stirred to make a plan, to direct itself toward something. We open our eyes in the morning and for an instant—more if we indulge ourselves—we are completely idle, ourselves. And then we launch toward purpose; and once we get under way, many of us have little truck with that first unmustered self, unless in occasional dreamy asides as we look away from our tasks, let the mind slip from its rails to indulge a reverie or a memory. All such thoughts to the past, to childhood, are a truancy from productivity. But there is an undeniable pull at times, as if to a truth neglected. William Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality” suggests as much: “But for those first affections,/Those shadowy recollections,/Which, be they what they may,/Are yet the fountain light of all our day,/Are yet a master light of all our seeing.”
Idleness is what supervenes on those too few occasions when we allow our pace to slacken and merge with the rhythms of the natural day, when we manage to thwart the impulse to plan forward to the next thing and instead look—idly, with nascent curiosity—at what is immediately in front of us. It has been with us from the first man and woman—when self was in accord with all nature—and so along with being the core of our childhood sense of the world, it is also the center of our Western legend of creation. Unsurprisingly, it features—the longing, the evocation—through our literature and art from earliest times, changing inflection, intensifying and diminishing depending on historical context. Figuring conspicuously in the pastoral ideal and in the atmospherics of mythologies, the notion has over time taken on dense crosshatchings, in recent centuries at points almost suggesting an epistemology, the basis for a way of true seeing. But it remains a concept-rejecting word. Put too much of any kind of freight on it and its dolce far niente vanishes.
Eden was idleness’ first home, where the well-rested being had nothing to do but open its eyes and behold—until, alas, appetite became ambition and Eden wasn’t. But its echo reverberated throughout the classical tradition, in pastoral, the Idylls of Theocritus in the third century bc (the connection between “idle” and “idyll” is phonetic, not etymological); renditions of rural agricultural life in Virgil , his Eclogues ; in the myth-suffused transformation tales of Ovid. Indeed, it might be said that any literature or art that treats of the pantheon has to do with idleness, for the gods, by definition, in their essence, were uncorrupted by human sorts of striving, and though full of schemes and initiatives, their rhythms were paradisal, eternal, profoundly idle. Walter Benjamin quotes from Friedrich Schlegel’s “An Idyll of Idleness” thus: “Hercules…labored too…But the goal of his career was really always a sublime leisure, and for that reason he became one of the Olympians. Not so this Prometheus, the inventor of education and enlightenment…Because he seduced mankind into working, [he] now has to work himself, whether he wants to or not.”
There is a long-standing connection, a harmony, between literary expressions of idleness and the invocation of the gods, and the lesser rural deities, such as populate the Eclogues . Milton’s “Lycidas” (1637), a pastoral elegy, draws directly on the Virgilian model. The poet’s lament for his deceased friend reimagines a former happy rural leisure—the shepherd in his idleness—complete with “oaten flute” and “rough satyrs” dancing, before the gods see fit to steal it away. We find a similar conflation of the bosky world of the pagan gods and the more leisurely disposition of impulses and affections in Shakespearean comedies, such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It , where customary strivings are overtaken by an almost antic lightness of being.
But myths and rural pastorals are by no means the only expression we find. Michel de Montaigne’s Essays (1580), that cataract of shrewd humane psychologizing—and now the source text for a vast, fertile genre—could be said to have taken its origin in this selfsame condition. Montaigne, who liked to see things not only both ways, but all ways, in his small early essay “Of Idleness,” first deplores it, writing of the mind that, “If it be not occupied with a certain subject that will keep it in check and under restraint…will cast itself aimlessly hither and thither into the vague field of imaginations.” But then, a few sentences later, reflecting on his decision to retire from the endeavors of the world, he reverses, says, “It seemed to me that I could do my mind no greater favor than to allow it, in idleness, to entertain itself.” He goes on to say how, in that freedom, mind “brings forth so many chimeras and fantastic monsters, the one on top of the other…that in order to contemplate at my leisure their strangeness and absurdity, I have begun to set them down in writing, hoping in time to make it ashamed of them.” And so from one man’s idleness is begotten one of the treasures of world literature.
In Montaigne the word clearly equates to imaginative fecundity, though of course we need to remember that for this writer idleness meant a removal from the orthogonal demands of civic life, not any slackening in the exertion of his energies. This needs to be underscored: that idleness does not mark a cessation of the expenditure of energies, only of its more outwardly purposeful application. The rambling, associating shape of the Essays is a testament to this.
A kindred repurposing of energies issued in the momentous surge that was European romanticism. The idealism it espoused, the assumption of a deep and creative bond with nature and the elevation of the uniquely individual over the mechanized and standardized, made it hospitable to the deeper ethos of idleness. Which is to say: to the rhythms and expressions of life unfettered. Witness the poetry in England of Wordsworth , William Blake , Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley , and John Keats , or that of Friedrich Hölderlin and Novalis in Germany. Is there a purer, more lyrically nuanced expression of this languor of being than Keats’ “Ode to Autumn,” though here idleness has shifted from a state of possibility to one of almost dazed fulfillment? The poet invokes the season personified:
Emerson —indeed, the whole Transcendentalist movement, fixed as it is on interiority—is in essential accord, though in his journals of 1840 we find him playing a puckish reverse of Montaigne’s assertion, writing, “I have been writing with some pains essays on various matters as a sort of apology to my country for my apparent idleness.” But there is a wink in the sentence, a droll delineation of outer from inner in that word “apparent.”
These nineteenth-century American thinkers and writers, by and large opposed to the commerce-driven expansionist spirit of the day, were not only deeply bound up with a deeper reading of nature, but also gave heed to the spirit we find in the work of the soulful Chinese wandering poets, Li Bai and Du Fu, or the Japanese Buddhist priest Yoshida Kenkō , whose Essays in Idleness ,dating from the early fourteenth century, reflect on the immersed intensity of life lived apart from public agitations: “What a strange, demented feeling it gives me when I realize I have spent whole days before this inkstone, with nothing better to do, jotting down at random whatever nonsensical thoughts have entered my head.” Eastern religions, which have long pledged receptivity over initiative, also found ready adherence in the United States. The same idle posture that right-thinking Protestants everywhere deplored was seen by the Transcendentalists as evidence of a philosophical and spiritual openness.